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”, http://www.ifpri.org/publication/2014-global-hunger-index.

[2] Tilman, D. et al. (2011). Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture. PNAS http://www.pnas.org/content/108/50/20260

[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. http://www.wri.org/publication/avoiding-bioenergy-competition-food-crops-and-land. 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), http://www.ifad.org/climate/resources/smallholders_report.pdf. 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 http://www.nature.com/news/cross-bredcrops-get-fit-faster-1.15940

[6] McDougall, Phillips. (2011). The cost and time involved in the discovery, development and authorization of a new plant biotechnology derived trait, https://croplife.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Getting-a-Biotech-Crop-to-Market-Phillips-McDougall-Study.pdf

[7] Gurian-Sherman, Doug “Plant Breeding vs. GMOs: Conventional Methods Lead the Way in Responding to Climate Change” Civil Eats, October 10, 2014, http://civileats.com/2014/10/10/plant-breeding-vs-gmos-conventional-methods-lead-the-way-in-responding-to-climate-change/

[8] Goodman, M. (2002). New sources of germplasm: lines, transgenes, and breeders. North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC http://www.cropsci.ncsu.edu/maize/publications/NewSources.pdf

[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, http://www.ifad.org/pub/viewpoint/smallholder.pdf

[11] Recent analyses show that livestock and their by-products account for 51% of annual global GHG emissions. See, http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6294

[12] Mueller, N. D. et al. (2012). “Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management”, Nature http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v490/n7419/full/nature11420.html

[13] See, https://buddhistglobalrelief.me/tag/sustainable-agriculture/

[14] Smallholders And Family Farmers, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2012), http://www.fao.org/3/a-ar588e.pdf

[15] Nixon, Ron “Food Waste Is Becoming Serious Economic and Environmental Issue, Report Says” New York Times, Feb 25, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/26/us/food-waste-is-becoming-serious-economic-and-environmental-issue-report-says.html

[16] Reich, A. H. & Foley, J.A. “Food Loss and Waste in the US: The Science Behind the Supply Chain.” April, 2014, https://www.foodpolicy.umn.edu/policy-summaries-and-analyses/food-loss-and-waste-us-science-behind-supply-chain

[17] https://buddhistglobalrelief.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/ending-the-wasting-of-food-energy-our-environment-triple-net-benefits-2/

[18] Cassidy et al. (2013). “Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare”, Environmental Research Letters, http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/3/034015

[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. ” http://www.soyatech.com/soy_facts.htm

[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.”

http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/food_and_agriculture/failure-to-yield.pdf

 

 

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One response to “New Report: Feeding the World Without GMOs

  1. The question that keeps coming up for me is that if we are feeding people with all the food that potentially will be discarded, isn’t a lot of that GMO and all pesticide laced? Is that better? i heard a report today on Latino USA about the amount of produce dumped at the border between US and Mexico and retrieving that – of course that will have all the chemicals etc on them. How to deal with the health costs of foods with those contaminants?