Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are organisms in which the DNA has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. GM crops have been developed to have certain beneficial traits; including pesticide resistance and stress tolerance to improve plant survival, and enhanced nutritional values.

Some are taking advantage of the ability of GMOs to increase the yield of a more nutritious crop by growing them in developing countries to take steps to reduce food insecurity.

However, the use of GM crops is not completely accepted due to concerns over potential adverse health effects from ingesting the crops and the environmental impact of the plants.

Benefits of using GM crops

In 2017, 189.8 million hectares of GM crops were planted globally, with the most common crop choice being soybean, maize, cotton or canola. There are several other GM crops that are currently used as staple food sources, such as rice, potatoes and peas. Some argue that, with the population increasing at the current rate, these crops are vital to match the increased global demand for food as they produce a higher yield than non-GM crops.

golden rice gmo
Golden Rice containing increased amounts of beta-carotene. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Genetic modification can not only increase crop yield but can also produce plants with enhanced nutritional qualities. This can be seen as vital in a world where 815 million people are chronically undernourished. One example of this is Golden Rice; which has been modified to contain high levels of beta-carotene, the precursor for vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency, as a result of malnutrition, is a serious but preventable condition that can cause blindness and premature death. Golden Rice can reduce the likelihood of developing vitamin A deficiency by simply increasing dietary intake. Other staple crops used commonly in developing countries, such as maize and wheat, have also been modified to have different health benefits to target the effects of malnutrition.

When we consider the definition of food insecurity as ‘when people lack access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life’ then it can be argued that using GM crops will reduce the severity of this issue, as they are able to produce larger amounts of food that also has enhanced nutritional values.

Not only does the production of GM crops create larger quantities of food with enhanced nutritional values, it also increases the income of the farmers growing the crops. In 2016 alone, farmers in developing countries earned $9,962 million more through growing GM crops. Therefore, it has been found that, in Africa, GM crops have the potential to reduce poverty and improve food security by adding to the income of smaller farm households.

Arguments against the use of GM crops

However, not everyone is so keen on the use of GM crops, as there are a number of large corporations supported by some members of the public that oppose the development and use of GMOs.

Greenpeace are strongly against the use of all GMOs, arguing that they pose unknown risks and may have unforeseeable environmental, social and health impacts. The group has targeted Golden Rice specifically, commenting that the exact metabolic pathway it uses is poorly understood so the potential negative health effects are currently unknown.

There are also concerns over the impact of the unnatural introduction of genes into organisms, on both the environment and on humans; some questioning whether genetic modification causes mutations that could be passed on to humans. In the argument whether GM crops are safe to eat it is important to note that no ill effects have been reported and that there is little documented evidence that they are potentially toxic.

Public opinion against GMOs
Public opinion of GMOs is often negative. Source: Flickr

Public opinion on GMOs is often reported to be negative, especially within the European Union, however this can vary as there are many factors that can sway public opinion; the most important being an understanding of the technology. It has been found that people generally do not agree with GM technology because they do not understand it. This is supported by the fact that more educated people tend to be more approving of genetic modification.

So one of the biggest barriers to the use of GM crops to provide food security, in both academic and public opinions, comes from the possibility of unknown risks; meaning more certainty needs to be provided alongside the technology for it to become more widely accepted.

The future of GM crops

With such divided opinions it is difficult to know whether GM crops are the answer to global food insecurity, especially when neither side of the debate seems to have solid evidence to support them.

The arguments against the use of GM crops are valid, but, when it comes to food security then the ability of GMOs to produce higher yields of crops, that are designed to contain specific nutrients to reduce the incidences of diseases caused by malnourishment, cannot be ignored. Some even argue that unjustified regulations are blocking the potential to create more nutritious food in larger quantities to alleviate nutritional insecurity in developing countries.

With 8 out of 10 of the top GM crop producers worldwide being developing countries this shows that GMOs are being used to tackle food insecurity in poorer countries. However, more research needs to be done to prove the safety of GMOs and effort needs to be made to improve public understanding to promote global use.

Until the uncertainties surrounding GMOs are resolved there is not likely to be an answer to the debate anytime soon. With the appropriate use GM crops could make significant steps to end global food insecurity, but there is still a long way to go.