July 3, 2008

GMO's Won't Solve Global Hunger . . . . Yet?

Not surprisingly, the buzz surrounding the global food crisis has died down a bit from the major media outlets.  However, if you can remember back a few weeks one of the consistent strains running throughout that buzz was the advocacy of genetically modified crops as a silver bullet for the global food crisis.  Silver bullets rarely exist for any of the the beastly problems that stalk the planet so I was "glad" to hear some GMO sanity coming from the Guardian last week and out of the mouth of the industry itself, at that:
Genetically modified crops will not solve the current food crisis, according to the head of one of the world's largest agricultural biotechnology companies.

Martin Taylor, chairman of Syngenta, said the current industry focus on farmers in rich countries meant it would take 20 years to launch crop varieties designed to address the problems of the developing world. He told the Guardian: "GM won't solve the food crisis, at least not in the short term."

His words appear to contradict statements from UK politicians, industry bodies and the European Commission that GM technology should be considered as a way to address chronic shortages and soaring prices of basic staples across the world.
 The problem is one I've mentioned several times before when it comes to agricultural development:  context.  What works in one place, one soil in this instance, doesn't always, in fact, rarely, works in another.  There are no silver seeds.  
Taylor told an agricultural conference in London this week that, because it was so expensive to win regulatory approval for a GM crop, the industry has been forced to focus on a few lucrative "blockbuster" varieties, which could be sold to western farmers but had "hardly any environmental benefits".

He called for looser, cheaper regulations that would allow companies to develop thousands of GM crops for smaller, more diverse markets, including those in poorer countries. But he said it would take up to 20 years for them to be developed and tested. Existing varieties, largely designed for the climate, chemicals and pests of the northern hemisphere, would be unsuitable.
Essentially, the big GM companies, Syngenta, Monsanto, BASF, function very similar to the big pharmaceuticals.  All the research and development money, and it takes a lot of it, goes into producing advances in crops/medicines that will be the most lucrative in their returns for the company.  And just like with pharmaceuticals the developing world gets the cold shoulder.

This isn't a post advocating for or against GM crops - philosophically, there is a lot that worries me, but I honestly haven't done the research on the science to say yea or nay - but one calling for some clarity in how we think about resolving the issue of global hunger.  GM crops may be part of the solution, they may have to be part of the solution, but even the possibility of that is a long way off.  And even if we want the option, who is ponying up for the research and development?  Odds are Monsanto's not waking up altruistic in the morning.  What are our short term solutions?  Do we have any?

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