Reports by non-governmental organizations, the UN and other organizations have indicated a possible increase in global population by 2050. Of the expected increase in the world population, 90 percent of this population will reside in the developing world (Herrera-Estrella 923). In anticipation of the increase in population, it will be necessary to double the food production as a measure against possible starvation, particularly in the developing world. While the expected increase in population is already a challenge, the declining sources of water and the need to produce food in the available and similarly dwindling agricultural land exacerbates the situation (Herrera-Estrella 923). While this is anticipation in the future, sharp increases in food prices, which have resulted into an increased number of malnourished and hungry people in the recent years brings to the fore the gravity of the situation today rather than in the future (FAO 4). As an answer to this situation, there is need to devise new agricultural methods to answer to the challenge posed by the dwindling resources, while keeping forested lands as a way of conserving the environment.
Numerous methods including the use of biological fertilizers, better pest and disease control, soil and water conservation, and the use of better plant varieties produced by either traditional or biotechnological means exist as answers to the food production challenge, particularly in the developing world where food security is major concern to governments and humanitarian organizations (Herrera-Estrella 923). Of these methods, the biotechnological approach holds the most promise for food security in the future (Qaim and Kouser). However, there is a lot of controversy involving the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with most opponents of GM crops claiming they are unsafe for human consumption, and pose a risk to human, animal and environmental health (Andreasen 2; Herrera-Estrella and Alvarez-Morales 256; Klumper and Qaim 1). This is despite growing body of evidence and research pointing to the contrary (Adenle 83). The truth, however, is that GM crops are perhaps the best answer to the developing world, as they not only have the potential to increase agricultural productivity, but also ensure food security for the growing population.
Definition of Terms
In the general sense, GMO refers to organisms (plants or animals) whose genetic material has undergone modification using modern biotechnology as a means of improving resistance against environmental adversities; or in order to get higher yields under perfect conditions, and in so doing increase productivity (FAO 3). Through the process, the DNA is altered through the modification or insertion of the genes employing biological engineering. In the creation of GM crops, the desired attribute is incorporated to the crop and its effects optimized to ensure the crop grows with the desired attribute while suppressing the undesired attribute (FAO 3).
There is currently no universal definition for small farmers. However, the two most prominent definitions center on the size of the farm and the yields produced from the farm. For the definition relying on the size of the farm, a small farmer is one whose farm is less than a hectare (2.5 acres) of land (Dawson n.p.). On the other hand, the definition relying on amount of yield of the farm defines small farmers as those who make between $1,000 and $250,000 a year in agricultural produce. In this case, the farmer’s acreage is only a few, with no corporate ownership of the land (the land belongs to the family). Additionally, the farmer does not make much of a profit given the size of the land (Dawson n.p.).
Productivity encompasses three elements of the produce, land and the work/labor required for a certain amount of agricultural produce. As an agricultural measure, productivity refers to the amount of agricultural that a piece of land yields in relation to a given amount of input (Restuccia, Tao and Zhu 15). In calculation of productivity as an index, therefore, it is important to divide the amount of input with the amount of output to get the aggregate productivity. In relation to land, productivity refers to the amount of land requisite in meeting the food needs, and therefore, the amount of pressure on land (Restuccia, Tao and Zhu 15). As an element of labor, productivity refers to the amount of work produced by a unit of time. Here, productivity encompasses different features including knowledge, governance skills, organization and technology in use in production of agricultural output (Mazoyet, Roudart and Mayaki 20).
GM crops have attracted similar controversy to the debate on stem cell research in medicine. Safety for human consumption and the effects of the GM crops to the environment are among the major arguments presented by opponents of GM crops. However, according to Herrera-Estrella and Alvarez-Morales, the bulk of the scientific world is convinced that genetic modification of plants is an especially useful technology with huge potential of increasing tenfold, food production in an environmentally friendly manner (256). Moreover, many of the proponents of GM crops, largely scientists, see GM crops as safe if not safer, to the environment in comparison with traditionally bred products/crops (Herrera-Estrella and Alvarez-Morales 256; Ho and Azadi 160).
The need to increase production of crops for food security is more pressing in developing countries than it is in the developed world. According to FAO, the year 2050 will see a 34 percent increase in world population, wherein the world’s population will hit 9.1 billion (2). The bulk of the population increase will be in the developing world (Herrera-Estrella and Alvarez-Morales 256). To feed the population, there will be need to increase food production particularly in the developing world by 70 percent (FAO 2). Specifically for the developing world, the bulk of the increase in food production (80 percent) must come from increases in yield and cropping intensity and not from movement into new arable land (FAO 2). Such consideration in increasing crop yield pays attention to environmental conservation and climate change, both factors that are currently of concern.
Over the past few years, there has been a global decline in cereal crop production, with a 3.4 percentage decline experienced in 1960, while most recently in 2000; there was a 1.5 percentage decrease (FAO 2). Such declines largely affect the developing countries, and thus the challenge for technology is to ensure that there is a reverse in the trend as a way of ensuring the world meets its food needs. Genetic modification of crops rises to the occasion in ensuring that the human population, specifically those in the Southern Hemisphere has enough food. The claim that feeding the poor in the developing world is a matter of better food distribution holds no water, given that even within the developed world, where there is adequate food production, still inadequate distribution occurs. This is a similar situation in the developing world, where some of the countries are net exporters of these agricultural produce. Ensuring food availability, production, and security requires increases in local food production, especially among the small farmers.
A growing body of evidence shows increase in crop production for both small-scale and large-scale farmers using GM crops. The benefits of the use of GM crops have surpassed productivity and encompassed economic and time savings on farmers. Brookes and Barfoot inform that GM technology has had massive positive impacts on farm income from both better farm productivity and efficiency gains. Direct gains from GM crops reached $5 billion, with Argentina, a developing country, seeing crop yield increases from GM soybeans, which in effect increased the direct crops gains to $5.6 billion (Areal, Riesgo and Rodriguez-Cerezo 22; Brookes and Barfoot 150). In essence, the world saw 3.6-4.0 percentage increase in global food production from four main crops including soybeans, maize, canola, and cotton in 2005 (Brookes and Barfoot 150; Morse, Bennett and Ismael 379). The benefits in this case were not limited to Argentina alone; other developing countries that adopted GM crops reaped the benefits of using the crops. Studies on the profit that accrue from adopting GM among developing countries point to a long list of developing countries as beneficiaries. According to Adenle “developing countries farmers (predominantly from all countries in South America, Mexico, Honduras, Burkina Faso, India, China, Philippines and South Africa) obtained 50.5% of income farm benefits and the cumulative farm income gain was estimated to be 50% (US$ 26.2 billion)”(87).
Perhaps the main advantage that genetically modifying crops afford to small farmers in the developing world is the increase in productivity and saving on costs. Within the global realm, to ensure food security, it is important to increase the productivity of crops in developing countries, with particular focus on subsistence farming (Qaim 667; Qaim and Kousern.p.). Herrera-Estrella informs, “In developing countries in the tropics and subtropics, crop lossesdue to pests, diseases, and poor soils are made worse by climatic conditions that favor insect pests and disease vectors, and by the lack of economic resources to purchase high quality seeds, insecticides, and fertilizers” (1). The case of food insecurity in these countries is perhaps exacerbated by post-harvest losses emanating from the favorable climate in the tropics, which encourages fungal and insect infestation, in addition to the lack of proper storage facilities. It is, nonetheless, possible to do away with these problems using plant biotechnology. Among the pros of biotechnology is the fact that a single strategy advanced by such science is applicable in the improvement of different crops.
The use of GM technology goes beyond increase in productivity to savings related crop damage and pest control. A study by Klumper and Qaim found out that the use of GM crops increased yield by 21 percent (4). From the study, while the increases were not from higher genetic yield, they were directly a result of better pest control and lower crop damage. Furthermore, the use GM crops saw a major decrease in the use of pesticide quantity and pesticide cost. According to the study, pesticide use decreased by 37 percent, while pesticide cost decreased by 39 percent (Klumper and Qaim 4; Qaim 667). Perhaps one of the major challenges facing developing countries particularly in the tropics is attacks by pests. Pest and disease resistant crops mean that subsistent farmers in the developing countries have less to worry about in terms of pests, a factor that not only increases crop productivity, but also extends major cost of production savings on the farmers. This is a major boost for the farmers, whose cost of production increases in purchase of fertilizers and pesticides. From the study, while farmers have to pay more for the GM seeds, less use of chemical and mechanical pest control measure offset the additional costs in purchase of seeds. Overall, farmers gain 69 percent profit from the adoption of GM crops (Klumper and Qaim 4).
Perhaps the biggest advantage, with the introduction and use of GM crops with the less use of pesticides, goes to the environment. Less use of pesticides means less toxic substances introduced into the environment, and therefore less environmental impact (Qaim and Zilberman 901). Thus, rather than look for new arable land for cultivation, which will have adverse environmental impact, the use of the current land and planting GM crops makes more environmental sense than using more pesticides and clearing up more land for agricultural purpose (Nuffield Council on Bioethics 3). Adenle enthuses that the adoption of GM crops alone resulted in an 8.4 percent drop in the use of pesticides, equaling to 352 million kg of active ingredients; a fact that resulted in a 16.3 percent drop in the environmental impact of pesticide and herbicide application on crops (88).
Regardless of the body of evidence pointing to the benefits of GM crops on productivity for small farmers in developing countries, opponents of GM still insist that GM crops are not beneficial to these farmers in addition to being threats to human health. In their argument against productivity increases due to GM crops, opponents have cited evidence point to no yield improvements/increases using GM crops. According to Finger et al. the potential of GM crops in increased yield have very little substantial effects in comparison to traditional crops (743). On the other hand, the opponents fear that GM crops have a potential for causing diseases. The safety argument of GMOs argues that GMOs are associated with certain diseases, in addition to causing some such as some types of cancers. Such associations, according to the opponents of GMOs, make the foods dangerous to eat (Andreasen 2). The argument here is that the risk they pose in their potential to cause diseases and development of cancers makes the GMOs dangerous to eat. Opponents of GMOs have particularly had concerns over GMOs and their link to obesity and Type II diabetes (Weise n.p.). Further, anti-GMO crusaders argue that most GMO production only favors GMO farmers and Big Agribusiness companies that produce the GMO crops (Haspel n.p.). The crusaders’ argument here is that Big Agribusinesses produce and supply the GMO seeds to farmers for their benefit (Agribusiness and farmers). Thus, by producing the seeds, Agribusinesses have a huge market in farmers, while farmers have an advantage in disease resistant crops and better harvests, without passing any benefits to the consumers (Andreasen 2). Further, GMO opponents have also linked scientific results pointing to the safety of GMOs to influence by the agricultural industry. The opponents claim that the conclusions reached by the scientific research on GMOs are all watered-down with little scientific conclusion (Weise n.p.). The conclusions, the critics argue, are all influenced by the agricultural industry and, therefore, may not be entirely truthful due to the funding of the research by the agricultural industry. The opponents therefore see such reports as having a conflict of interest, thus swaying the results of the findings.
Although concerns by opponents of GMOs are warranted, especially in relation to the safety of the crops and processed foods for human consumption, thousands of research done on the said safety should ease the fears. The researches done to investigate the safety of GMOs have reached conclusions that GMOs are entirely safe for human and animal consumption (Haspel n.p.; Weise n.p.). According to Haspel, a research conducted at the University of California, which looked at data from more than 100 billion animals found that there was no effect on taking GMOs. Further, a research report by the National Academies of Science concluded that genetically engineered crops have no links to increases in diseases such as cancer, obesity among others, in addition to finding no links between GMOs and the onset of the said diseases (Weise n.p.). The report by the National Academies of Sciences report came after the review of more than 900 studies and data spanning 20 years since the introduction of GMOs. The report additionally compared disease reports in Canada and US, where GMOs have been consumedfrom the mid-90s, and UK and Europe, where GMOs are not common. The results were that there were no long-term patterns of disease increase or specific health problems in the US and Canada, where GMOs have been widely consumed since the 90s. Moreover, there was no correlation between the consumption GMOs and obesity or Type II diabetes as many opponents of GMOs had purported.
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