Coren is a journalist based in San Francisco and co-founder
of the newsroom and multimedia production house MajorPlanet
Studios. He is a contributor to FastCompany,
The Economist, Foreign Policy and other publications
reporting on the intersection of science, economics, and the
are many potential dangers to GM crops, but in the developing
world, many programs are experimenting with adding nutrients
to foods to help feed starving populations. What’s the
right thing to do?
math is simple. As land to clear dwindles, and the crop yield
growth falls, we will still need to grow 70% more food by 2050.
That’s what the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization
figures is necessary to feed the nine billion humans expected
century’s technology will not be enough. Remarkable gains
from the Green Revolution during the 1960s -- petrochemical
fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and improved strains --
-are now nearly tapped out. One of the next revolutions on the
horizon, genetically modified (GM) crops whose genes have been
altered with DNA from other plants or animals, is battling controversy
even as it slowly spreads around the world.
risks have kept countries in Europe and Africa (except South
Africa) almost completely GM-free for decades.
the U.S. biotech company Calgene introduced the first genetically
modified tomato in 1992, the use of GM crops has exploded. AGRA
reports 29 countries permit commercial production of GM crops,
while 10% of cropland around the world is planted with GM crops:
three quarters of the world’s soybean crop, half the world’s
cotton, and a quarter of the world’s maize, are mostly
in the U.S., Brazil, Argentina and Canada.
fears of GM crops’ unknown health, environmental and economic
risks remain. So far, there is no conclusive evidence, but no
major studies have found genetically modified plants pose a
great danger, particularly when compared to the toxic chemical
and destructive farming practices we employ today (a recently
trumpeted French study showing tumors in experimental rats fed
GM food was shown to be seriously flawed).
there is a new push to develop GM crops for the developing world
that may recast genetic engineering as the best path out of
hunger for billions (not just a cash crop for companies such
as Monsanto, which create the pesticide-resistant ‘Roundup
Ready’ crop varieties).
the most touted servings of this GM initiative is the lowly
cassava. The starch root, resembling a long thick-skinned potato,
is major source of sustenance for more than 250 million people
in Africa, Asia and Latin America. But its lack of essential
micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron and zinc ironically contributes
to the malnutrition for 800 million people worldwide.
Plus, a program backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,
is re-engineering the cassava into a nutritious crop with higher
levels of beta carotene, iron and protein, as well as making
it resistant to pests and pathogens. Progress is slow -- field
trials and breeding programs take years -- but other attempts
are being made to apply these same principles to other crops
with life-saving potential for millions in the developed world:
golden rice, sweet potatoes and others.
regulations have kept such innovation out of the ground in many
developing countries, making progress slow and expensive. Golden
rice, a form of rice high in beta carotene, has been on hold
for almost 13 years.
the tide may already be turning, argues Calestous Juma, a professor
of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School and co-chair
of the African Union’s High Level Panel on Science, Technology
and Innovation. In 2012, developing countries will grow more
GM crops than developed countries, he told the Council on Foreign
Relations. The potential risks of GM crops -- possible harm
to the environment, human health and small farmers at the hands
of large companies -- do not outweigh their benefits, he argues.
Today, he says, “the evidence is stacked against those