The most common argument that I hear about why we should eat genetically engineered foods is because it will “feed the world”. Biotech companies love to spread this message, but is it true? It’s clear that genetically engineered traits that make plants and animals more resistant to disease, stay ripe longer, and grow more robustly in a variety of conditions are effective in reducing costs and providing economic benefits to food producers. Does this mean that it will stop world hunger though?
Many people are concerned about the “carrying capacity” for humankind since the world population has doubled over the past 50 years and continues to grow by roughly 100 million people each year. Thankfully, with regard to physical living space, these fears appear to be overblown because every human on Earth could live in an area about the size of Texas that has the same population density as New York.
Feeding that many people, on the other hand, is a whole different story. Roughly 800 million people remain undernourished, and more people die annually from hunger than from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. Researches estimate that by 2050 the demand for food will be twice what is was in 2005. Food production occupies about 40 percent of Earth’s land area and uses more fresh water than any other human activity.
The Introduction of GMOs
In 1994, Calgene introduced the Flavr Savr tomato, the first genetically engineered crop to be sold in the United States. This tomato ripened slowly and had an extended shelf-life. The Flavr Savr tomato was only available for a few years before production ceased in 1997 due to the high production costs that prevented them from becoming profitable. Calgene was eventually acquired by Monsanto.
Why Genetically Modified Crops Won’t Feed The World
GMOs have been around for over 20 years now. So have GMOs actually increased crop yields? No. Let’s take a look at corn, one of the most widely grown GE crops around the world. The average yield of GE corn grown in the United States from 1986 to 2011 was slightly lower than corn yields over the same period in western Europe, where GE crops aren’t grown.
Most of the genetically engineered crops end up feeding cows and cars, not people. This is because globally, corn and soybeans account for about 80 percent of the land area devoted to growing genetically engineered crops, and both are overwhelmingly used for animal feed and biofuels. The investment in GMOs has mostly been spent on crops that do very little to expand the global food supply. More and more countries are starting to move toward a more western diet, which means more meat. This will just make the demand for GE corn and soy increase to feed the wealthier countries while the poor countries continue to suffer.
How To Boost The Global Food Supply
In 2011, 883 million tons of corn, and 260 million tons of soybeans were grown globally. However, about 40-50% of that corn, and 80% of those soybeans were fed to farmed animals, rather than being eaten directly by humans. In 2013, scientists from the Institute of the Environment and the University of Minnesota published a study examining agricultural resources and the dilemma of world hunger. They reached the conclusion that if all food crops were fed directly to humans instead of animals, around 70% more food would be added to the world’s food supply, which would be enough to feed 4 billion additional people. There are only 795 million starving people in the world, so that is more than enough to end world hunger. We currently produce enough calories to feed 10-11 billion people worldwide, however, the majority of this food goes to feed livestock, not hungry people.