Can genetically engineered foods help feed the hungry? Are anti-GMO activists and over-zealous environmentalists standing in the way of the hungry being fed?
The hope that GMO foods might bring solutions to malnutrition and world hunger was never more dramatically illustrated than when Time magazine ran a cover story titled “Grains of Hope.” The article joyfully announced the development of a genetically engineered “golden rice.” This new strain of GM rice has genes from viruses and daffodils spliced into its genetic instructions. The result is a form of rice that is a golden-yellow color (much like daffodil flowers), and that produces beta-carotene, which the human body normally converts into Vitamin A.
Nearly a million children die every year because they are weakened by Vitamin A deficiencies and an additional 350,000 go blind. Golden rice, said Time, will be a godsend for the half of humanity that depends on rice for its major staple. Merely eating this rice could prevent blindness and death.
The development of golden rice was, it seemed, compelling and inspiring evidence that GM crops are the answer to malnutrition and hunger. Time quoted former U.S. President Jimmy Carter: “Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy, starvation is.”
Shortly after the Time cover story, Monsanto and other biotechnology companies launched a $50 million marketing campaign, including $32 million in TV and print advertising. The ads, complete with soft focus fields and smiling children, said that “biotech foods could help end world hunger.”
Other ad campaigns have followed. One Monsanto ad tells the public: “Biotechnology is one of tomorrow’s tools in our hands today. Slowing its acceptance is a luxury our hungry world cannot afford.”
Within a few months, the biotech industry had spent far more on these ads than it had on developing golden rice. Their purpose? “Unless I’m missing something,” wrote Michael Pollan in The New York Times Magazine, “the aim of this audacious new advertising campaign is to impale people like me — well-off first-worlders dubious about genetically engineered food — on the horns of a moral dilemma … If we don’t get over our queasiness about eating genetically modified food, kids in the third world will go blind.”
The implication of the ads is that lifesaving food is being held hostage by anti-science activists.
In the years since Time proclaimed the promises of golden rice, however, we’ve learned a few things.
For one thing, we’ve learned that golden rice will not grow in the kinds of soil that it must to be of value to the world’s hungry. To grow properly, it requires heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides — expensive inputs unaffordable to the very people that the variety is supposed to help. And we’ve also learned that golden rice requires large amounts of water — water that might not be available in precisely those areas where Vitamin A deficiency is a problem, and where farmers cannot afford costly irrigation projects.
And one more thing — it turns out that golden rice doesn’t work, even in theory. Malnourished people are not able to absorb Vitamin A in this form. And even if they could, they’d have to eat an awful lot of the stuff. An 11-year-old boy would have to eat 27 bowls of golden rice a day in order to satisfy his minimum requirement for the vitamin.
I’m sure that given enough time and enough money, some viable genetically modified (GM) crops could be developed that contain more nutrients or have higher yields. But I’m not sure that even if that were to happen, it would actually benefit the world’s poor. Monsanto and the other biotech companies aren’t developing these seeds with the intention of giving them away. If people can’t afford to buy GM seeds, or if they can’t afford the fertilizers, pesticides and water the seeds require, they’ll be left out.
Poverty is at the root of the problem of hunger. As Peter Rosset, director of Food First, reminds us, “People do not have Vitamin A deficiency because rice contains too little Vitamin A, but because their diet has been reduced to rice and almost nothing else.”