Are GMOs Necessary? Or Can Organic & Traditional Farming Feed the World Alone?
Does the world really need GMOs? This is a question often asked by anti-GMO activists.
What’s unfortunate in the anti-GMO movement, however, is that it is often difficult to get a dialogue started on this topic purely due to the fact that there is so much misinformation surrounding genetic modification. Attempting to respond to their denialist questions and claims on GMOs oftentimes leads them to commit logical fallacies such as moving the goalposts, appealing to nature or tradition, or special pleading. To be fair though, I would expect anyone who is not well steeped in biology, chemistry, or agriculture in general, to be overwhelmed and confused just by the sheer amount of information that’s available on GM technology. And not only is there a tsunami of information available online, but the vast majority of it is either factually wrong or grossly misleading. I have even attempted to dispel some of the most common claims made by the anti-GMO movement, although I would probably be in the same boat as them if I didn’t have my skeptical background in science.
But besides the fact that GMOs have been shown to be safe for the ecosystem, as well as animal and human consumption, the question of whether or not they are necessary has taken more of an ideological standpoint. The argument has slowly shifted from “Are GMOs necessary?” to “Organic, traditional farming, and other methods can get the job done of feeding the world without the help of GMOs.” For the anti-GMO movement, the reasoning has become “why on Earth would we need transgenic GM crops if our other methods are perfectly capable of sustaining the world food supply?” (Additional source). Besides the false assumption that organic and traditional crops are ecologically and nutritionally superior to GM crops, as there is little to no evidence to support that notion, I think it’s a legitimate question. What do GMOs offer that organic and traditional farming do not? Well, let’s look into it.
I first want to address right off the bat that regardless how you feel about GMOs, we have to share some middle-ground here. For instance, I think everyone would agree that eliminating or lowering food waste would be hugely beneficial to a truly sustainable food supply. I don’t think that all the other methods anti-GMO activists list — like better use of fertilizers, eliminating food-based biofuels, and cutting global meat consumption (which I actually think addresses another issue entirely, but I will write about that another time and update this article with a hyperlink once I have it written) — are enough to sustain a growing global population, but they may all be considered to be helpful ideas. What I think is important for everyone to focus on, however, is that food waste is the most prevalent of those issues; and everyone, regardless of their stance on GMOs, should come together to solve this problem.
I also think it’s important to address climate change. The world is beginning to feel the real effects of global warming, especially in third-world countries. In America alone, farmland has been decreasing. It’s even worse in impoverished nations like Africa. But despite the looming threat of climate change and future food shortage, the human population is projected to reach nearly 10 billion by the year 2050. In other words, about 2.5 billion people are going to be added to the world’s food supply in just 34 years. This could potentially end in a situation that not even Dr. Norman Borlaug could prevent. To further put it into perspective, we will need to produce more food in the next 34 years than we have in the entire history of the world. If nothing is done to avoid this situation, billions of people could potentially die due to starvation. There are many ideas of how to avoid this horrible catastrophe, as I have mentioned above, and it’s a daunting challenge, but it is plausible that we can accomplish this feat if scientists and farmers work together and use all the tools available to them. While many anti-GMO activists tend to claim that tackling food shortage can, should, and will be done solely through traditional and organic farming, many experts believe that is simply not feasible. In the face of climate change and water shortage, traditional and organic farming simply do not possess the necessary tools it would take to feed it would be near impossible to feed 10 billion people. Organic yields are about 1/4 the size of conventionally grown yields, organic pesticides and herbicides are far more toxic than their non-organic counterparts, and traditional breeding will take too long to produce the amount of food we will need by 2050. I’m not saying these methods of plant breeding are bad by any means, I’m just saying that there is room for GMOs to pick up where those methods are lacking. Eliminating food shortage, along with the other methods I listed, would not be enough to remedy the situation either. Yet the purveyors of those industries maintain the position that they will in fact be able to sustain a growing global population, especially in third-world countries, using their methods.
But let me explain the extremely valuable benefits GMOs offer that organically and traditionally grown crops do not. For starters, GM crops have shown to be very helpful in growing more food with less farmland and resources, which is more important than ever due to climate change and water shortage. Also, what we have now been able to do with herbicide resistant crops, like RoundUp-ready crops, is basically eliminate tillage. In the old days, and what is still practiced in many organic farms today, farmers would get on their tractors and they would plow all the fields and turn all the dirt over — that was the method farmers used to kill weeds. But we don’t need to plow fields anymore with GM crops. We don’t expose that dirt to evaporation of the moisture. We don’t have nearly as bad erosion as we did. We don’t have the instantaneous release of greenhouse gasses when the soil is flipped over. And since the adoption of herbicide tolerant crops in this country in the mid ’90s, the rate of not plowing, of using conservation tillage has more than doubled. It’s great that organic & traditional farmers are optimistic about their methods and products, and they do offer great benefits, but I don’t think their solutions of feeding the world are fully based in reality because they’re still stuck using these old methods of tilling and plowing the land. So it’s especially wrong to claim GMOs are not necessary for issues such as these. Farmers should be working together with all the tools available to them in order to overcome the challenges of feeding 10 billion people. The examples I just offered are just a few of the many ways that GM technology, in collaboration with other breeding methods, should be considered as necessary for a sustainable future. Further, genetically modified crops have decreased pesticide use by up to 27%. That is another huge benefit. But what I think are the biggest reasons for why GMOs should be considered necessary are because of what they have done, and what they will do, for developing nations.
Almost all African farmers are currently either living in poverty or extreme poverty. The African soil is very nitrogen-poor, meaning it’s not very effective for growing crops. On top of the soil already making success with growing crops difficult, the yields tend to be pretty small when it comes time for harvest. With genetic modification, however, scientists have been able to produce nitrogen-efficient rice that grows well in that type of soil. Not only that, but this rice contains higher levels of Vitamin A, which will help deal with the horrific epidemic of blindness and early child-hood death caused by Vitamin A deficiencies that plague these regions. And according to Alison Van Eenennaam, a specialist in
animal genomics and biotechnology at UC Davis, a genetically modified version of Cassava is being developed specifically for these regions. It will have a higher nutrient content, a better shelf life, and will be disease resistant. This is especially important because Cassava is currently a major source of carbohydrates in these parts of the world. Improved Cassava harvests could also increase the incomes of African households, helping lift poor farmers – many of whom are women – out of poverty. This brings up the next point that the champions of traditional and organic farming usually completely miss.
Sustaining third-world countries by shipping food to those regions will only make them further dependent on first-world countries. And not only would millions of dollars need to be spent in order to keep that kind of operation going, it would still do absolutely nothing to address the actual problems that plague those regions, like Vitamin A deficiencies and extreme poverty. It would make much more sense to offer seeds to these farmers at very low costs, which is already being done with quite a few GMO crops, and allow these African farmers to grow higher-yielding crops with better nutritional content that they could then sell and make a better profit, thus helping to lift them out of poverty. If they don’t want the seeds, that is their choice. But to completely bar them from having access to these seeds is, in my eyes, an act of complete contempt and negligence.
What is always important to remember though, is that no form of farming should be considered the Holy Grail. Continuing to diversify crops is key. Expanding the use of precision agriculture is important, making organic farming more eco-friendly is important, and using the life-saving tools that genetic modification has to offer will allow humanity overcome these daunting challenges of feeding the world in the face of global climate change and water shortage. Banning or limiting the use of any these technologies could absolutely have catastrophic consequences. And no one should claim that one form of farming is 100% superior to another because they all have their pros and cons. What is imperative is that everyone works collectively on this issue right now for the sake of future generations.
So are GMOs necessary? I would say absolutely.