Thursday, 23 April 2009

The Moral Imperative To Utilise GM Crops In Relieving World Hunger.


The World Health Organization estimates that one-third of the world is well fed, one-third is under-fed and one-third is starving; concurrently exacerbating the problem is the fact that the world’s population is growing at a rate of roughly 100 million a year. In this paper the various ethical dilemmas surrounding the use of GM crops (and to a degree biotechnology in general) as a solution to world hunger are examined. Conclusively despite potential health and environmental risks I find a compelling moral imperative to utilize this technology.


2008 saw substantial increases in world food prices cause a global crisis. Sometimes violent protests spread like wildfire – perhaps the worst example was Haiti where food riots resulted in the death of five people. In Haiti the price for staple foods such as rice, beans and fruit rose by up to 50% since late 2007 (11). This global crisis again highlighted in the Western media’s consciousness the problems the world currently has sustaining the 6.7 or so billion people living in it; genetic engineering of crops was widely touted as a potential solution (15). One in twelve people worldwide are malnourished, including 160 million children under the age of 5. The World Health Organisation estimates that one-third of the world is well fed, one-third is under-fed and one-third is starving (15). With this population growing by roughly 100 million people each year (6) clearly something needs to change if a utopian vision of a future free from malnutrition can ever be realised.

It has been suggested that because of scepticism within many wealthier countries (mainly stemming from the lack of perceived benefit to consumers in these countries) GM technology could end up consigned to the dustbin of history. The European ban on GM products (excluding Bt corn) and over-regulation of scientific testing has often been claimed to slow the trickle down of GM food benefits to developing countries. Unfounded negativity created by the EU, alongside commercial pressures, has seen countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe refusing GM food aid when millions in their countries are starving. (13) I believe Western efforts in improving food security in poorer countries would be most effective if focused upon biotechnology such as GM crops.

I believe that the moral imperative to utilise biotechnology such as GM crops to ameliorate worldwide malnutrition is so great as to provide an ethical obligation for the developed world to moderate their concerns (which are, at least currently, based on little or no scientific evidence). Ethically I realise that perhaps this decision should be a democratic process, however I would argue whether the general public in western economies understands the problems and needs of small farmers in developing countries, and whether they themselves represent the needs of developing countries. In this case, their decisions affect the whole world’s populace.

Perhaps most evocative of my position is a quote by Norman Borlaug, a scientist responsible for the first ‘green revolution’ which helped drag Mexico and the Indian sub-continent from the brink of mass starvation,

“They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertiliser and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

In this case he’s discussing the first green revolution but the message is identical, (1).

Advantages Transgenic Crops Offer

To begin with it’s important to discuss the advantages that make this technology so morally important to pursue. I would like to point out that I am not arguing in favour of the abandonment of other forms of crop modification such as traditional breeding, merely the examination of the potential of GM crops in a fair and meaningful manner – i.e. the comparison of risks and productivity between GM crops and what they could be replacing. All technologies should be used to meet the tasks and needs for which they are best equipped.

One of the first achievements in transgenic crop design was to incorporate genes from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis into hybrids of cotton, maize and potatoes allowing a number of dangerous insect pests to be controlled and thus reducing the need for pesticides. Other targets for GM crop design include traits such as tolerances to herbicides or extremes such as soil alkalinity, iron toxicity, free aluminium, drought, heat and cold; all clearly conferring much advantage. Importantly abiotic stress resistant varieties will allow agriculture to succeed in problem soil areas adding more arable land to the global production base. The ability to control viral and fungal disease and rusts (which have caused countless famines in the past) will also offer great benefits in reducing crop spoilage. (1)

The potential to improve the nutritional quality of food crops is another important option genetic engineering offers. Most famously Golden Rice has been modified to feature increased quantities of vitamin A, iron, and other micronutrients and could eventually have a profound impact for millions of people suffering from vitamin A and iron deficiencies, causes of blindness and anaemia, respectively. Whilst Golden Rice could be argued to be something of a Trojan horse, (many criticisms have been levelled at its efficacy in delivering its supposed benefits), clearly the possibility to increase foods nutritional values exists and should be a major player in combating malnutrition. (1)

Already, in the countries that have adopted transgenic crops agricultural yields have increased considerably. Since 1996 GM crop use has spread from covering roughly 5 million acres to roughly 250 million acres worldwide and has allowed global farm incomes to increase by $27 billion annually. Pesticide applications have been reduced by nearly £500 million. In each of the last six years, biotech cotton has helped U.S. farmers in drought-ridden areas cut down their water usage by 93 million gallons. (3)

Clearly genetic engineering of crops can offer gigantic improvements to agricultural productivity and nutritional values of crops, even if the technology may not quite be there yet.

Environmental Risks

After discussing the physical advantages of GM crops it seems sensible to address the concept of risk to the environment. The ideas of transgenic crops becoming noxious weeds, or transferring genes to wild plants and the disastrous knock on effects this could have on wild ecosystems are widely touted by anti GM proponents. The increased risk of allergies has also often been discussed (17). Arguments such as these can be refuted simply by the statement; but with good regulation and rigorous scientific testing this won’t be allowed to happen. Relating back to the crux of my argument, Jimmy Carter, former president of the USA summed this concept up accurately when he said Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is.” (6)

The concern that large amounts of crops with similar genetics could be decimated by a super virus or similar are also often held up as a reason not to utilise GM technology. However both the first Green Revolution and GM hold the risk of lowering genetic diversity and exposing a crop to a super virus. Sharing this risk is central because it is one of the most viable arguments against GM crops. The fact remains, though, that the Green Revolution marked a significant increase in worldwide food production despite the relative risk of monocultures. (1)

For all these environmental fears regarding GM it is also important to note that GM crops can offer many potential environmental advances. Conventional agricultural techniques have damaged the environment with a reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Hypothetically GM crops will allow the use of fewer pesticides and fertilisers and increases in productivity in conjunction with higher stress tolerance should mean less arable land is necessary, removing the need for activities such as rainforest clearance. (1)

The development of agriculture marks the beginning of civilisation, and the risks taken historically do not seem any less severe than the potential risks of transgenics. To illustrate this point I would like to discuss the Californian Indians who agriculturally took very dangerous risks, harvesting acorns, which are highly nutritious, but also highly poisonous if not properly treated (20). Most advantages in human history have carried some degree of risk such as airplanes or pharmaceuticals; most relevantly pesticides are still deemed a positive development in agriculture despite the fact that they have poisoned 45,000 and killed 200. Clearly risk is inherent to most advances, yet in each case we weigh up the potential benefits against the risk and base our decisions on how they measure up. In this case I believe very much the impetus is to utilise GM to help stave off world hunger. (12)

Claims of Unnaturalness

Arguments based around naturalness are inherently flawed in many respects; the new advantages genetic engineering offers in crop design are not clearly different in concept from traditional crop breeding methods. There has always been a form of gene transfer - Gregor Mendel transferred genes in groups whilst GM crops allow genes to be transferred singularly and more specifically (14). To highlight this I would like to relate the vast amount of work that went into improving maize protein quality – a floury maize grain was discovered carrying high levels of desirable amino acids. Unfortunately, as is often the case in plant breeding this trait turned out to be closely associated with several undesirable ones. Using conventional breeding and rapid chemical analysis of large numbers of samples, it took 20 years to create a viable maize plant containing this improved protein quality. Through the use of genetic engineering tools the same result could have been achieved in a tiny fraction of the time. (1)

The selectivity of these ‘natural’ objections an also be called into question. No concern is raised about the Swedish Turnip - a cross between a cabbage and a turnip (23), Golden Promise, a yeast widely used in the production of whisky, genetically modified through the use of radiation is also never questioned (4). Medical applications similarly do not seem to fall under these prohibitions; likewise applications on micro organisms such as yeast and washing powder are not regarded as a problem. (12) I would also like to state that concepts of naturalness in this context could simply be boiled down to one quote “Philosophy is not for the hungry stomach (18)”.

A Solution Looking For a Problem?

Perhaps one of the more valid reasons to refuse GM crops is the argument that it’s a solution for a problem not in existence. Whilst there is enough food produced in the world issues surrounding the distribution of this food lead to the mass hunger seen today. It is often posed what is the moral obligation to utilise a technology carrying some degree of risk when it is not an essential part of this solution? (22)

It can be argued, as I have already, that the idea of risk in GM is no greater than any other agricultural techniques pioneered in the past and that the potential benefits vastly outweigh the risks. I would argue that GM crops are the simplest, most pragmatic and most realistic solution to world starvation in comparison to ideas such as agricultural education programs or fixing the distribution problem and so in this case the degree of risk is justified. The fact that the world’s population is rapidly expanding and predicted to soon reach a value to which current agricultural practice can’t provide for, regardless of proper distribution methods and farming education, surely leaves this argument redundant too. Perhaps not today, but someday soon we will need to either utilise GM technology or allow people to starve. (6)

Consumer Choice and Monopolisation by Big Business

In terms of choice I would argue that farmers in general are neither for, nor against GM crops, with their main concern in choosing which seeds to plant being how to decrease production costs, increase productivity or produce products of higher value. Clearly it is always going to be the producer’s choice as to which seeds he plants.

The argument of consumer choice is, however, much more relevant to European consumers. Whilst publicly stating that GM foods are safe, EU officials require GM foods to be labelled and traced back to their origin. Consumer choice is obviously an important principle worth protecting to a degree; unfortunately in this case it proves very problematic, the trouble being many African countries lack the institutional capacity to implement the strict records demanded by the EU. This has caused African governments to embrace excessively cautious bio safety regulations subsequently making it hard for drought stricken societies to support themselves and created scenarios such as Zambia and Zimbabwe refusing GM food aid (13). I would argue in favour of abandoning this precautionary principle, believing the moral imperative to protect fellow humans from the real risk of starvation outweighs a likely unfounded belief in the dangers of GM. As a final point, the only way to have real consumer choice is to implement voluntary labelling – this would satisfy both those who demand labelling (who can pick and choose their non GM foods) and those who believe labelling poses an unnecessary technical trade barrier.

Another criticism levelled at GM is that the technology will be subject to monopolisation by big business and that the small farmer will find such technology unfeasible and unaffordable, it’s feared that GM crop research won’t focus on areas likely to help poorer country’s farmers.

Much like the discussion of environmental risk this argument can easily be refuted by careful implementation and perhaps government intervention in GM research; possibly through means such as public-private partnerships and government encouragement to share research. However whilst the state can clearly take a role, free markets could perhaps become freer in order to help the diffusion of GM crops; functioning seed markets are rare in many countries (with the exception of maize, cotton and vegetables). Liberalising input markets and eliminating government monopolies would inevitably increase the potential size of markets for biotechnology innovations. Undoubtedly there is a risk that through inefficient management by government that GM technology may not have the impact it deserves in combating world hunger, but surely any impact in the battle against starvation is better than none? (19, 10, 7)


Pre agriculture it is supposed that many hunter-gatherers benefited from a vastly better diet than the current populations of developing nations and even many in developed nations (9). Sadly we can’t turn back the clock to these times, or even back to times when pre GM methods could feed the world’s populace. If we haven’t quite reached the carrying capacity of current agricultural technology we shall imminently. It took 10,000 years to expand food production to the current level of roughly 5 billion tons per year and by 2025 this amount will need to have doubled again (3). This increase won’t be possible unless access to technologies that can increase the yield, dependability, and nutritional quality of our staple food crops can be widely distributed amongst the world’s farmers (3). To boil my argument down to its very essence there is a moral imperative to pursue GM crop technology to help alleviate the suffering of growing numbers of malnourished people - do the unknown and unlikely risks of GM outweigh the very known and very likely threat of mass worldwide starvation?


1) Borlaug, N.E. (2000) Ending World Hunger. The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Antiscience Zealotry, Plant Physiology, Vol. 124, pp. 487-490

2) Borlaug, N.E, (2007) Continuing the Green Revolution. The Wall Street Journal.

3) Borlaug, N.E, (2001) Transcript of Speech at Tuskegee University, Available: Last accessed 17 March 2009.

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6) Carter, J. (1997) Forestalling Famine With Biotechnology. The Washington Times. Available: Last accessed 17 March 2009.

7) Cohen, I.J. (2005) Poorer Nations Turn To Publicly Developed GM Crops. Nature Biotechnology Volume 23 Number 1 pp27-33.

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9) Gray, J. (2002) Straw Dogs – Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, London: Granta Books

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18) Discussion Forum. Are Developing Countries Right To Use GM Crops? Available: Last accessed 17 March 2009.

19) Food & Agricultural Organisation – UN, (2004) Agricultural Biotechnology: Meeting The Needs Of The Poor? Available: Last accessed 17 March 2009.

20) Author Unknown. Californian Indian Acorn Culture. Available: Last accessed 17 March 2009.

21) Author Unknown. The World Hunger Problem Facts, Figures and Statistics. Available: Last accessed 17 March 2009.

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