GMOs or Subsistence Farming: Which provides the answer for developing countries?

Much of the debate over genetically modified organisms today is focused on their application in developing countries around the world. In modern nations the issue has been decided, with Western countries accepting them while the European Union and much of Asia is very skeptical. Now, these two opposing sides are turning their attention to the application of GMOs worldwide. Proponents of GMOs claim that the benefits that have been realized from the new crop varieties are the answer to malnutrition and starvation in developing countries. The anti-GMO camp claims that biotechnology companies are simply looking to force their products on a new market, and that the real solutions to feeding these nations are subsistence farming and education. In reality there is no one answer to the problem of world hunger; a multi-faceted approach must be taken to truly solve this problem.

The potential for GMOs to provide food for the world’s starving people is promising. Today there are an estimated 13 million people starving in southern Africa, and the need for grain is enormous (Neuffer). GM corn and other grain have been offered as aid in order to provide immediate relief to those who are starving, but there has been a lot of opposition. Both government officials and non-government organizations (NGOs) have called for the rejection of GM aid because of its potential hazards to the community. They contend that GMOs have not been tested rigorously enough to conclude that they are safe for human consumption, that the GM corn could mix with native varieties and create super-weeds that are resistant to pesticides and herbicides, and that eventually the corn could contaminate their nations’ export crops that are sold to GM free consumers. In lieu of total rejection of the GM aid, Zambia and Zimbabwe have opted to mill the imported grain to ensure that none of it will end up being used as seed. This form of aid is good for short-term relief; however, it does not address the long-term problem of providing a sustainable food supply.

To this end, biotechnology companies and other researchers advocate using the new varieties of GMOs available to increase crop yield in starving nations. For nearly twenty years, GM crops such as bt corn and Round-up Ready corn have been planted in the United States with positive results. Bt corn, with its built in pesticide, reduces farmers’ need to spray crops periodically with harmful chemicals, while Round-up Ready corn is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. These two varieties of corn, and other GM crops, cause less pollution because they require less chemical treatment, while at the same time producing higher yields per acre. If used in countries like Zimbabwe, these crops could provide the extra food needed to feed the millions of starving people.

There are even more options than just pesticide and herbicide resistant GM crops available. In Peru, where the staple crop is the potato, varieties have been developed that are resistant to the late blight fungus. Since 1997 late blight has been wreaking havoc on potato crops throughout the country, leading to malnutrition and death. At the Centro Internacional de la Papa over 40 different late blight-resistant potato strains have been developed and are now being introduced to local farmers (Kandall). This program has had a lot of success teaching locals about what causes late blight disease and several different varieties have been incorporated into their fields. As an added benefit to using the new GM varieties, the need for pesticides has been reduced. “Nobody talked about the huge mortality rate that pesticide spraying was causing among those poor farmers,” said Rebecca Nelson, a CIP researcher (Kandall). The use of specifically targeted GM crops has thus provided a viable answer to the famine in Peru, and shows that an integrated program of education and GM crop use can solve hunger problems.

Other programs around the world have hoped for this kind of success, but opposition has halted the process. The golden rice experiment, headed by the International Rice Research Institute, has developed rice that produces its own source of vitamin A, commonly deficient in malnourished people. Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in half a million children worldwide, and debilitates another 100 million (MacPherson). The golden rice variety, Taipei 309, proposes a solution for this epidemic in countries where rice is the staple grain. However, the rice will probably never reach those who need it because the IRRI cannot get permission for open-air testing. In the Philippines, where the rice was developed, opposition to GMOs is strong. Some people just fear the general implications of GMOs, while other groups argue that golden rice is just one more biotechnology product preying on starving people.

For a real solution to vitamin A deficiency the entire problem of malnutrition must be addressed. At the root of the problem is an unbalanced diet that does not include enough protein or vegetables (Grains of delusion). As a result of the Green Revolution many developing countries were led toward monoculture farming with an emphasis on high yields. However, the high cost of pesticide and fertilizer use, and their diminishing effectiveness, led to impoverishment and a lack of biodiversity. What golden rice is attempting to do is provide a supplement of one deficient element to a fundamentally unsound diet. A more effective solution would be to somehow return to the well-rounded farming practices that predominated before the Green Revolution. However, with all the pollution that has accumulated this is unlikely. The old farming practices incorporated rice, fish, ducks, and trees in an organically coherent model (Grains of delusion). With the introduction of chemicals this way of life crumbled and left people with just their rice crops.

Further arguments against golden rice include doubts that the vitamin A produce in the rice will survive cooking, and if so whether it will be provided in enough quantity to make a difference. For vitamin A to be taken up by the body iron must be present, and in malnourished individuals iron deficiency is fairly common as well. Thus, the entire strategy behind golden rice may be undermined because the whole issue of malnutrition has not been addressed. Clearly, a program that could provide a more balanced diet in addition to the fortified rice would be a more effective solution.

Here is where the other side the GMOs debate comes in to play. With the mechanization and commercialization of farming, subsistence farming has fallen by the wayside. Movements have been started to reteach the basics of farming to rural communities so that they do not have to rely on outside sources for food. The advantages of this style of agriculture is that individual families and communities can become self-sufficient and also have the possibility to make a little extra income by selling their surpluses. Subsistence farming is designed for the specificities of subclimates, and therefore productivity is maximized. Native food that is well adapted to the conditions of the environment can obviously provide more for communities that would otherwise rely on imported food sources.

In Tanzania, the Global Service Corps has started a grassroots program to teach small-scale biointensive farming methods to rural communities. Modern agricultural practices using fertilizers and pesticides have led to soil erosion, pollution, and overall increase in farming costs. The biointensive method being taught uses organic compost, hand-dug garden beds, and small amounts of water; so far it has yielded two to six times as much food as mechanized agriculture (Pulsifer 2002). In addition to increased yield, the farmers using this new style enjoy more free time that was formerly spent making the long trips to get grain, and more available family income from small profits made from surplus crops.

This transition to subsistence farming has potential for application in any number of developing countries. However, it does not address the large-scale hunger caused by the world’s rapidly growing population. The Green Revolution attempted to bring higher yields to the world with out necessitating a large increase in land use. With a return to subsistence farming in developing countries, where population growth is the highest, there will be less and less food being produced per capita. Once again these developing countries will come to rely on imported food unless a new strategy is adopted.

Today many developing countries do require imported grain in order to meet the nutritional demands of the people, but ultimately this is a drain on the economy, holding developing countries back from making any true progress. If domestic production could be increased, countries could retain capital within their economy. This would require more than just subsistence farming. Projections show that when the population does increase the places that will see the most growth will be cities in developing countries (de Greef 2000). Therefore, not only will there be a growing gap between need and production, but also the people who in the most need will not have access to land. By incorporating the use of GMOs into farming countries could produce the additional food that will be needed to feed the growing population.

With the growing applications of GM technology to many different species, specifically targeted varieties could be developed in the same way used by the Centro Internacional de la Papa of Peru. Native varieties that have been genetically modified would have the necessary adaptations for the local ecosystem and the added advantage of increased yield. Both the rural and urban populations would benefit from a program like this, and a sustainable economy would result for the country that could bring it into modern stages of development.

It has long been known that feeding the world’s population is more than simply a matter of production. Countries like the United States have the surpluses available to feed millions of starving people. However, politics and the logistics of getting surpluses in the hands of the needed are complicated and most aid never reaches its destination. By developing programs for incorporating GM technology with native crops and practices, the need for imported food aid can be reduced and ideally eliminated.

Despite the bad reputation that GMOs have with some governments, several cases have shown that once people are educated about the technology behind the crops, and trials have demonstrated their advantages, people are more willing to use GM varieties. This was the case in India where a seed developer and trader introduced Monsanto bt cotton to farmers without the farmers’ (or the government’s) knowledge. The new variety produced a high yield in the face of a drought and attracted attention from the government. When it was discovered that the seeds were genetically modified the government threatened to burn all the seeds, but farmers fought for their right to use the seeds. The government conceded their right, but meanwhile legal battles continue (Bate). In Peru, there was initially apprehension when the CIP started promoting GM potato varieties, but when farmers got to test several different potatoes on their own plots they saw what they were missing. Suddenly the mysterious nature of GM technology was revealed, and the benefits realized (Kandall).

If GMOs are still scary, new research has also shown that many traits conferred to plants through genetic modification can also be obtained through traditional breeding. Salt tolerant tomatoes have been developed using traditional breeding that show the same, and sometimes higher, salt tolerance as GM varieties. For countries that are skeptical of GMOs, this may offer a new avenue for reaching the goal of increased crop yields. The impediments that are holding countries back from the advantages of GM crops could be avoided, bringing the world one step closer to solving hunger and malnutrition.

No matter which process is used, the ends are the same. Therefore, countries can choose which path they want to take in order to develop the crop varieties that suit their needs. Options allow countries to develop their own stance on the use of GMOs, without the pressure of big biotechnology companies and NGOs fighting over their loyalty.
What must be remembered when making decisions regarding the future of agriculture in these developing countries is that you cannot wholly turn your back on technology, nor can you abandon traditional crops and practices. A compromise must be found somewhere that allows for increased crop yields, diverse crops and diets, and a reduction of pesticide and fertilizer use. Models like that in Peru have shown that this is feasible.