In that letter signed by more than 100 Nobel laureates to Greenpeace, the United Nations and the world nations, they were asked to explicitly support genetically modified organisms as the only way to end world hunger. Last week I stepped in muddy terrain and started talking about this issue. This is the second part, with ethics and politics for everyone’s tastes.
Arguments for GMOs
In part 1 I listed a few arguments to support GMOs and I talked about the first three, the scientific-technical. Today I’m tackling the last two.
- They are harmless for human health.
- Their yields are higher.
- They are better for the environment, as pesticide use is reduced thanks to disease and pest resistant varieties (such as the Bt varieties).
- They are the only solution to global hunger and malnutrition in the third world (golden rice and vitamin A deficiency).
- They are more cost-effective for the farmers.
The allegedly superior yields of GM crops would help to feed world’s population. The problem is that there’s no “yield increase gene”, and there is only one variety designed to endure drought (reference). The increase in yields will then be always indirect, as fewer produce will be lost due to diseases or pests. It’d be irresponsible not to take advantage of it, but many times (not always), GM crops require irrigation levels or an investment in seeds and pesticides that are simply not possible in the poorest areas of the world (reference, reference, reference). All this not to mention that reducing the issue of world hunger and malnutrition to a simple scientific-technical problem is simplifying a bit too much (reference). In fact, we could say more and claim that nowadays there’s no such thing as food shortage from a global perspective (reference). Using a simple Malthusian explanation for global hunger, without mentioning political and economic issues, is naïve.
The profitability of GM crops for the farmers again depends on the case. Biotechnological seeds and their associated package are more expensive than regular ones. There will be farmers who could afford them and enjoy their benefits and there will be others who are not able to make this kind of investment.
The use of golden rice
The traditional way of tackling global hunger aims to guarantee that each person eats the necessary amount of calories each day. The use of crops like wheat or rice, that produce lots of calories at a low cost, is encouraged. But a diet based on cereals (carbohydrates) of this kind is deficient in vitamins and minerals, no matter how many calories you eat each day. The focus should shift from food safety to nutrition security. It’s not only calories, it’s mandatory to improve the quality of the diet to combat diseases caused by iron, zinc, iodine, vitamin A or vitamin B12 deficiencies. Besides, a great proportion of the farms in the poorest countries are family farms growing multiple crops. It’d be fairly easy to include varieties with these nutrients (reference, reference).
Can golden rice help fighting vitamin A deficiency in some countries? The answer is yes, but. Yes, golden rice has vitamin A. But it’d be a temporary and partial solution for a huge problem. It’s not logical or economically efficient to develop a new GMO for each nutrient deficiency of the world. It makes no sense. Not to mention the fact that after 16 years, millions invested and a released patent, it’s still not available for general use. It’s only grown in test fields and certain areas.
Some GM crops can contribute to the wellbeing of farmers in poor countries raising their competitiveness (reference), and allowing them to become richer and afford a better diet. However, only a small proportion of poor farmers can afford this technology. Talking about hunger and malnutrition as if they were just a technical problem is absurd. The root of the problem isn’t there. It’s, to a great extent, a political and economic issue. It’s impossible and unsustainable to develop a new golden rice for each nutrient deficiency.
Should GMOs be used? I don’t think there’s enough scientific evidence to answer clearly to that question. In my opinion, it would be sometimes, yes. In short, the utilitarian perspective (which only takes into account the final profits) should be abandoned to start using a more deontological approach. Indirect risks derived from the application of a technology should be seriously considered. However setting an acceptable risk threshold is very hard (reference).
Thus, the Nobel laureates’ letter strikes me as superfluous and misleading. They outline a set of real conflicts, but it doesn’t go beyond and remains Manichaean and simplistic.
Lastly, I know I am repeating myself, but I strongly believe that hunger is not a technical problem, but a political and economic one. Expensive, complicated and dubious solutions seem like a waste of resources and a total hypocrisy when biotechnological companies use them as arguments. These companies want to sell more seeds, more pesticides and more fertilizers. And that’s fair and ok, but it’s also ok for us not to be deceived by wimpy, sentimental slogans. We are going to put an end to world hunger. LOL!