Category Archives: Food insecurity

New Report: Feeding the World Without GMOs

Charles W. Elliott

Feeding the World Without GMOsA new report, Feeding The World Without GMOs , by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) refutes the corporate biotech/industrial narrative that genetically modified organism (GMO) foods offer real solutions to global hunger and food insecurity.

Despite significant progress over the past 30 years, the world still faces an ongoing crisis of hunger and food insecurity. 805 million people continue to go hungry, according to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.[1] The world also faces a “hidden hunger” problem —micronutrient deficiency—which affects some two billion people, causing long-term, irreversible health effects and significantly impairing economic productivity. We face stark challenges posed by population growth: by 2050 the demand for food will be twice what it was in 2005.[2]

Feeding the World Without GMOs takes a hard look at ways to address this problem and concludes that GMO food is a non-solution. In nine pages of tight synthesis, it analyzes: (1) why GE crops don’t contribute to food security; (2) what would work to boost the global food supply; and (3) the unfulfilled promise of genetic engineering.

 Why GE crops don’t contribute to food security

GE crops don’t meaningfully contribute to global food security for a variety of reasons. First, about 80 percent of the land area dedicated to growing genetically engineered crops is for GMO corn and soybeans[3] and both are overwhelmingly used for animal feed and biofuels. As the report says, “[m]ost of the investment in GE crops ends up feeding cows and cars, not people.”

In 2010, about 5 percent of all the calories grown globally were used to make biofuels, [4] and in the U.S., about 40 percent of corn production is used to produce ethanol, mostly to blend with gasoline for motor vehicle fuels.

Investment in improving yields in already high-yielding areas with GMO crops does little to improve food security; it mostly helps the bottom line of seed and chemical companies, industrial scale agribusiness, and corn ethanol producers.

Because hunger is primarily the product of poverty, and because the economic productivity of smallholder farmers is mostly limited by lack of basic resources such as fertilizer, water, and infrastructure to move crops to markets, investment in GMO crops will do little to address these fundamental issues.[5] Moreover, according to EWG’s report, GMO crops have not been demonstrated to outperform traditional cross-breeding techniques in improving crop drought tolerance and efficiency of resource use, two touted benefits of GMO technology.

And if improving crop yields is the actual goal, investment in GMO crops is highly inefficient. As the report points out, “Industry supported research found that it can take more than $100 million to research and develop a single genetically engineered variety, [6] money that would be better spent to address the factors that frequently limit crop yields. By comparison, it typically costs only about $1 million to develop a new variety by traditional breeding techniques.” [7] [8]

Real Solutions – Low Environmental Impact, Big Payoffs

EWG’s report identifies several real solutions to the problem of hunger: smarter use of fertilizers; reducing food waste; shifting crop production from biofuels and animal feed to food calories for people; reducing meat consumption; and focusing resources and investment in improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. It’s worth noting that smallholder farmers produce the bulk of food in developing countries: seventy percent of Africa’s food supply[9] and an estimated eighty percent of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa together.[10] Supporting them directly supports the global food supply.

Smarter Use of Fertilizers

Industrial scale agriculture requires significant inputs of chemical fertilizers and causes significant greenhouse gas emissions. [11] This is especially true for corn, eighty-five percent of which is genetically engineered. The EWG researchers suggest that in place of massive fertilizer use in industrial-scale farms in rich countries, its use should be focused in places with nutrient-poor soils where it would have the greatest impact, potentially increasing global production of major cereals by thirty percent.[12]

In contrast to industrial-scale agriculture, BGR has consistently supported sustainable smallholder agricultural techniques,[13] which have been shown to increase average crop yields up to seventy-nine percent.[14]

Reducing Food Waste

The EWG report notes that in the United States, we waste about 40 percent of national food production – sixty million metric tons a year, worth an estimated $162 billion.[15] That is the equivalent of about 1,500 calories of discarded food per person each day[16] – enough to feed 170 million people a 2,700-calorie per-day diet.

We noted in a previous BGR blog post[17] that ending the wasting of food would bring to the world “triple net benefits”: reducing food insecurity, financial costs, and environmental damage.

As we said in that post, the benefits of reducing food waste in combatting hunger are huge:

Food insecurity impacts:

Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.

Environmental Impacts:

Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten… [T]he uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions.

Financial impacts:

American families throw out approximately 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy. The cost estimate for the average family of four is $1,365 to $2,275 annually.

Changing Diets

Meat consumption causes an enormous loss of field-grown calories that could be used to feed people. It also imposes huge demands on natural resources, consumes massive amounts of water, and causes significant greenhouse gas emissions. Shifting to a diet less reliant on meat would increase overall food availability and reduce the burden on natural resources. “[I]n theory, shifting all crops grown for animal feed to human food could increase food availability by 54 percent.”[18] Cutting global meat consumption in half could increase food supplies by 27 percent.

Genetic Engineering: “Unfulfilled Promise”

GMO companies have historically focused on crops with the highest commercial potential, not necessarily the ones that would most alleviate world hunger. The most widely grown GMO crops are corn, soybeans, canola, sugar beets and cotton, not exactly the solution to a world of hungry people, especially given that so much of our corn production is used for biofuels and over 80 percent of the soybeans are used to feed livestock destined for meat production. [19]

GMO proponents routinely claim that genetic engineering will result in significantly increased crop yields, especially in conditions of drought.

This promise remains unfulfilled, as GMO technologies have failed to significantly increase yields in major food and animal feed crops despite two decades of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. The EWG report points out in twenty years of U.S. experiments with GMO corn and soy, they have not increased yields. (Heinemann et al. (2014). “Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest.” International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability).[20]

As the EWG report concludes, reliance on GMO crops to reduce hunger will fall short of meeting global needs. It diverts resources from more promising opportunities. Alternative strategies of smarter resource use, supporting sustainable smallholder farming, reducing food waste, and reducing meat consumption will both increase food supplies and reduce environmental impacts from food production.

[1] “Global Hunger Index”,

[2] Tilman, D. et al. (2011). Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture. PNAS

[3] Barrows et al. (2014). Agricultural Biotechnology: The Promise and Prospects of Genetically Modified Crops. Journal of Economic Perspectives

[4] Searchinger, T. and R. Heimlich. (2015). “Avoiding Bioenergy Competition for Food Crops and Land.” Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. By 2050 biofuels mandates could consume the equivalent of 29 percent of all calories currently produced on the world’s croplands.

[5] Seventy percent of the world’s poor are farmers. Smallholders, food security and the environment. Rome, Italy: International Fund for Agricultural Development (2013), In regions such as Africa, farmers can only afford a tenth of the fertilizer recommended for their crops. Gilbert, N. (2014). “Cross-bred crops get fit faster.” Nature 513, 292

[6] McDougall, Phillips. (2011). The cost and time involved in the discovery, development and authorization of a new plant biotechnology derived trait,

[7] Gurian-Sherman, Doug “Plant Breeding vs. GMOs: Conventional Methods Lead the Way in Responding to Climate Change” Civil Eats, October 10, 2014,

[8] Goodman, M. (2002). New sources of germplasm: lines, transgenes, and breeders. North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC

[9]. Agriculture at a crossroads: Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) report (Vol. V, 2009). International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. Washington, DC: Island Press.

[10] Viewpoint: Smallholders can feed the world. Rome: International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2011,

[11] Recent analyses show that livestock and their by-products account for 51% of annual global GHG emissions. See,

[12] Mueller, N. D. et al. (2012). “Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management”, Nature

[13] See,

[14] Smallholders And Family Farmers, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2012),

[15] Nixon, Ron “Food Waste Is Becoming Serious Economic and Environmental Issue, Report Says” New York Times, Feb 25, 2015,

[16] Reich, A. H. & Foley, J.A. “Food Loss and Waste in the US: The Science Behind the Supply Chain.” April, 2014,


[18] Cassidy et al. (2013). “Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare”, Environmental Research Letters,

[19]   “About 85 percent of the world’s soybeans are processed, or ‘crushed,’ annually into soybean meal and oil. Approximately 98 percent of the soybean meal that is crushed is further processed into animal feed with the balance used to make soy flour and proteins. ”

[20] In a detailed report, Failure To Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops, the Union of Concerned Scientists also analyzed GMO crop yields and concluded that GMO technology has failed to deliver on the promise:

“The lack of substantial yield increases has not been due to lack of effort. The several thousand field trials over the last 20 years for genes aimed at increasing operational or intrinsic yield indicate a significant undertaking. Yet none of these field trials have resulted in increased yield in commercialized major food/feed crops, with the exception of small increases from Bt corn.”



Hunger Still Shadows US Schoolchildren

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

A recent bulletin from the Southern Education Foundation reports that, for the first time in fifty years, a majority of students in US public schools come from low-income families. The data, collected for the 2012–13 school year, considers a family low income on the basis of whether the children register for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches to students. Figures show that 51% of students in US public schools, ranging from pre-kindergarten through the twelfth grade, were eligible for the lunch program. While poor students are spread across the US, the highest rates of poor and low-income families are concentrated in the Southern and Western states. In twenty-one states, at least half the public school children were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. In Mississippi, more than 70% of students were from low-income families. In Illinois, 50%—one of every two students—were low-income.

Michael A. Rebell of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College at Columbia University, noted that the poverty rate has been increasing even as the economy has improved. He emphasizes that to give children a meaningful education, “we have to do things that overcome the damages­ of poverty. We have to meet their health needs, their mental health needs, after-school programs, summer programs, parent engagement, early-childhood services. These are the so-called wraparound services. Some people think of them as add-ons. They’re not. They’re imperative.”

Hunger is not only a health issue for children, but also a challenge to the process of learning itself. Hungry kids are more likely to have trouble focusing at school, less likely to do their homework, and to be less inclined to pursue opportunities for learning outside the classroom, for example, by going to the local library. Hungry children are also more prone to have behavioral and emotional problems.

A new report by the US Census Bureau, released on January 28, found that the number of children living with married parents who receive food stamps almost doubled between 2007 and 2014: “In 2014, an estimated 16 million children, or about one in five, received food stamp assistance compared with the roughly 9 million children, or one in eight, that received this form of assistance prior to the recession.”

In its annual report on poverty last fall, the US census bureau found that one in five children lives in poverty. According to the UN, out of 35 economically developed countries, the US ranks 34th when it comes to relative child poverty (defined as living in a household in which disposable income, when adjusted for family size and composition, is less than 50% of the national median income). In this ranking, the US is trailed only by Romania but surpassed by Italy, Greece, Spain, Bulgaria, and Latvia. The Scandinavian countries—Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden—are high up in the charts.

In 2013, 44% of US children under the age 18 lived in low-income families— those with an income below $47,000 a year for a family of four. That’s equivalent to 31.8 million children, according to a report from the National Center for Children in poverty at Columbia University. The center also found that about 22% of US children live in poor families, with income below $24,000 a year.

Although roughly 48 million people, or one out of seven Americans, had been enrolled in the SNAP program—or food stamps— since the recession of 2007, Congress cut $8.6bn from food stamps a year ago. With a radically conservative majority now in charge of both houses of Congress further cuts to the food stamps program likely lie ahead. Food stamp eligibility rules are tightening in states across the country, causing up to 1 million current recipients to lose benefits and resulting in “serious hardship for many.”

Underlying the antagonism to food stamps and other nutritional assistance programs is the premise that those who depend on them are too indolent to support themselves and thus seek to exploit the bounty of the federal government. But Dave Reaney, the executive director of the Bay Area Food Bank in Theodore, Alabama, turns the focus of the argument from the adults to the children:

 You can’t blame the child, no matter what the circumstances. A two-year old can’t take care of themselves. They might not like the fact that the parents aren’t able to take care of the child and wish they’d change, that might be their opinion, but they won’t blame the kid. Even the toughest, hard-nosed, anti-government-funding person would say: ‘Well, kids ought to be able to eat good.’ We try to make sure that they understand that whether you like it or not, [food stamps] help kids and kids can’t help themselves. So stop worrying about the parent, and start worrying about the kid and then maybe we will get along better.

Many Americans Don’t Get Enough Food

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

While the United States proclaims itself the land of limitless opportunity, the shining “nation on a hill” where dreams of prosperity and success become true, the reality on the ground often belies this pastel rhetoric. The reason for this failure is not lack of resources but policies determined by voodoo economics and rabid cruelty. Too many people are unemployed or underemployed. Too many workers are earning poverty-level wages. Too many programs that provide critical assistance to the neediest of our fellow citizens are being cut. Yet the big shots in Congress, who lecture the poor about the need to work hard, still subscribe to the belief that cutting taxes for the rich and granting subsidies to big business will result in rising incomes for everyone else.

One of the most effective measures in assessing a country’s real economic health is the extent of food insecurity among its population. Figures from reliable sources indicate that a shocking number of Americans perpetually live in the shadows of hunger. Over 46 million Americans–roughly 1 in 7 people–are dependent on SNAP, the food stamps program, which has been in the crossfires of a radically regressive Congress. If funding for the program is cut still further, the number of SNAP recipients will go down while the number of people unable to obtain sufficient food will rise.

The 32nd Annual Report on Hunger and Homelessness, issued by the US Conference of Mayors, reveals the extent of hunger in America. Released this past December, the report is far from comprehensive. It covers only 25 major American cities, while much of the hunger in the US is found in rural areas and in smaller towns and cities. Nevertheless, despite this limitation, the report reveals enough to remind us that we need to get our house in order.

An article on the website Alternet entitled “Ten Cities Where an Appalling Number of Americans Don’t Have Enough Food” sums up the findings of the report. Of the 25 cities covered by the report, 71% said the number of requests for emergency food assistance had increased last year, while 82% reported that food pantries and kitchens had to cut the amount of food distributed per visit, and 77% had to turn people away due to lack of resources. In 2015, 84% of cities expect requests for food aid to increase, but many  food banks and pantries worry that they may not have the resources to meet these requests. At least 20% of the food being distributed last year came from federal funding (in Los Angeles, it was as high as 51%).

Food bank in San Francisco

The article surveys the ten cities mentioned in the mayors’ report as at the bottom with respect to hunger and food insecurity. The ten are: Memphis, San Antonio, San Francisco, Washington DC, Des Moines, Boston, Santa Barbara, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, and Norfolk. Memphis, known as “the hunger capital of the US,” had the worst hunger problem of the 25 cities included in the survey. Last year 46% of the city’s requests for emergency food assistance were unmet. The main causes for food insecurity in Memphis have been unemployment, low wages, and poverty. Twenty-six percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. San Francisco, surprisingly, also has one of the country’s most critical hunger problems, partly due to the relatively high cost of living in the city. Last year 37% of the city’s requests for emergency food assistance were declined. The report predicts that in 2015, the need for food assistance in San Francisco “will increase substantially,” while funding for the city’s anti-hunger programs “will decrease substantially.”

The figures in the article indicate that those dependent on emergency food aid are not necessarily unemployed. Many have full-time jubs. The reason they require food aid is simply that their wages are too low. They also receive inadequate benefits and thus must meet health-care costs on their own. This traps them in a vicious cycle by which inadequate diets contribute to poor health, and payments for health care absorb earnings that might otherwise have been spent on better nutrition, thus undermining health.

Another article on Alternet predicts that the problem of hunger and food insecurity in the US will be further exacerbated when one million of the nation’s poorest people will be cut from SNAP by the end of 2016 even if they’re actively pursuing work. In some areas, SNAP will reinstate a three-month limit on benefits for unemployed adults who are not disabled or raising children. These people will lose their benefits even if they are unable to find jobs, unless they are enrolled in a job training program. Many states, however, do not have such programs even for those who seek training. Thus, despite their plight, such people will be turned away from the program.

It is said that the best way to evaluate the social health of a nation is how it treats the least among its citizens. On this criterion, the US has a long way to go to live up to its ideal of “with liberty and justice for all.”

Marching Toward A New Climate Future

Charles W. Elliott

BGR at Peoples Climate March


This past Sunday, Buddhist Global Relief joined 400,000 others at the People’s Climate March in New York to demand swift action to halt the threat of global climate change. The streets were filled with marchers as far as the eye could see with young and old, rich and poor, of all races and religions, joined by their common humanity.

Buddhist Global Relief was part of an Interfaith contingent of thousands that packed 58th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues so tightly there was barely room to breathe. Joining us were more than twenty other Buddhist groups in the common cause of compassion and concern for the world.

BGR Peoples Climate March

We marched in the face of the recent onslaught of bad environmental news – the threat of the West Antarctic ice sheet irreversibly melting, 2014 on track to be one of the hottest in recorded history. Yet this was a march of hope. There would be little point in being in the streets were it not for our common belief that we can yet change the course of events.

New BGR Climate March7696

Our presence in New York was a walk in solidarity with those who will be first and most badly harmed by the consequences of climate change: the poor and indigenous populations who did not benefit from the wealth generated in the economies most responsible for the burning of fossil fuels, and who played little or no role in the causes of climate change. We walked in witness to the extinction of species from the changes wrought by rising temperatures and seas.[1] We walked to recognize the impacts of sea level rise that will swamp coasts and destroy both natural habitat and human infrastructure. And acknowledging the threats posed by climate change to food security for the world’s most vulnerable, BGR’s march banner reminded the world: “The World’s Food Supply Depends on a Stable Climate.”

The scientific community predicts that food production will be harmed by rising temperatures, increased air pollution, ocean acidification, and other climate-change induced factors.

The recent Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states: “Under scenarios of high levels of warming, leading to local mean temperature increases of 3-4 oC or higher, models based on current agricultural systems suggest large negative impacts on agricultural productivity and substantial risks to global food production and security.” (Chapter 7. Food Security and Food Production Systems, p. 3).  The IPCC reported one study showing a global food price increase of 19% due to the impacts of temperature and precipitation trends on food supply.

Here, in the United States, according to the most recent (2014) report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States,  “Climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past 40 years and are projected to increase over the next 25 years. By mid-century and beyond, these impacts will be increasingly negative on most crops and livestock.” Agriculture-damaging impacts of climate change in the United States include:

  • Many agricultural regions will experience declines in crop and livestock production from increased stress due to weeds, diseases, insect pests, and other climate change induced stresses;
  • Current loss and degradation of critical agricultural soil and water assets due to increasing extremes in precipitation will continue to challenge both rainfed and irrigated agriculture unless innovative conservation methods are implemented.
  • The rising incidence of weather extremes will have increasingly negative impacts on crop and livestock productivity because critical thresholds are already being exceeded.
  • Drought frequency and severity are projected to increase in the future over much of the United States, particularly under higher emissions scenarios. These droughts will be occurring at a time when crop water requirements also are increasing due to rising temperatures. With increasing demand and competition for freshwater supplies, the water needed for these crops might be increasingly limited. Long droughts can cause crop failures.
  • Fruits that require long winter chilling periods will experience declines. Many varieties of fruits require between 400 and 1,800 cumulative hours below 45°F each winter to produce abundant yields the following summer and fall. By late this century, under higher emissions scenarios, winter temperatures in many important fruit-producing regions such as the Northeast will be too consistently warm to meet these requirements.

As we said in a previous post on climate change, “Our agriculture is fundamentally based on the stable global climate humanity has enjoyed for thousands of years.  That is now disappearing and the evidence is right in front of us.”

New BGR Climate March7700


400,000 people in the street sends an excellent message, but marching alone won’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One of the most powerful protest signs at the march said, “The greatest threat to the planet is the idea that someone else will save it.” That’s why the tag line for the march was “To change everything, we need everyone.”  It has been wisely said that “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” The writer Ken Wilber echoes this wisdom: “Therefore, if you have seen, you simply must speak out. Speak out with compassion, or speak out with angry wisdom, or speak out with skillful means, but speak out you must.”

We urge all of you to take action, help others understand what is at stake, and speak truth to power wherever it may be.


[1] The scientific consensus in the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report‘s Summary for Policymakers  is that: “Anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change” and “There is medium confidence that approximately 20-30% of species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average warming exceed 1.5-2.5°C (relative to 1980-1999). As global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5°C, model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe.”

Preserving the Fecundity of the Earth

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

This small farmer in Burkin Faso had to plant five times since the drought dried his seeds.

Among the many things that the Buddhist principle of conditionality teaches us, three are particularly pertinent to any endeavor to diagnose and alleviate suffering on a global scale. The first is that events and processes that appear remote and disconnected from one another may be intimately connected through subtle chains of influence operating subliminally across the systems that generate them. The second is that conditions that appear slight and insignificant on their own can converge to produce effects massive in their impact. The third is that human volition is an important factor in the web of conditions and can thus transform even processes driven by the weight of physical laws.

These three principles are evident with startling clarity in the acceleration of climate change. As to the first, science teaches us the basic chain of conditions involved in anthropogenic global warming. We use coal to generate electricity, burn petroleum derivatives to power our vehicles, ship goods across continents, raise cattle for food, and we thereby release gases that trap heat and warm up the planet. Continue reading

The Face of Hunger in America

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Several months ago New York University School of Law’s International Center for Human Rights issued a report entitled “Nourishing Change: Fulfilling the Right to Food in the United States.” The main purpose of the report is to propose a new approach to the problem of hunger in America, one that shifts the focus from food assistance as charity to adequate food as a human right. Along with its overview of nutritional assistance programs and its case for treating food as a human right, the report also includes boxed articles, obtained from the Jewish hunger relief organization MAZON, that reveal “the new face of hunger.” The following cameo portraits provide summaries of several of these entries. The photos below are by renowned photojournalist Barbara Grover, who was commissioned by MAZON for this project. More photos of the subjects can be found in the report (see the link above). Continue reading

Light from the Times

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

On Wednesday of last week, the same day that I was writing my recent blogpost highlighting the need not to make cuts to food stamps–“Nourishing Change,” published August 1st–the New York Times published an article about the likely impact that cuts in funding for food stamps would have on the poor.  I only got to see the Times article Friday afternoon (August 2nd) through a link sent to me in an email. While my post was written independently, the Times article confirms my case.

The article, “House Plan on Food Stamps Would Cut 5 Million From Program,” by Ron Nixon, features a study released on Tuesday by the Health Impact Project in Washington, which points out that if the House proposal to cut food stamps by $20.5 billion were enacted, 5 million people would lose eligibility for the program. Of these, a half million do not even get enough to eat now, with the aid of food stamps. An additional 160,000 to 305,000 recipients who do get enough to eat would also lose their eligibility and the ability to adequately feed themselves. Continue reading