More than 1 in 10 people are chronically undernourished around the world. That’s 815 million people. In some places this rises to 1 in 4 people. This undernourishment leads to 15,000 children under the age of 5 dying everyday. Making matters worse, the world’s population is growing and will soon be at nearly 10 billion people. When this happens, this larger number of people means more mouths to feed, a greater strain on resources as well as more land being needed for people to live and produce those resources required. 

This means that over time, we’ll need more food, grown more efficiently and using the same or preferably less space. To do this, we’ll need to revolutionise how we produce food. Naturally, adding fuel to the already raging fire are the impending effects that climate change will have on crop production, likely causing more crop losses and so adding more stress to the food system. Increased stress to the food system would see even more people die from malnutrition and hunger as well as the likelihood of civil unrest and violence

Photo from a famine refugee camp after the 2011 Horn of Africa Famine. Sights like this could become more and more common as climate change increases the risk of droughts and other extreme weather events. Photo by Oxfam.

When you consider the technology and agricultural technologies we have available, this global need for a change to how we produce food has what appear to be many common sense solutions. For example, with the advent of genetic modification (GM) in crops we can tackle pests and diseases, nutritional needs and even gain access to areas that have historically struggled with high crop yields. In recent years, innovations such as CRISPR have allowed rapid and (relatively) cheap ways to modify the genetic makeup of crops and other organisms. 

Striga, more commonly known as witchweed, is a parasitic plant that grows predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia (see photo below). Striga seedlings attach themselves to the root of crop plants, starving the host of nutrients and detrimentally affecting crop grown (and subsequently crop yield). Striga species can cause crop yield losses of 40-100%, which costs over $7 billion each year and affects the lives of more than 100 million people by affecting more than 4 million hectares of maize crop. GM crops are being produced to be resistant to an attack from Striga. This could see parts of Africa able to grow crops at a rate never seen before in those regions. This would benefit the farmers who could utilise these areas that are typically either difficult to grow crops in or near impossible. 

Maize crops devastated by Striga. Photo by International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

One success story for the implementation of GM crops was seen in the 1990s. Hawaii’s papaya growing industry was hit by a disease that threatened to destroy the industry. A virus forced the industry to abandon growing papaya on one island and to move to another island. It also caused large damage to the economy of the region. However, in the response to the disease outbreak, GM crops resistant to this virus began to be grown. These crops were able to bring back the previously seen yields, restore the industry, repair the economy and also were able to protect the papaya plants that weren’t genetically modified. The forced relocation is akin to how Striga and other diseases, parasites or pests can make farmers move, often leaving the affected areas unviable for growing crops. 

One of the most compelling reasons for the adoption of GM crops is also likely the most frustrating. Golden Rice is a GM crop that has existed and been fully checked to be scientifically and medically safe for over 2 decades now. It is rice which has been modified to contain large amounts of vitamin A in order to tackle vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A deficiency is particularly prevalent in areas where rice is the staple crop for many people (see map below). Up to 500,000 children in The Global South go blind each year as a result of the deficiency, half of which will die within a year of becoming blind. Golden Rice, despite having existed for years, has only just started to be released in Bangladesh this year. The resistance to this solution has meant that 10 million children under 5 have died as a result of vitamin A deficiency. These deaths could have been prevented by using Golden Rice. 

Vitamin A deficiency around the world (1995-2005). Data from WHO

These specific uses for GM crops could allow for the potential to improve hundreds of millions of lives by reducing the impact of age-old challenges such as droughts, famines and vitamin deficiencies. Therefore these solutions, from a scientific perspective, seem like common sense. However, as is often the case, things aren’t that simple in reality.  In reality, there’s a reluctance which is stopping GM crops from being used to save millions of lives. 

Primarily, this reluctance comes down to the nature of the relationships that would occur between the scientists/corporations that fund their discoveries and own their patents and farmers in the global south that they will work with. Whilst there are clear benefits to GM crops, reducing mortality rates, improving nutrition and reducing hunger; there’s a real risk to farmers and their livelihoods. Some worry that the introduction of GM crops would affect the biodiversity in the region, and prevent farmers from saving their seeds from one harvest to the next. This would mean that farmers would become dependent on the crops and so they would become dependent on their relationship with the suppliers of the GM seeds. This type of partnership is problematic as the resources, technology and power all belong to the representative from the Global North. Therefore, how can these technologies be used where they are clearly needed in a way that reduces the risk of exploitation? 

The biotechnology industry shares similarities with the pharmaceutical industry. Both have products which have a human benefit, such as GM crops or medicines. However, whilst the nature of these products may appear to be selfless or altruistic, these industries are made up of companies which have an obligation to work for a profit. Therefore, an issue arises over how can these companies function as corporate entities whilst also providing affordable access to their products.

There is also the challenge of adoption of these technologies. GM crops already face issues surrounding misinformation and the need for reassurance that they’re not dangerous. However there are other problems that prevent farmers using GM. These include the high cost of the seeds, and the risk that the quality may be worse than what the farmers currently grow. Moreover, if they do grow GM crops, the farmers may struggle to sell the crops to their community. The benefits of these crops can be worth billions of dollars to countries that would otherwise need to spend on healthcare costs related to malnutrition or importing food due to poor crop yields. So one solution could involve nations subsidising and supporting farmers in the adoption of GM crops in order to see the benefits to the population. But questions remain as to whether nations, in particular those in the Global South, capable of investing this much into biotechnology. 

There’s plenty of evidence showing the benefits of GM crops to the economy, wellbeing and health of the areas they would be introduced to. And so, is there any credit to the thinking that any money nations in the Global South invest in GM crops is exactly that: an investment? Whereby the money that is spent by the nations or its smallholder population can be found as a result of the benefits GM crops would bring. 

Smallholder farmers like these women in Kenya could be the perfect customers for GM crops, but would GM crops be perfect for them? Photo from: Wikipedia Commons

However, the current global systems used to implement them could lead to the exploitation of the farmers. There’s an expectation of GM crops being used as ways to make a profit for the companies that invented them. The companies involved would need an incentive to spend money on developing solutions to this humanitarian problem, but profiting off the problem may cause further challenges. Perhaps patents that hold the key to saving tens of millions of lives should be given away like Jonas Salk did with the polio vaccine.

Regardless of the entirely valid political and economic questions over the implementation of GM crops, what is absolutely clear is that whilst the global food crisis will require scientific innovation: The way this science is used requires real change to the global economy and political systems. 

Failure to achieve this real change will result in millions more dying needlessly, and as impending climate change beckons, the lives of even more vulnerable people will be at risk.