In a world beset by so many disasters, both naturally occurring and man-made, subsistence farming is far from a secure way of life. With potential economic ruin and starvation lurking just one failed harvest away for so many, we as a global society have a moral duty to help alleviate this burden.
Genetically modified (GM) crops may raise eyebrows among some who view it as tampering with nature, but have we not done that in so many other walks of life? Technology has already achieved so many wonderful things that it would be foolish to let ideology trump pragmatism by refusing to let it do so again in agriculture.
There is no doubt an economic incentive to keep GM crops — currently worth about $150 billion — on the market. However, the view that such goods are for sale solely to make money is distorted by the fact that they wouldn’t be valued so highly if their success was not demonstrable. It would be pretty terrible for business if there was undeniable proof that the science around genetic modification was linked to a major health or environmental crisis, so it’s in industry’s best interests to develop a product that’s as safe as possible.
Furthermore, GM crops must meet the extensive health and safety requirements mandated by political and regulatory bodies within each country. With the EU in 2015 assigning to each member the power to decide whether to permit GM crops within its borders, producers of such plants have to meet a numerous and diverse checklist to sell in those countries. These developed nations don’t need GM crops to stave off famine, but those that permit them recognize the economic wisdom in permitting the trade in these enhanced yields.
In developing countries, though, there is also the humanitarian aspect to factor into account. India, for example, cannot support such its rapidly growing population, even with its vast farms, without assistance. Faced with the threat of pests and plant-based diseases causing the loss of $500 million worth of produce a year, strong measures are needed to ensure food security in a country that already suffers greatly from poverty and an unequal distribution of wealth. Though India has so far been skeptical about introducing GM food seeds to its farmers, the World Health Organization has sought to reassure them, and all others concerned, that all commercially available modified organisms are “assessed on a case by case basis” and would not be released for sale without a thorough assessment.
With this in mind, if GM crops could help fight against starvation and malnutrition, then who are we to dictate to those who have to live daily under such pressures? It’s easy to fall into the trap of lecturing in an overly paternal manner, safe as we are from such problems, but others don’t enjoy such comforts. Organic food undeniably has a place in our first-world stores, yet would be considered a luxury elsewhere. Affordability and yield are important considerations in alleviating the immediate threats to people’s health and lives.
Furthermore, while natural disasters pose unpredictable, short-term threats to agricultural production, long-term threats to farmers aren’t going away anytime soon. Wars can flair up in any place at any time, but climate change is the big issue looming on the horizon. Temperature shifts of even a few degrees can drastically alter climates and subsequently affect how well various crops will grow there.
The UN, among other organizations, has consistently sought to raise awareness of the issue of water scarcity, which already threatens a quarter of the world’s population. GM crops that are bred to withstand extreme weather conditions and drought may very well be the only way to fend off even greater deprivation globally. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking as to when action can be taken.
For GM crop development to continue as a safe provider of food those in need, it is crucial that dialogue is kept open between supporters and critics of the technology. What we eat and the sourcing of our produce affects us all and could have major repercussions if it goes wrong. Constant vigilance and the critiquing of ideas are vital to prevent complacency, as this is not a field where standards can be allowed to slip a jot. The benefits of continued research into genetic modification have near-unlimited potential for success, but could just as easily bring us low. All informed views should be given equal consideration, so that we can make the best decisions in service of the greater good.
Justin Fox is a history graduate from Britain’s University of Kent who enjoys analyzing key current affairs, especially concerning geopolitics and international relations.