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April 29, 2016

Responding To: Hunger: A Cause of Global Instability

The Role of GMOs in Combating Food Insecurity

Celeste Carano

Executive Director Ertharin Cousin argued for setting ambitious goals to eliminate hunger by 2030. Her talk touched on two points in particular: the importance of harnessing the power of technology, and the critical role of international cooperation. Interestingly, these two points converge on a controversial issue related to food security: the market and role for genetically modified organisms (or GMO).

Production of genetically modified crops is already higher in the developing world than in the “developed” world, and new production and innovation is expanding into local crops like sorghum and cassava. This is not to say that GM foods are wholly positive products for developing world farmers—licensing restrictions can push farmers towards monoculture and limit freedom of production. But farmers, especially smallholder farmers, can benefit from crops designed to resist pests and disease. This not only increases production, it increases their incomes, helping them shift out of poverty.

Perhaps counterintuitively, politics and opinions on GMOs are just as complicated in developing African nations as they are in the developed world. The question, though, is which came first: the restrictions in countries like France against GMOs? Or the fear of creating a potentially unpopular and costly product in producer countries? Many markets for agricultural produce in Africa in particular are regional, and so analysts have found little reason to worry about barriers to trade; but when those countries in turn likewise ban GMOs, there are direct consequences and real reasons for farmers to avoid uptake. For example, as has happened in the past, despite an ongoing drought across southern Africa that the WFP estimates is leaving millions hungry, some countries like Zimbabwe refuse to accept even food aid containing GMOs. ­­­­­

The reality is that preferences and policies from the developing world have an influence on those of exporting agricultural countries. There are some, like subsidization of U.S. agriculture, free trade pacts, and tariffs that perhaps could similarly lead to real change for foreign farmers but are highly controversial. GMOs need not be one of those cases.

Today, more scientists agree that GMO foods are safe than those who agree that humans influence global warming. When the burden of scientific proof is on safety and utility, it is difficult to justify policies that ban GMOs or require labeling. Food security is not just a problem of production, GM foods, and products like cotton, offer an additional tool and venue for farmers to make decisions about what and how to most effectively produce—and that flexibility may make the difference in a world affected by climate change and environmental fluctuations. As consumers, offering markets to support that choice is an easy opportunity to assist.

Celeste Carano is a M.A. Candidate in the Global Human Development program at Georgetown University. 

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