Are Genetically Altered Foods the Answer to World Hunger?

By Robbins, John | Earth Island Journal, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Are Genetically Altered Foods the Answer to World Hunger?


Robbins, John, Earth Island Journal


Biotechnology is one of tomorrow's tools in our hands today. Slowing its acceptance is a luxury our hungry world cannot afford.

-- Monsanto advertisement

Genetically engineered crops were created not because they're productive but because they're patentable. Their economic value is oriented not toward helping subsistence farmers to feed themselves but toward feeding more livestock for the already overfed rich.

-- Amory and Hunter Lovins, Founders of the Rocky Mountain Institute

The global acreage planted in genetically engineered foods grew nearly 25-fold in the three years after 1996, the first year of large-scale commercialization. Yet this enormous growth took place almost entirely in only three countries.

In 1999, the United States by itself accounted for 72 percent of the crops. Argentina was responsible for another 17 percent and Canada weighed in with another 10 percent. These three countries together accounted for 99 percent of the entire planet's genetically engineered plantings.

Monsanto and other proponents of biotechnology continually tell the public that genetic engineering is necessary if the world's food supply is to keep up with population growth. But even with nearly 100 million acres planted, their products have yet to do a thing to reverse the spread of hunger. There is no more food available for the world's less fortunate. In fact, most of the fields were growing transgenic soybeans and corn that are destined for livestock feed.

One of the clearest independent voices in the sometimes raucous debate about genetically modified foods is Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly [Environmental Research Foundation, Annapolis, PO Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403-7036, (888) 272-2435, fax: (410) 263-8944, www.rachel.org]. In 1999, the journal noted that "Neither Monsanto nor any of the other genetic engineering companies appears to be developing genetically engineered crops that might solve global food shortages." If genetically engineered crops were aimed at feeding the hungry, Rachel's noted, Monsanto would be developing seeds with certain predictable characteristics including:

* able to grow on substandard or marginal soils;

* able to produce more high-quality protein with increased per-acre yield, without the need for expensive machinery, chemicals, fertilizers or water;

* engineered to favor small farms over larger farms;

* cheap and freely available without restrictive licensing; and

* designed for crops that feed people, not meat animals.

"None of the genetically engineered crops now available, or in development (to the extent that these have been announced) has any of these desirable characteristics," Rachel's reports. "The genetic engineering revolution has nothing to do with feeding the world's hungry."

If genetically engineered (GE) plants were designed to reverse world hunger, you would expect them to bring higher yields. But there is increasing evidence that they do just the opposite. Ed Oplinger, a professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin, has been conducting performance trials for soybean varieties for the past 25 years. …

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