Why GMO’s can’t feed the starving people of Africa

First there was Golden Rice. Now there is a new Vitamin A enriched banana. People are touting GMO’s as the way we can feed the world and save starving children from malnutrition related illness and death. These are noble pursuits, but the sad truth is, trying to feed the world with GMO’s is misguided, because it doesn’t take into account the many geopolitical issues related to poverty and hunger. The sad truth is, trying to feed the world with GMO’s will fail for a number of reasons. and not only will they fail, but they will also distract from the real problems that can be solved if we put more attention and care into the world.

1) The problem of poverty and starvation is not a problem of lack of food, it’s a problem of lack of food access.

Every year we produce enough food to feed 12 billion people on this planet. There are only 7 billion actually inhabiting our great blue ball. We have enough food to feed the world, but we don’t. Some of the reasons for the current poverty and starvation include financial exploitation from unregulated speculation drives up food costs, debt issues that prevent real investment in infrastructure, warlords stealing the food aid that was provided, etc. Essentially, the problem is not poverty of food, but a poverty of morality when it comes to food politics. I saw these issues play out in Africa when I worked as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. Financial pressures forced the local farmers to grow and export the majority of their peanuts and rice, and they then imported a lower quality cheaper rice for their own consumption. They did this because that was the only way they could pull together the money they needed for their other expenses. They weren’t eating the higher quality rice they were growing, and they weren’t dedicating their fields to provide a more diversified diet because of this. If these super crops were introduced without taking care of these issues, chances are the local farmers would still sell these superior crops and go back to  buying the inferior cheaper crops due to economic pressures.

This is an issue similar to the homeless problem we have in America. Right now there are more vacant homes in America than actual homeless people. Groups are trying to find innovative tent solutions to provide temporary shelters for the homeless, but they are not only unnecessary, but ignores the fact that many states and municipalities will arrest people for lodging outdoors (also, this). Sure you have a really awesome tent/shelter, but you will not be allowed to use it. They are similar because the problems of poverty are about access, not resources.

2) Super crops are great, but you can’t grow them without taking care of the major water problem first.

You can’t grow food without water. Those bananas are a water intensive crop. Rice requires planting in flooded areas. The biggest difficulty when it comes to health in the third world is water access. People are not only deprived of clean water for personal drinking and sanitation, but for irrigation purposes as well. There are a number of factors that are creating the water crisis. In some countries, water rights are being sold to private companies and corporations. Global warming is also contributing to the growing drought.  You can tout the benefits of these magical GMO’s all you want, but none of those benefits will come to fruition if you don’t address the water issues that will prevent them from being able to grow.

3) GMO crops are unnecessary.

Golden rice and the super bananas are being pushed because of their increased vitamin A. In the Peace Corps, we worked with a tree known as Moringa Oliefera, which was a fast growing, drought tolerant tree that is loaded with nutrients. Mangos are rich in vitamin A, and grew all over the country I was serving in. Kale is also rich in vitamin A and is drought tolerant. There are a huge number of foods that can be grown using less water than golden rice and super bananas that are vitamin A rich. Many will point out that the rice and bananas were chosen because they are based on the foods already being eating in starving countries, but the truth is, people adopt new foods all the time into cuisine. The rice and bananas being served in Africa originally came from Asia. At the market and in my food bowl in Africa, I could regularly get tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, which were foods originally from the Americas. When it comes to food, people are very adaptable, and when you show them an easy growing plant that will save their lives, they will figure out how to cook it.

4) GMO crops introduce problems in regards to sustainability.

One of the staple concepts of development is sustainability. The premise is this: to properly develop a community, you must get it to the point where it is self-sufficient and no longer requires material or financial input to support itself. Seed collection is a big part of this. In order to have sustainable agriculture, you must be able to collect and store a portion of the seed from your crops so you can replant it next year. When you create a genetically modified organism, you are inventing a new plant, and therefor have a plant that is your legal intellectual property. People cannot grow those seeds without your permission. People cannot collect seeds from those plants and regrow them without your permission. So the input of GMO’s creates a conflict with this ideal of sustainability because the practice of seed collection comes into conflict with the patent. Now I am pretty sure the makers of golden rice and the super banana will not withhold general permission for collection, but these are only two plants out of the GMO catalog. The majority of the GMO’s made are from larger corporations who are producing them for profit reasons, and they do not allow  seed collection. This lack of seed collecting permission would negate the sustainability needed in development, and would, instead, create a state of dependence on a profit motivated corporation were they to adopt those seeds.

5) GMO’s don’t deliver on their promises

Golden rice has been in development for 20 years, and has yet to be put into actual development practice. With other GMO’s the promises of improved yield have failed to come true. The GMO’s created for pest control have resulted in the pests become more resistant to the pest control methods employed, effectively creating super pests. The promise of GMO’s are just that, promises. The benefits of the technologies just are not there.

6) GMO’s distract from real development.

As mentioned above, real sustainable development and the real way to feed the hungry requires us to address a very complicated set of political, social, and water access issues. I can tell you from experience that development work is difficult, frustrating, and often disheartening. We all wished for some magical cure, some instant way of solving the problem. In my service, I saw programs that tried to pushed these fast solutions. I saw Solar pump projects, closed well projects, massive donations of money, and the introduction of complex technologies. The results of these magic solutions were all the same: they fell apart. The Solar pump project did not supply the actual training to maintain the pumps, and much worse, the pump equipment was sold to the village on an installment plan. One breakdown, and the village would be stuck paying for a useless well. My village was supposed to have a closed well, but it didn’t. The closed well broke, and since no one taught them to fix it, so they sold it off for parts. GMO’s are also not the first attempt to use science to solve world hunger, as the Green Revolution attempted to do this back in the 1960’s. The green revolution failed in Africa because it didn’t understand the geopolitical influences.  There were a number of projects that took a lot of money and produced nothing. These projects failed because not enough time or effort was put into understanding the actual forces involved. What did work was the long frustrating process of working with people, increasing their knowledge base, and supporting them as they began to carry forward on their own.

The reason we like to cling to these magical, instant, one size fits all solutions is that it creates an illusion of success that saves us from our own frustrations.  Engage in the decades long work of fighting for clean water access, 3rd world debt release, geopolitical stabilization of impoverished regions, etc, and you are in for a fight that involves just as many setbacks as successes. Technology, on the other hand, gives us an almost mythological hope. Most of us don’t truly understand how our cars run, phones work, etc, we just know that science has made out lives easier. So why can’t we put faith in technology to make everyone’s lives easier? We can put our faith in the engineer and researcher, because we do so on a daily basis. So when he  or she announces a new plant is being developed that can feed the world, it is very easy to extend that faith forward. This faith presents and alternative to action and frustration, so it becomes a very  seductive choice. But as I pointed out, this easy solution does not address the factors that caused the problem, and all the time, money and energy spent seeking out these instant solutions, could be applied in the campaigns to address the real causal factors. These easy solutions, in the end, aren’t really about taking care of the needs of the poor, as much as they take care of our need to want to help the poor, and the poor suffer due to the illusion.

GMO’s have made a lot of promises about their ability to solve world hunger. But in the end, these are just promises. The sad truth is, GMO’s can feed the starving people of Africa, because GMO’s don’t really address the true causes of the poverty and hunger. The solutions they present are seductive, but they are seductive because they ultimately take care of our needs, not the needs of those going hungry. We currently do have the resources to feed the planet, and to do this we just need to brave the politics and the frustrations of the battles involved in solving global poverty. It is not the easy solution that GMO’s promise, but it is the real solution, and we need to keep that in focus

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