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As researchers and governments discuss ways to tackle the current food crisis, genetically modified (GM) foods are frequently mentioned as part of the solution to a complicated problem. An article published in the Financial Times today explored whether expansion of GM acreage could keep food prices in check, while a recent Washington Post Op-Ed argues more directly that they would.

Different from crops that are cross-bred with other strains to make the most of a desirable characteristic, genetically modified crops are bred with genes from un-related organisms or with chemicals to produce such properties as microbe resistance. The most commonly planted genetically modified crops are soybeans, cotton and maize (corn), although two genetically modified strains of rice are expected to move into wider commercial use in the next five years. Benefits of the GM version of a crop may include resistance to blights that wipe out entire harvests, such as bollworms which affect cotton, or reducing the need for inputs like herbicides. Despite early claims, GM crops apparently are not inherently higher yielding than their native counterparts in ideal environments; they just yield more under the stresses for which they are bred. Basically, they can save farmers money. A study cited in the FT piece claimed farm-level savings of $33.8 billion for GM crops since their introduction in 1996. The next generation of GM crops are of particular interest for anti-poverty circles, as they are being bred with traits such as drought resistance, heat tolerance or water efficiency, all characteristics which would make them ideal for crop-vulnerable environments in sub-Saharan Africa.

Euphoria around GM crops is in limited supply however. The most frequent, and most successful, opponents of GM crops are environmental and public health groups who argue that GM strains threaten native species and crop diversity and they are potentially damaging to human health, beneficial insect species and soil microbes. While these concerns should not be dismissed out of hand, they seem less relevant in light of other issues of more pressing concern to the poor. Most problematic is the fact that GM crops are not fecund, meaning a farmer has to buy GM seed every year, and those seeds are more expensive than regular seeds. In the developing world where the majority of food production is in the hands of small farmers, the need to acquire annual seed supplies is deeply problematic—most small and subsistence farmers do not have access to seed distribution systems, nor do they have the cash on hand to purchase seed. While proponents argue that these problems can be fixed, it’s important to remember that we’ve known these problems need fixing for decades and have yet to accomplish much outside of South Asia.

There are other issues that pertain particularly to food insecure regions in the world: water scarcity, soil quality, erosion and native tastes. Agriculture is one of the world’s heaviest users of water resources, which makes water capture and storage a particularly important issue for developing world farmers. And yet farmers, for instance, in the South of India—one of the more water unstable places in the world—are more likely to pump water from underground aquifiers than invest in capture and storage infrastructure, all because the government pays for the electricity to run the pump. Available GM varieties also are not necessarily developed for the kinds of crops that, say, Ethiopians want to eat. Again, proponents can argue that GM strains will be developed to use less water, and that world markets will take on crops for which there is limited local interest. But wouldn’t it be simpler and less expensive to develop less technical solutions to those problems, such as adopting policies that support farmers and encourage appropriate land and resource stewardship?

That is the central question that most discussions of the role of GM crops fail to raise: have the non-technical solutions and agricultural policy modifications been explored and exploited fully enough that we can confidently say that the production challenges we face have no organic solution? The answer is undoubtedly no. Thus, donors with an interest in agriculture development shouldn’t overlook opportunities like water catchment and use, land management and other issues. Let the Monsantos of the world invent the perfect rice—we can make lots of headway before they get there.

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