What One Hardy Papaya Can Tell Us About Ending World Hunger

This Op-Ed just published today in the NY TImes.

Here it is with links and a few edits.

A REPORT by the National Research Council last month gave ammunition to both sides in the debate over the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. More than 80 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States is genetically engineered, and the report details the "long and impressive list of benefits" that has come from these crops, including improved soil quality, reduced erosion and reduced insecticide use.

It also confirmed predictions that widespread cultivation of these crops would lead to the emergence of weeds resistant to a commonly used herbicide, glyphosate (marketed by Monsanto as Roundup). Predictably, both sides have done what they do best when it comes to genetically engineered crops: they've argued over the findings.

Lost in the din is the potential role this technology could play in the poorest regions of the world -- areas that will bear the brunt of climate change and the difficult growing conditions it will bring. Indeed, buried deep in the council's report is an appeal to apply genetic engineering to a greater number of crops, and for a greater diversity of purposes.

Appreciating this potential means recognizing that genetic engineering can be used not just to modify major commodity crops in the West, but also to improve a much wider range of crops that can be grown in difficult conditions throughout the world.

Doing that also requires opponents to realize that by demonizing the technology, they've hindered applications of genetic engineering that could save lives and protect the environment.

Scientists at nonprofit institutions have been working for more than two decades to genetically engineer seeds that could benefit farmers struggling with ever-pervasive dry spells and old and novel pests. Drought-tolerant cassava, insect-resistant cowpeas, fungus-resistant bananas, virus-resistant sweet potatoes and high-yielding pearl millet are just a few examples of genetically engineered foods that could improve the lives of the poor around the globe.

For example, researchers in the public domain have been working to engineer sorghum and maize crops for resistance to both drought and an aggressively parasitic African weed, Striga. Sorghum and maize are staples throughout Africa, so improved seeds would be widely beneficial.

As well as enhancing yields, engineered seeds can make crops more nutritious. A new variety of rice genetically engineered to produce high amounts of provitamin A, named Golden Rice, will soon be available in the Philippines and, if marketed there and more widely, would almost assuredly save the lives of thousands of children suffering from vitamin A deficiency.

There's also a sorghum breed that's been genetically engineered to produce micronutrients like zinc, and a potato designed to contain greater amounts of protein.

To appreciate the value of genetic engineering, one need only examine the story of papaya. In the early 1990s, Hawaii's papaya industry was facing disaster because of the deadly papaya ringspot virus. Its single-handed savior was a breed engineered to be resistant to the virus. Without it, the state's papaya industry would have collapsed. Today, 80 percent of Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered, and there is still no conventional or organic method to control ringspot virus.

The real significance of the papaya recovery is not that genetic engineering was the most appropriate technology delivered at the right time, but rather that the resistant papaya was introduced before the backlash against engineered crops intensified.

Opponents of genetically engineered crops have spent much of the last decade stoking consumer distrust of this precise and safe technology, even though, as the research council's previous reports noted, engineered crops have harmed neither human health nor the environment.

In doing so, they have pushed up regulatory and development costs to the point where the technology is beyond the economic reach of small companies or foundations that might otherwise develop a wider range of healthier crops for the neediest farmers. European restrictions, for instance, make it virtually impossible for scientists at small laboratories there to carry out field tests of engineered seeds.

As it now stands, opposition to genetic engineering has driven the technology further into the hands of a few seed companies that can afford it, further encouraging their monopolistic tendencies while leaving it out of reach for those that want to use it for crops with low (or no) profit margins.

The stakes are too high for us not to make the best use of genetic engineering. If we fail to invest responsibly in agricultural research, if we continue to allow propaganda to trump science, then the potential for global agriculture to be productive, diverse and sustainable will go unfulfilled. And it's not those of us here in the developed world who will suffer the direct consequences, but rather the poorest and most vulnerable.

Pamela C. Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, is the co-author of "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food." James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, is the author of "Just Food."

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I've always thought that using the term frankenfood was a little odd. After all, the crops that we have domesticated were domesticated through a very rudimentary form of genetic selection.

So what we're doing is just speeding nature along. Nothing more.

I notice that your paean to Big Agro and its Frankenfoods doesn't mention the heightened levels of cancer, birth defects and autism correlating with the expanded use and consumption of GMOs in Europe and the USA.

'Golden rice' and other Frankenfoods engineered to produce nutrients are completely superfluous. Beta-carotene (the chemical which has been inserted into the rice, which the body converts to vitamin A) is naturally found in carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, etc. If a family can't afford to buy or grow the latter, they certainly can't afford to buy GMO rice from a Big Agro-licensed producer. The purpose of the 'hard sell' propaganda for 'golden rice' - the claims that it, and only it, can save millions from vitamin deficiency - is is to expand the reach of agribusiness and make millions more people rely on a monopoly-held patented food for this vital nutrient.

Finally, your plea on behalf of "the poorest and most vulnerable", even if sincere, is profoundly misguided. Starvation is rampant worldwide because we humans, like a metastasizing cancer, have swamped the carrying capacity of our planet by at least an order of magnitude, and the only question is whether we will kill ourselves off before or after we kill our host. The solution to poverty and starvation is not more food; the solution is fewer people. Higher yielding GMOs are a step in exactly the wrong direction.

By mad the swine (not verified) on 15 May 2010 #permalink

mad the swine- a small amount of the planets population is responsible for using the vast majority of resources. The 80% who live on 5ish percent of the resources aren't screwing up the world- they suffer to provide us with way more than our share. If we killed off everyone except those in industrialized nations (and say replace labor with solar powered robots or something not harmful to the environment) very little would be solved because we demand so much. Improving the situation of people leads to a drop in the birth rate anyway- but international business relies on a large underclass of desperate people for cheap labor. The problem won't go away without action from people in the privileged countries against the grotesque power imbalance that exists. Posing the problem as just needing to reduce the population is way too simplistic.

And the article poses the problem as one that pits crazy environmentalists against huge agriculture firms, and insinuates that the fees that exclude competition are more the environmentalists fault that anyone else. I find this hard to believe. In the US at least, these companies are enormously powerful, especially in what kind of legislation is passed or enforced in the business world. I am pretty sure huge ones like Monsanto more than make those fees back via government contracts (like spraying drug crops in south america) and subsidies. If anything, those guys are probably in favor of the competiton reducing measure of large fees. No matter how bad the 'franken food' peoples ideas are, it was politicians who passed them through, and likely with the approval of business elites who stood to gain something from it. Lets lay the blame on the right folks.

mad the swine said:

I notice that your paean to Big Agro and its Frankenfoods doesn't mention the heightened levels of cancer, birth defects and autism correlating with the expanded use and consumption of GMOs in Europe and the USA.

Probably because she didn't believe GMOs cause those problems. You simply asserting that it is true won't change anybody's mind. Do you have any links to scientific research showing causation?

If correlation is good enough for you, then you might as well say that increases in autism is because of the increased levels of atmospheric CO2, or increases in the federal deficit.

I can't help wondering every time GMO's are brought up: you're taking one of the most major faults of modern agriculture (i.e. lack of biodiversity) and adding an exponent. Even if your net environmental impact ameliorates because of other effects (like less pesticide or land use), you're still going down a path where this problematic technique only intensifies.

The way I see it, you're taking a problem one step further rather than try to take on its actual cause.

Also, AFAIK, the way modern society works will make GMO's never a product of the few. Assesments of impact are way too costy and will only be performable by the biggest guys in the field, analogous to the pharmaceutical industry.

Heh, the Rainbow papaya has also taught us that, while genetic engineering may be unarguably beneficial, it is not undeniably so (and as they say, we must not mistake denialism for debate). Quoth Greenpeace "GE papaya has already been a failure in Hawaii." Go figure. They even have a twelve page report on it, complete with people in hazmat suits holding ugly papayas (cause nothing screams honesty like cheap scare tactics).

@5 I disagree entirely about genetic engineering and biodiversity. I think biodiversity and genetic engineering should both be two of the biggest things in agriculture. Do you realize that what you're saying could be applied to plant breeding too? "Those breeders over there, breeding their apples and grapes and bananas so we can have more apples and grapes and bananas when we should be growing diverse things like jujubes and zabalas and jaboticabas." But you wouldn't say that because, in either case, it's not an either or. Genetic engineering isn't a way of life, it's a technique, that's all. It's just an exceptionally powerful plant improvement method. I for one think genetic engineering is perfect for diversity, because maybe we can use it to improve a crops ability to be shipped or widen it's growing range or help to correct any other obstacle in the way of larger levels of cultivation of 'new' crops. And there are tons of those new crops, just think of how many ways the agricultural and culinary worlds could change if we fully embrace both the latest biotechnological advances (and of course classic breeding techniques) as well as all those countless species with the potential to be a large scale crop. I envision a world with limitless possibilities made by combining new crops from all over the world. Maybe a hypothetical future chef will concoct a snack made of konjac with pecan & marula nuts and cloudberries & muntries, flavored with rosita de cacao. No idea how that one would taste, but something made with a plant from every continent has a nice ring to it, and genetic engineering is without doubt one of the most powerful tools we have to work toward such a diversified food supply. What I'm trying to say is, supporting genetic engineering in no way shape or form means that you don't support crop diversity, because we can do both, and I hope we do. Sure, maybe you can say something about larger companies not doing it enough, but they don't own genetic engineering any more than pharmaceutical companies own administering a measured dose of active ingredient. Course, there's also something to be said for getting the public to fully embrace those new foods and put them right beside 'ordinary' crops like onions, oregano, oranges, and potatoes, but that's a different matter.

@2 "Higher yielding GMOs are a step in exactly the wrong direction."

Says the person who doesn't need them. Everyone knows that improved yield will mean more people in the poorer regions (because you stop them from starving to death), and that you can't maintain exponential growth with finite resources. However, the solution is not to simply condemn people to death. Improving food security is but one step, the others are things like education and economic improvement, which will lower the birthrate. Sure, wouldn't it be nice if the population in those regions would remain at a presently sustainable level, however, achieving that by not helping them and letting them starve, the ends just don't justify the means.

By Party Cactus (not verified) on 16 May 2010 #permalink

I notice that your paean to Big Agro and its Frankenfoods doesn't mention the heightened levels of cancer, birth defects and autism correlating with the expanded use and consumption of GMOs in Europe and the USA.

Citation on this? Heightened levels of cancer, birth defects, and autism also correlate rather well with increased population, increased total hours of American Idol played on TV, increased use of vaccines, improved medicine and a huge number of other phenomenon - to link GMOs to these things is however a rather desperate attempt to throw doubt on something which you're obviously having issues doing by referring to anything real.

. If a family can't afford to buy or grow the latter, they certainly can't afford to buy GMO rice from a Big Agro-licensed producer.

As every "save the world" type GMO I'm aware of so far is touted as being offered through public institutions and without tech fees etc this is a completely nonsensical arguement. Like arguing that because poor Africans can't afford the expensive anti-HIV treatments sold in the west by big-pharma there should be no projects to make anti-HIV treatments available.

the claims that it, and only it, can save millions from vitamin deficiency - is is to expand the reach of agribusiness and make millions more people rely on a monopoly-held patented food for this vital nutrient.

claims that it, and only it, can save millions are an invention of either your own, or whatever propaganda machine you're hooked to - nobody claims GMOs are the only solution to any problem - just a useful tool in offering varied solutions. Also I'd imagine (and am not sure here, but hopefully someone can clear this up) that any patent held on golden rice is in place specifically to prevent big-agribusiness thinking 'ooooh sniny!' and patenting it for profit (assuming there are patents - it would be better were the whole thing just public knowledge in journals etc and therefore unpatentable)

Just one point that I want to emphasize: This isnt just about GMO papaya being non-controversial at the time, or GMO basically saving papaya as a whole from extinction-- GMO papaya providing barriers/buffers and herd immunity are the only reason why 'organic' 'natural' 'god given' papaya is still available to anyone.

GMO papaya protects 'organic' papaya.

That's an excellent article. I will definitely be using that as a reference in future discussions. Thanks for providing that, and thanks for your work getting it out in front of the public. That's not trivial.

Another great one you created was the top 10 list to scratch from your worry list. I use that a lot--maybe you could update that and repost it here at some point. That's an awesome reference point too.

Also I'd imagine (and am not sure here, but hopefully someone can clear this up) that any patent held on golden rice is in place specifically to prevent big-agribusiness thinking 'ooooh sniny!' and patenting it for profit (assuming there are patents - it would be better were the whole thing just public knowledge in journals etc and therefore unpatentable)

The Golden Rice project was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The inventors used some promoters and stuff that were on patent. The companies donated the IP so now all the new Golden Rice varieties are completely in the public domain. The seed can be selfed by farmers. In other words, agribusiness will not profit.

@Party Cactus:

There's more to biodiversity than just species. The major thing with GMO's is genetical diversity. This is indeed not new either (various clones are already used), but it's a step further down that path.

At the same time, GMO's will increase the value of agricultural land (more yield per unit of land). This leaves much less opportunities for less-yielding crops unless we see a massive demographic shift that would allow for such "suboptimal" systems. The trend for change in agricultural total area will inevitably be downwards, after all, because of global soil degradation, predicted ongoing loss to other sectors (urban) and an inevitably required reversal of deforestation.

Pam - thanks for the info.

However - if agribusiness does not profit, can these truly be called GMOs?

MD - if the trend for change in ag area is inevitably downwards what is the logic precisely in opposing an increase in yield per unit of land - surely this is exactly the direction you'd want to go in. If anything the arguement there is that genetic engineering (assuming it does increase yield/unit area) needs to be expanded so that suboptimal systems are less so, rather than shunning more productive systems so that less productive systems can remain.

Well, diversity among already common species isn't quite as fun :) But certainty there is also diversity within species that merits mention as worthy of increased use, like blue dent corn vs yellow sweet corn, but the same principle applies here too. Take for instance heirloom tomatoes. Plenty of genetic diversity there, but most don't ship too well, so they're not largely grown. However, perhaps with one of the delayed ripening traits being developed, they could achieve wider cultivation. You see the same thing with, say, apples; I'd love to see one of the pink or red fleshed varieties in the stores, but again, I assume they aren't keepers. I don't see how the use of selected clones is a bad thing, provided no one variety is over-relied upon (the Irish Potato Famine is a good example of that happening). Some sameness is desirable to maintain quality as diversity isn't as good when quality starts to differ, in the case of the clones, the use of grafting the same variety to many rootstocks is what preserves that quality.

I really don't see that improving output in one area will necessarily decrease the usefulness of growing other crops. This goes into the supply & demand. I wouldn't think anything would just keep expanding because it's easier to produce, and if it does, the supply may very well exceed demand and eventually lead to a shrinkage, so I would not assume such a scenario would happen. If you look at the variety of grain, fruit, vegetable, spice, ect. crops presently of economic importance, I doubt all are equally productive or profitable, yet, they are all still cultivated. If anything, I would think that increased productivity of the larger crops may even open things up a bit more for smaller ones if less resources are devoted on them. Of course, in the end, this still relies on a market for those crops (even if you produce a good amount of, say, amaranth, it doesn't matter if no one wants it), and assuming there is demand, those crops can still be produced even if they are relatively under productive; they just get sold at a premium, like how the less productive Rainier cherries will sell for more than Bing. Is not organic also is a great example of this?

By Party Cactus (not verified) on 16 May 2010 #permalink

Ewan, if it is genetically engineered then it is genetically engineered. What does agribusiness have to do with it? It is the science that counts. Not sure what you mean there...

About genetic diversity:
A specific GMO is not the be-all in terms of diversity. The use of genetic engineering can conceivably produce more diverse forms that are disease resistant and/or nutritious more rapidly than standard hybridization. It's just that the companies that do the R&D have to be so inclined.

A question about large vs. small companies in producing new GMOs:
If it becomes feasible for small start-ups to go into GMOs,will this end up like many pharmaceuticals, with the start-ups ding the original R&D and then being bought out by the bigger companies, with all of the same advantages and disadvantages?

Another thing to consider about poorer countries and GMOs:
Could this end up like anti-AIDS drugs with poorer countries taking the methods of production and ignoring international patents in order to produce cheaper seedstocks?

By natural cynic (not verified) on 16 May 2010 #permalink


I don't think that when the plate is going red, you'll want to splash it. You'll want to stop it from heating. GMO's are in this prospect another step in the same direction, whereas you'll need other methods to tackle this issue. Reducing demand, for instance by increasing efficiency, combatting extravagant wasting...

If you let yield become (even more) the deciding factor, the problems that are associated with this neglectence of other parameters will keep enduring and gradually grow worse.


How would companies go about producing genetically diverse GM seeds? How would you produce sufficient random mutations and hybridization without compromising the GM traits? You're also left with one important restriction if you were to attempt this, and that is the contemporal economical one. More so if, which is what I'm getting at here, the pressure on agriculture increases. One food crisis and the issues in the field which we're already seeing multiply by very scary factors.

When you talk about diversity on the current economical scale: the trend throughout the agricultural modernization of the 20th century has been one of major decrease in diversity, both at a genetical and species scale (source is my "sustainable systems" course). At this moment, a few crops make out the greatest margin, and they are generally the ones with the greatest yield (overall).

Of course, I'm assuming here that the GMO trend is not accompanied by those other methods, yet the point is that GMO's being heralded as a solution distracts attention from the other aspects. It's splashing the hot plate, which may provide short term relief, but leaves you off worse when you run out of water or the plate gets too hot.

(Note: I'll try to keep up this discussion with a good pace, yet I'm not sure I'll be able too as finals are coming up real fast.)

Pam - poor parody of the anti-GMO stance - all GMOs profit multinationals, therefore if it doesnt profit a multinational it can't be a GMO.

Or something.

Natural cynic - I could certainly forsee any startups which have succesful looking genes (not even necessarily proven) being bought out by bigger companies - or going into partnership with them to market their genes - hell even rather large companies do this to take advantage of each others gene sourcing and testing platforms - if you have the resources to do a little bit of testing which looks remotely likely to be succesful in any of the major (already GMed) crops you stand to make a killing just in terms of licensing to large companies testing your gene before the thing even gets to commercialization.

On poorer countries - hopefully the model will progress away from pharmaceuticals and more towards large companies marketing genes etc to rich countries that can afford it, and licensing the genes 'for free' to areas where they are required (like the golden rice project in terms of promoters etc, and at least how I perceive the way the WEMA project is supposed to work) - going against international patents etc and producing 'generic' versions of say RR or Bt crops may not work quite so well as making generic anti-HIV treatments - first you have to get over the barrier of public/governmental distrust of GMOs in Africa, second you have to take into account whether or not the crops are likely to be exported - will be tough exporting any of the crop from a country if there are unregulated GMOs of that crop widely available - would seem to me the best hope here is academic research and not-for-profit agreements with big agribusiness (or small agribusiness even - whoever holds the patents)

MD -

How would companies go about producing genetically diverse GM seeds?

You introgress the GM trait from the transformation background into your hybrids - GM crops available aren't in a single germplasm, they're available across multiple germplasms - generally (if I remember right, and I might not...) a single 'event' (ie a single insertion of foreign DNA into the species genome) will be precision bred into other germplasm (so in terms of genetic diversity all you're going to lose is a little bit either side of the insertion site - dependant on how patient your breeder is.

On splashing the plate... not entirely sure how this synchs with your first post about increasing value of land etc etc - with ever increasing global population, and ever increasing demand (which is increasing at a greater rate than population growth due to the transition towards a more meaty diet in developing nations) getting higher yields off of less land, with less inputs (fertilzier, insecticide, pesticide,water) is of tantamount importance - replacing high yielding modern varieties with low yielding varieties is totally counterproductive and would only increase the problem.

It also isn't really true that in looking at yield you're ignoring other factors - most agricultural factors I can think of basically boil down, at the end of the day, to yield. Water use efficiency, nitrogen use efficiency, capacity to endure disease, insect predation, etc etc - all are only really important agriculturally in that they contribute to yield (however you decide to look at it - it doesn't have to be output/acre, it can just as easily be output/input - which going forward may become increasingly important - and to a certain extent explains the success of HR and IR traits - neither improve yield on a bu/ac basis, but each improves yield in terms of output/input (by reducing inputs)

Leaving at that for now... have more to say... pregnant wife however says.... No.

I know the early GM processes involved inserting antibiotic resistance genes as an easy marker for uptake of the GM package.
Do current commercial GM crops include antibiotic resistance genes ? If so, is there a risk of them being picked up by gut bacteria, spreading resistance, or are they in a form that prevents this ?

Like the "green revolution" of old, GM crops are often presented and the "solution to the problem of world hunger".

But there's no "problem of world hunger".

There's a problem of world poverty. Everything else derives from it. And it's a matter of politics, not genetics.

By Christophe Thill (not verified) on 17 May 2010 #permalink

I notice that many of the comments here are reminiscent of our argument with Vera in the 'Let 'em Starve' and 'Radically Rethinking Agriculture' posts. For those against GMO's because they thing we shouldnât be going for higher yields; are you still against GMO when yield is not the target?

For instance, Plant&Food have created a red-fleshed GMO apple. 'Natural' red-fleshed apples taste terrible (which is why we donât grow them, Party Cactus). The GMO Gala is red just like the red-fleshed crab apple (i.e. healthier) and tastes good, but doesnât increase yield in any way. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4uGw48OYDI (sorry, I donât know how to do the fancy links). They are breeding it now, but thatâs many years of extra work for something we already have. Because the NZ government wonât let us grow GMOs.

The same goes for Golden Rice -itâs just more nutritious food which can reduce the suffering of people that are alive. Yes, the people in need of Golden Rice need more food variety etc, but why not do both!?

And then what about GMOs immune to certain diseases? Yes, they may increase yield due to lower disease loss, but isnât the real benefit the reduced use of pesticides? If we can engineer apple varieties with large numbers of resistance genes to Venturia inaequalis (i.e. really durable resistance) then New Zealand could cut our pesticide use on apple by 65%, and use less toxic sprays on another 15%. Is that not worth it?

By Hinemoana (not verified) on 17 May 2010 #permalink

If there was no problem of world hunger prior to the green revolution, and it was "just politics", why is Norman Borlaug generally credited with saving ~1 billion lives with the green revolution? Is it not more realistic to say it is a combination of politics and genetics - the green revolution didn't solve the problem 100%, but it did go a way towards solving the problem at hand - which is exactly what proponents of using GMOs to help feed the world propose - nobody is saying its a magical pill that will end world hunger by itself, however it's something we can do, and can do on a relatively short timescale, something that in my entire time on the planet we've proven to be utterly incapable of doing in political terms - hopefully soon, but I'm not holding my breath.

Bt cotton in India further supports my claims - if it is politics, and not genetics, which raises people out of poverty, then how does one explain the 30-100% increase in farmer income attributable to the adoption of Bt cotton - these aren't necessarily the absolute poorest people in the world, but they're down there, and were helped by GMO crops without any massive political shift to go alongside that.

It's also not just about increasing yields all the time, but about food security - sure, there may be enough food produced globally to feed everyone, and politics (and transportation) are to blame - but it is important to have food security at a local level - it doesn't matter that there is a food surplus 2,000 miles away if your kids get to eat one day out of three because of a crappy harvest - if you can bring better (and more nutritious)harvests locally then you remove a great part of the political issues surrounding food distribution - something that could well be done with nutritionally boosted foods (rice and cassava), drought tolerance (corn's the only one I know of that's looking exciting in this field), flooding tolerance (hat tip to Pam, despite it no longer being a GMO... coulda been!) and whatever else genetic engineering can offer faster than breeding.

"There's a problem of world poverty. Everything else derives from it. And it's a matter of politics, not genetics."

Nobody is denying there are political problems. What you are not seeing is that filling bellies is part of the political solution. Much of political strife is caused by hunger. Much political strife can also be caused by being dependent on someone else across the globe for food. If you look (see Pam's post above), much of the GE tech is moving towards putting reliable food production in the hands of those people in need. Yes, yes, big bad Monsanto is there too, but they are not the only player. GE not the only answer, but it is part of the solution.

"the green revolution didn't solve the problem 100%, but it did go a way towards solving the problem at hand"

--ha! the green revolution in the philippines, which was then one of ferdinand marcos' program for agriculture, has worsened the conditions of the farmers. high yield rice varieties increased the farmers' dependence on fertilizers and pesticides. i would suppose, that aside from marcos himself, the green revolution was one of the reasons for the civil strife in the country during those years.

Bonvito - so because an aspect of the green revolution caused problems in one locale this means it did not go a way towards solving (or at least alleviating temporarily)the problem?

It is possible to solve one problem and in the wake create others, on balance I'd suggest that billions pulled out of starvation and malnourishment implies that indeed, the problem - widescale hunger/starvation, was solved (or perhaps just alleviated)partially, by the green revolution - regardless of other issues which may have came up as a result.

Ewan R - The green revolution is not so much about ending world hunger than tying up economies to big business. Science, like GE, are political too in its consequences.

Suffice it to say that instead of addressing "world hunger," the green revolution exacerbated the conditions of poverty. The campaign to go "scientific" and "modern" has led to the abandonment of indigenous agricultural practices and varieties that has fed people for many centuries.

The problem of food is not an issue of volume but of equity.

@Hinemoana-Ah, crappy flavor, that'll do it! I should've known that. I think, not positive, that the red fleshed trait is because of some crab heritage somewhere along the line, but I could be wrong. That's a cool video, thanks for the link! Good to know people are working on that. But...I wonder if he had one of the named varieties of red fleshed apple like Scarlet Surprise, Rubaiyat, or Niedzwetzkyana. Those are, supposedly, if the nurseries selling them are to be believed, fairly good, although I'd assume on the tart side, and are probably better suited for making stuff with, like Granny Smith. I, alas, have never eaten one myself, but I'll get around to growing one one day.

Anyway, I think it's pretty hard to say that hunger isn't political, however, when it comes down to it, that is a much harder issue to fix than modifying some plants. What are the other options, asking Mugabe real nicely to make sure everyone gets food? Good luck with that. I don't think the whole world is going to have a sudden epiphany of empathy any time soon. Certainty, fixing those political problems is, ultimately, the best way to fix the issue of hunger, and clearly a long term goal, but when will that happen? In the meantime, people have to eat, and the only other thing is to just do what we can do and work with what we've got, and one of those things is helping increase the ability to produce food, and among other things, this means plant improvement. And sure, who is to say there won't be problems along the way, but I'm going to guess those problems won't be as severe as starving to death.

By Party Cactus (not verified) on 17 May 2010 #permalink

Suffice it to say that instead of addressing "world hunger," the green revolution exacerbated the conditions of poverty.

By preventing/delaying a malthusean population collapse. I guess it is true that poverty would be less of a problem if the poor were all dead. As such I concede, we should forget about fixing things through any kind of scientific approach - left to their own devices impoverished areas of the planet will be just fine - poverty reduction through political change catalyzed by mass starvation is obviously the best solution.

I have mixed feelings about GMO crops. I'm not inherently against genetically modified organisms - there's nothing magic about the technique. The catch is that it's possible to introduce changes with inadvertent side-effects, and if there's no testing of the end result, it's hard to declare it truly safe. It seems unwise to test applied pesticides, but not crops that have been engineered to express those pesticides.

Of course, traditional breeding doesn't always produce the best crops. They've ended up with prettier and sweeter fruit, but sometimes with fewer nutrients. Back in the day, apples were planted not for eating, but for making alcohol.

Nice op-ed piece Pam. Thanks for taking the time to do it. Ignorance about agriculture, let alone GM technology, remains vast--alarmingly so among many of the self-styled experts who have arisen recently as part of the local/sustainable "foodie" fad.

"You obviously missed the point. Cheers and have a good day."

Classic Red Loop. I know I'm right, now good bye!! So much for debate......


Do you realize that what you're saying could be applied to plant breeding too? ?

Quote from Party Cactus @ 7


Plant breading and GMO creation are fundamentally different. And you are very much aware of that fact.

And higher yields do not substantially reduce the over all high energy input that is put into the creation of GMOS from plant to seed.

We are running out of cheap oil, the life blood of an expanding GMO food world. GMOs are thus not sustainable in the long term for the US or any other poor country.

By theroachman (not verified) on 18 May 2010 #permalink

Theroachman - I call shenannigans, there is nothing inherently high input about many GMOs - RR crops I'll grant you require a ready supply of roundup (which requires a supply of phosphorous, which we'll deplete at some point) and an ability to spray it etc - but what exactly about Bt crops for instance is inherently high input? Or drought tolerant crops, or golden rice, or virus resistant papaya, or whatever tree the USDA just took public comment on?

You're conflating GMO with high input agriculture for the sole reason that right now high input ag is about the only place you see GMOs - this need not be the case though, as a moments thought about the matter should convince you.

At 8, ERV sez: 'GMO papaya protects "organic" papaya.'

Testify, brother. I have a papaya orchard at my home on Maui, and they are all "organic" and non-GMO, not because I care -- I prefer chemical, big-biz ag because I like to see all the little chillen with their bellies full, in contrast to the way it is where Big Ag is missing -- but because thanks to Rainbow Papaya, my plain ol' papayas do just fine, no disease problems, no intervention.

By Harry Eagar (not verified) on 19 May 2010 #permalink