Shortly after the Second World War, a “Green Revolution” began to transform agriculture around the globe, allowing food production to keep pace with worldwide population growth. By means of irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, and plant breeding, the Green Revolution increased world grain production by an astonishing 250 percent between 1950 and 1984, raising the calorie intake of the world’s poorest people and averting serious famines. The revolution’s benefits have tapered off, however, as the number of mouths to feed has grown ever larger and as conventional breeding of new plant varieties has produced diminishing returns. What’s needed is a new revolution. Luckily, most agricultural scientists believe that the planet’s requirements for agricultural production could be met through genetic modification (GM)—if environmental activists don’t keep it from happening.
The conventional plant breeding of the Green Revolution, itself a more primitive form of GM, produced high-yielding strains of rice, corn, and wheat. These were “dwarf” versions of traditional crops with shorter stems that performed better in irrigated, fertilized soil. American agronomist Norman Borlaug introduced the high-yielding varieties to Mexico, Pakistan, and India and was eventually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal. In a 2004 tribute on the occasion of Borlaug’s 90th birthday, the U.S. Senate declared, “It is very likely that Dr. Borlaug is directly responsible for saving more lives than anyone else in the twentieth century.”
Today, continuing on GM’s well-trodden path, biotechnology offers the hope of increased food production with less environmental damage. Where scientists once crossbred plants through a slow process of trial and error to get the genes for a desired trait, today’s breeders can isolate precisely the genes they want and insert them directly into the plant. The possibilities are enormously exciting. Plants could grow sustainably in areas left out of the first Green Revolution—in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where the need is great. Farmers could grow plants that are resistant to disease or drought and don’t need chemical fertilizers. Genetic modification also offers the potential of consumer-focused improvements, such as staple crops fortified with extra nutrients.
In fact, genetically modified food has been consumed for years by hundreds of millions of American consumers. The crops are also grown in 22 other countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, and India. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications estimates that more than 50 million farmers around the world planted genetically modified crops last year. These crops include herbicide-tolerant canola, allowing farmers to achieve higher crop yields and use fewer chemicals; corn with a built-in natural insecticidal protein to protect it from borer and root worm without spray insecticide; and rice with extra iron and a protein that increases iron uptake, which is especially promising because of the widespread problem of iron deficiency.
Though no known health problems have resulted from eating crops produced by GM, scaremongering about the practice is widespread. In much of Europe, the campaign against genetic modification has had considerable success: England’s Prince Charles proclaims with imperial certainty that genetic modification is “guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time,” and the specter of “Frankenfood” has all but driven GM edibles from the European marketplace. More troublingly, both Zimbabwe and Zambia have blocked food aid that wasn’t certified free of genetically modified material. During a drought in 2002, Zambia’s then-president, Levy Mwanawasa, rejected U.S. food aid, saying that the hunger of his people was “no justification to give them food that is intrinsically dangerous to their health.” It wasn’t until December 2005 that Zambia reversed course in the face of further famine and allowed the importation of genetically modified corn.
Such opposition to GM is particularly counterproductive now. In 2008, malnutrition in mothers and their young children claimed 3.5 million lives. Global food stocks reached historic lows last year, and food riots erupted in West Africa and South Asia. Consumers in transitional economies like China and India are demanding more than subsistence diets, and drought has hindered Australian crop production. Progress is distressingly slow on the United Nations’ goal of halving the proportion of hungry people by 2015.
Of course, before we adopt genetically modified foods, we should always test them rigorously for their potential impact on the environment and on people’s health. But it would be criminal to disregard the hope that biotechnology offers to the world’s most malnourished people. “Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists,” Borlaug once memorably said, referring to critics squeamish about the tools that he used during the Green Revolution. “They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”