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Can a Hungry World Say No to GM Crops and Still Have Food Security?

The world is running low on food. Can we afford to reject GM crops out of hand?

By Marc Van Montagu
Published: Jan 7, 2014
Genetically-modified Golden Rice grains are infused with Pro-Vitamin A. Forty gram of Golden Rice per day can save
eyesight and the lives of 2 million people every year
Image: Courtesy: International Rice Research Institute
Genetically-modified Golden Rice grains are infused with Pro-Vitamin A. Forty gram of Golden Rice per day can save eyesight and the lives of 2 million people every year

Rice provides up to 80 percent of food calories for poor societies, but lacks micronutrients such as Vitamin A. Worldwide, every year, hundreds of thousands of children die due to a lack of Vitamin A and multiples thereof become permanently blind.

In the late ’90s, Golden Rice was developed because the inventors were concerned about food security and food quality. Through genetic engineering scientists were able to generate Golden Rice in which the intensity of colour is an indication for the level of Pro-Vitamin A. Forty gram of golden rice per day can save eyesight and the lives of more than 2 million people every year.

The attempt by Greenpeace and other NGOs to block transfer and acceptance of Golden Rice is criminal because it has been proven to be completely safe. Furthermore, Golden Rice will be provided to farmers in developing countries free of costs for the trait.

In many countries GM crops are not accepted because they are thought to be unsafe for both human health and environment. However, more than 2,000 scientific papers over the last 10 years have evaluated the safety of GM crops on human health and all of them have concluded that they are as safe as crops obtained by conventional breeding. Furthermore, for the past 15 years, people in the United States have been eating GM crops and, until now, not one single negative health effect has been observed.

Another argument posed by anti-GM organisations is that growing GM crops will lead to a decrease in biodiversity. But the contrary is true: In areas where insect-resistant crops are grown, the population of non-target insects—varieties other than the ones the crops are resistant to—is much larger than in areas where conventional crops were grown. Additionally, GM technology will allow us to go back to the old varieties that were used in agriculture, but this time with added trade value, resulting in crops with higher yields or drought-resistance and other such traits.

Protestors against GM crop try to convince people that these crops are much more expensive for farmers. But if all expenses and yield gains of GM crops are taken into account, they are even less expensive than growing crops conventionally. As compared to conventional seeds, GM seeds are indeed more expensive, but their quality, as measured by their germination rate, is much higher, thus making them more cost-effective. And because GM seeds are herbicide and/or insecticide-resistant, less herbicide or insecticide is used to spray in the fields, effectively reducing the cost for the farmer; insect-resistant GM crops have proven to cut insecticide sprays by more than 25 percent. GM crops also require less tillage, which reduces carbon emissions and allows for the growth of a second crop in the same season, resulting in even more yield gain for the farmer.
Finally, fewer patents are valid for farmers in developing countries.

All this together will result in an increase in global farm income of nearly 51 percent in developing countries and 49 percent in developed countries.

Ironically, the extreme opposition to genetic modification has led to hyper-regulation, which has raised the cost of bringing GM crops to market. Currently, only multinationals and large entities, public or private, can afford to comply with these rules. Small enterprises in developing countries are ultimately hurt much more than the conglomerates.

Everyone knows that climate instability will lead to storms, global warming and extreme climate variations. For the moment, we have no plants ready to survive under such extreme conditions and it is therefore important that researchers all over the world, and also in India, work on the development of stress-tolerant plants.

Activists claim that western Europe—which has shunned GM crops—is better off as compared to the US when it comes to productivity and pesticide use, but this is not true.

If you consider the global pesticide and herbicide use of the past years, indeed more of it was used but this is not due to the growth of GM crops but to the overall increase in the amount of arable land. It is proven that GM crops result in much higher yields per hectare and less pesticides and herbicide use. In order to obtain the same kind of yields for conventionally bred maize or soybean, even more land and pesticides will be needed. The effect of the refusal to grow GM crops is dramatic. Because of the absolute ban in Europe, many scientists are leaving, and with them they are taking their knowledge and technology. Europe will end up far behind on agriculture knowledge and it will find it difficult to reach the frontline again.

We are facing an enormous shortage of food.

Today, out of around 7 billion people on this planet, almost 2 billion people are hungry. By 2050, the world’s population will be 9 billion. That’s another 2 billion mouths to feed. To do so, the amount of food we produce between 2014 and 2050 must be equal to the amount grown in the last 2,013 years.

To obtain this enormous quantity of food, agricultural production as we know it today will not be enough. More arable land and water will be needed, climate changes will have an enormous impact on agriculture and changing diets of people in the western world will demand even more food.

Genetically modified crops can, however, be an answer to these increased food requirements. And society should look at the product and not at the process that made the product.

Illustration: Sameer Pawar

(This story appears in the 10 January, 2014 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Mary Anne Cummings

    Nonsense. The only problem GE is solving is how agribusiness increases their profits. But, by all means let\'s look at the product and not the process. 50 years ago, hybrid seeds were developed (and patented) that made similar claims about solving world hunger, the \"green revolution\". And like proponents of today\'s GE seeds, these innovations allowed people to bypass sustainable agricultural processes, and replace them with monoculture, high input (e.g. fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides...) farming that impoverished small farmers and increased control and profits to agribusiness. And then, as now, with UTTERLY PREDICTABLE weed and pest biological arms races.

    on Aug 11, 2015
  • Harish

    This article is so untrue. Who is paying for the royalty of the inventors? Can I reuse my own seeds and hand some over to my neighbor. Has the author heard of suicide of farmers in India due to BT Cotton? There are so many variety of plants and food that people can choose according to the nutrient that is suitable to them. GM Foods exist because Bio Tech companies need to sell something and make profit. No scientist will work for these companies if he cannot have a share of the profit. All this are part of hidden costs in a crop. Moreover in a country like India , where corruption is rampant, GM Foods will be able to make entry through corruption alone. Drugs prohibited for sale in West are sold across counters in India. The same will happen with GM Crops. This is just a big scam as far as India is concerned. Problem with India, is not lack of availability of food, it is plainly not allowed to reach everyone at the cost that is affordable- simply because of corruption. So much of food export goes on, while so many are starving. This is a larger problem , can only be solved by addressing these issues. It is too early for India to go down the GM Route.

    on Mar 5, 2014
    • Sylvie De Buck

      Firstly, yes, the author heard about the suicides of farmers in India. However, several (scientific) papers clearly showed that there is no correlation between the suicide of farmers and the introduction of GM cotton in India. The GM technology has been adopted by many Indian Cotton farmers, and multiple studies point to significant reduction in pesticide spraying and subsequent cost savings for cotton farmers. It is hard to imaging that farmers spreading a technology that is killing them. There were already many suicides in India before the GM technology was implemented in India, and the increase in growing GM plants is not correlated with an increase in suicides. As terrible the India´s farmer suicides numbers may be, only about 10% of the total annual number of suicides in India are those of farmers. Studies revealed that most common contributors to suicide are a cominbation of social problems, such as interpersonal and family problems and financiel difficulties, but are not caused by GM technology. Secondly, it is true that quite some GM plants are in hands of multinational, but it is not correct that BioTech companies make them to sell something and to make profit. By selling these GM seeds, less pesticides and herbicides were used. In addition, the primary goal of scientists nowadays is to develop GM plants that will help to feed the growing world population, so to develop plants that give higher yields, that are drought resistant, that have additional nutrients... Golden Rice for instance is a GM rice with additional provitamin A. This GM plant is not in the hands of large multinationals, and will be provided to farmers in the developing countries free of costs for the trait. Thirdly, indeed, food should also be distributed better, also amongst the people who are now starving. However, if GM crops become available for the small farmers, they will be able to produce more food for themselves and for their neighbourhood.

      on Mar 6, 2014
      • Kannan Kr

        From my personal experience i can tell these GMO foods are causing all possible allergies to my body and life turned miserable until i turned to organic food. SO SAY NO TO GMO; this is my personal experience. Don't try this on other unless the investors try it on themselves for their whole life span

        on Apr 11, 2014
  • Ashwini

    In India 84Cr (69% of population) farmers are not able to make it self-sufficient. In US there are around 30 lac farmers, yet US is agriculture exporter. There are intrinsic politics in Indian Agriculture, which is keeping it shackled. Indian Agriculture needs automation for productivity enhancement, so that less number of farmers can produce more output. We need to also increase agriculture productivity of the order of magnitude like 10x so that agriculture in order for farmers to become rich. Also, farmers need to be reskilled. India does not need more than 1Cr farmers, the rest 83Cr farmers should be gainfully employed by other Industries. Farming as industry will become extinct in next 20 years like handcraft industry with the advent of Industrialization during British rule. Our administrators need to get their act together.

    on Jan 13, 2014
  • Vijaykumar.nrr

    When plastic was introduced it was all good. When gun powders were made as plant growth boosters it was good. when all the chemicals which needs masks and all other safety equipments which will kill only the pests it was good. When hundreds of people died or became disabled it was all good. Now GM is also good but we will announce it after 40 years for sure. Why to look out for GM crops lets go for pills lets stop eating that's the best.

    on Jan 13, 2014
  • Robert Wager

    Or this one from the WHO The GM products that are currently on the international market have all passed risk assessments conducted by national authorities. These different assessments in general follow the same basic principles, including an assessment of environmental and human health risk. These assessments are thorough, they have not indicated any risk to human health. WHO 2013 or this one from the American Association for the Advancement of Science: The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.” (AAAS 2012)

    on Jan 11, 2014
  • Robert Wager

    Please explain this conclusion from Europe Bob A Decade of EU-Funded GMO Research 2001-2010 Food Safety: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

    on Jan 11, 2014
    • Bob Phelps

      Hello Robert: There is no consensus among scientific and medical experts that GM foods are safe: You may also consider the American Academy of Environmental Medicine statement which says, in conclusion: "With the precautionary principle in mind, because GM foods have not been properly tested for human consumption, and because there is ample evidence of probable harm, the AAEM asks: - Physicians to educate their patients, the medical community, and the public to avoid GM foods when possible and provide educational materials concerning GM foods and health risks. - Physicians to consider the possible role of GM foods in the disease processes of the patients they treat and to document any changes in patient health when changing from GM food to non-GM food. - Our members, the medical community, and the independent scientific community to gather case studies potentially related to GM food consumption and health effects, begin epidemiological research to investigate the role of GM foods on human health, and conduct safe methods of determining the effect of GM foods on human health. - For a moratorium on GM food, implementation of immediate long term independent safety testing, and labelling of GM foods, which is necessary for the health and safety of consumers. (This statement was reviewed and approved by the Executive Committee of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine on May 8, 2009.)

      on Jan 21, 2014
      • Robert Wager

        It took you almost two weeks to quote a quack organization as a rebuttal to the global food safety, global health and global National Academies of science opinions on GE crops and derived food.. They push homeopathy, thats water Bob, instead of real medicine. Thank you but no I will not consider the opinion of the AAEM of any worth.

        on Jan 21, 2014
  • Bob Phelps

    The author claims there will be: "crops with higher yields or drought-resistance and other such traits." developed using genetic manipulation (GM) techniques. Not likely. GM can be used to cut and paste one gene between species (e.g: a Roundup tolerance gene from soil bacteria into canola). But transfer of most traits of commercial interest (e.g: drought and salt tolerance; nitrogen fixation in grains) are stalled because of genetic complexity. It is nigh impossible to use GM's crude cut-and-paste techniques to transfer the multiple genes for complex traits between unrelated genetic systems. As Dr Richard Richards of Australia's CSIRO Plant Industry says: '€œGM technologies are generally only suitable for the single gene traits, not complex multigenic ones.” 1 Dr Heather Burrow, CEO of the former Australian Beef CRC, also says that in animals: €¦ hundreds, even thousands, of interacting genes control important production traits like growth rate, feed efficiency and meat quality - not the handful that researchers had originally believed.€ 2. An Australian Bureau of Resource Sciences (BRS) report also explains: "In the short term, conventional breeding techniques, with the aid of molecular marker technologies, are perhaps more likely than genetic modification to result in significant yield improvement under environmental stress … GM crops with insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, high-lysine content and, to a lesser extent, disease resistance … are controlled by manipulating or inserting a single gene. As a general rule ... traits such as water-use efficiency and heat tolerance (such GM crops do not exist) have multi-genic inheritance patterns and, therefore, plants modified for these traits have not progressed far down the product development pipeline." 3 Even Clive James of GM-promoter ISAAA says: “Drought tolerance is an infinitely more complex trait than herbicide tolerance and insect resistance and progress is likely to be on a step by step basis.” 4 References: 1. 2. Weekly Times, Beef CRC chopped, 11/9/11 3. Australia's crops and pastures in a changing climate - can biotechnology help? Julie Glover, Hilary Johnson, Jacqueline Lizzio, Varsha Wesley, Paul Hattersley and Catherine Knight, Bureau of Rural Sciences, 2008 4.

    on Jan 8, 2014
    • Sylvie De Buck

      It is indeed true that several traits are encoded by a complex network of genes. However, by genetic engineering, we are able, not only to transfer one gene between species, but we can transfer multiple, and/or down- or upregulated the expression of certain genes in a pathway which on his turn has an effect on the expression of other genes. In the labs, there are already corn plants available with higher yields, but they still need to be tested in the field

      on Jan 17, 2014
      • Bob Phelps

        Would that be two ears instead of one, Sylvie? It\'s a long road from the lab to commercial use and most new (GM) varieties fail along the way. Conventional breeding has produced more stable and sustained yield increases than GM. Adaptation to climate change, and lower inputs as oil runs out will be more critical than yield.

        on Jan 21, 2014
  • Bob Phelps

    Contrary to van Montagu's claim, there is good evidence that: "western Europe" €”which has shunned GM crop €”is better off as compared to the US," which grows around 45% of the world's genetically manipulated soybean, corn, canola, cotton and sugarbeet. These GM crops contain just two new traits - tolerate Roundup weed killer and/or produce Bt insect toxin. See here: and download the published paper here: Non-GM farmers have much better yields and are better off than GM croppers in the USA.

    on Jan 8, 2014
  • T. M. Manjunath

    BIOTECH CROPS/FOODS ARE THOROUGHLY TESTED. Every country, including India, which has permitted or in the process of approving GM/GE crops, has developed stringent bio-safety protocols and it is mandatory that every biotech product has to undergo such comprehensive assessment processes. Food, feed and environmental safety data generated during such studies are thoroughly examined at various stages by several technical committees constituted by the regulatory authorities and it is only on being satisfied with the scientific data that the concerned GM products are safe, approvals are given for their commercialization. No other crops are subjected to such stringent scrutiny as are GM crops/products before they are openly cultivated or marketed as products. Almost every major scientific body and regulatory agency in the world has expressed that foods derived from GM crops are safe to human and animal consumption. In the last 18 years of their commercial cultivation on millions of hectares year after year (170 million ha in 2012 alone) and consumption of their products by millions of people in about 28 countries, there has not been a scientifically proven ill effect of GM crops/products on humans, animals or the environment. Various allegations by anti-GMO activists against their safety are speculative and unsubstantiated. Biotechnology has opened a floodgate of opportunities and it should be exploited for human welfare both in agriculture, medical and other fields.

    on Jan 8, 2014
  • Navneet Anand

    This is a simple yet forceful account on the need for GM crops. In India, we are facing an acute crisis of mistrust and hyperbole by those opposed to the infusion of technology in agriculture. We sincerely hope this soon gives way to reason and logic. The exaggerated claims on the harmful effects of GM crops is futile. We must beat rhetoric with concrete policy action by the government of India.

    on Jan 7, 2014
    • Sam

      Nature has enough for man's need - but not for man's greed !

      on Jan 8, 2014
      • Sylvie De Buck

        You are right, there is for the moment enough food on earth, but already for years, several thousands of people are hungry, and the world population is still growing. In the future, we will need to grow much more food on less space. Additionally, GM can be the solution when farmers in developing countries can grow the feed themselves

        on Jan 17, 2014
  • Bob Phelps

    The UN expert on the right to food Professor Olivier de Schutter and the Food and Agriculture organisation confirm there is more than enough good food in the world to adequately feed everyone and provide all our nutrient requirements, right now and into the future. Every-one has a right to a top-quality, balanced, diet of fresh fruits and vegetables. Poverty is the problem and social justice is the solution to nutrient deficiencies, starvation, malnutrition, ill-health and also social justice challenges. But in food systems dominated by global trade in bulk commodities and at least 30% food waste, food goes where it is most profitable not where it is most needed. Malnutrition and starvation are problems of poverty, inequity and social injustice which cannot be solved by genetically manipulating a crop to add just one nutrient to an unbalanced diet. Like other polished rice, Golden Rice is deficient in many other micronutrients such as iron and zinc, essential for good health. Golden rice would be a hindrance not a help to ending malnutrition and starvation. Every community should give top priority to making a diverse diet of good food affordable and accessible to everyone, and empowering people with publicly owned seed and land to grow their own food. This food sovereignty may be a durable solution to nutrient deficiency but Golden Rice is not. For example, see:

    on Jan 7, 2014
  • Gyanendra Shukla

    So true; developing world would need more support than developed world.

    on Jan 7, 2014
  • Rachna Arora

    Marc Van Montagu, you say, was the first to develop the technology. How then can one expect an unbiased feature? Its disastrous when media becomes a public relations tool and forgets its responsibilities to the society and its future generations.

    on Jan 7, 2014
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