Crop Circles

By Cohen, Marc J. | Natural History, October 2003 | Go to article overview
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Crop Circles


Cohen, Marc J., Natural History


Crop Circles Spin notwithstanding, can GM food still save the world? Food, Inc.: Mendel to Monsanto-The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest by Peter Pringle Simon & Schuster, 2003; $24.00

Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism by Marion Nestle University of California Press, 2003; $27.50

What good is genetically modified food? Is GM food a savior, an essential ingredient in any program for ending world hunger? Or is it a villain, a Trojan horse that, if allowed into the food production and distribution system, will poison people and the environment? Few aspects of everyday life provoke such sharp disagreement as the emerging biotechnology of food.

Yet there is remarkably broad consensus that there is a crisis in world hunger and about the reasons for it. Almost everyone who has looked seriously at the causes of hunger agrees that the main factor is poverty. People go hungry because they lack money to buy food, or they lack the land, water, credit, and other resources they need to produce food on their own. Poverty, in its turn, is often linked to political powerlessness, gender discrimination, poor education, and the debilitation resulting from endemic, untreated disease. Each year malnutrition in developing countries contributes to the deaths of more than 5 million preschool-age children-a toll equivalent to the entire population of Denmark. The malnourished children who survive face a lifetime of impaired physical and mental development.

Yet global food production is rife with paradox. Enough food is available today to provide every human being on Earth with more than the 2,350 calories needed daily for a healthy and active life. Even more paradoxical than the persistence of hunger amid plenty is that its center of gravity occurs in rural areas. Some 75 percent of those with inadequate access to food live in the countryside of the developing world. It is here, in such areas of rural poverty, that new agricultural technology, in particular biotechnology, may offer the greatest hope for improvement.

Unfortunately, that hope remains largely unrealized. Biotechnological developments have led, however, to a bumper crop of books aimed at popular audiences. Two of the latest additions are Food, Inc.: Mendel to Monsanto-The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest, by the journalist Peter Pringle, and Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism, by the nutritionist Marion Nestle.

In many ways biotechnology would seem made-to-order to address part of the plight of small farmers in developing countries. Agricultural productivity there remains low, which implies both high unit costs of producing food and low farm incomes. Many factors contribute to the low productivity: losses to pests and the weather; low soil fertility and lack of access to fertilizers; acid, salinated, or waterlogged soils. The low yields that result lead in turn to poor nutrition and poverty on the farms, as well as among the people who depend on such farms for food. As the circle of poverty widens, demand for goods and services produced by poor nonagricultural rural households decreases, and urban areas suffer increased rates of unemployment and underemployment.

Agricultural technology alone cannot address all the complex economic, social, political, and ecological forces that contribute to world hunger. And technology cannot reach its potential unless it is part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce poverty, enfranchise low-income people, and protect the environment. Still, research that leads to increased productivity can play an important role in reducing hunger. For example, crops could be designed to resist drought, pests, and diseases; tolerate salty soil; absorb nitrogen from the air; and provide a broad range of added nutritional benefits.

But the potential of biotechnology for helping reduce hunger has barely been tapped. Virtually all the biotech crops currently on the market are limited to just two traits: herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.

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