GMO against hunger?

From now on genetically modified crops are legal in Kenya. The new president of the country, William Ruto, is talking about a significant change in agriculture. There is hope that the new laws will help against hunger and drought – very present problems in Kenya. But how exactly do genetically modified crops work and are they as promising as they are sometimes made out to be?

The process of creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is quite complex but can be broken down into four basic steps. First, scientists need to identify the genes in a plant that cause specific traits, for example, resistance to certain pests. After they have successfully identified the intended gen, they copy it in the lab. Then, the third step consists of inserting the copies into the DNA of another plant’s cells. Lastly, these modified plant cells, which now have the desired traits inserted into their genes, are used to grow new, improved plants. They will go through various tests before finally being sold to farmers.

Thanks to bioengineering GMO crops can be bred to have a higher temperature tolerance, a reduced need for hydration and pesticides, higher yields, and much more. In countries like Kenya, where the rainy seasons are becoming rare and harvests are sparse, this seems like a good solution. Drought-tolerant varieties of GMO corn have been shown to reduce the evaporation of water from plants by up to 17.5%, resulting in less water waste. GMO crops are made to grow efficiently – the goal is to use less land, less water, and fewer pesticides than conventional crops while still having high yields. Because GMO crops are grown more resourceful the producers can also charge lower prices. Foods like corn, beets, and soybeans could be up to 30% cheaper than usual. For the consumer, GMOs might even have health benefits since they are also designed to provide more nutrients like vitamins or minerals.

However, GMO crops are not all rainbows and unicorns. While using fewer pesticides and water sounds like a sustainable way to grow crops, GMO crops are immensely damaging to the environment. They are often sold by the same companies that sell pesticides as well. They have a well-thought system of bringing GMO crops to the market which are immune to certain pesticides and then they sell exactly those. If the pesticides are overused on the acres the weeds and vermin can grow resistant to them thus leading to even more poisonous chemicals being used. This destroys the balance of ecosystems and is a great danger to the biodiversity of our planet.

In addition to that, monocultures like they are predominantly used in GMO crop farming are leading to erosion and making the soil they are growing on infertile. One reason for that is the increasing use of pesticides, which damage the soil tremendously in the long run. Another reason linked to GMO crops is the overuse of acres. The excessive use of the same crops in the same place repeatedly drains the nutrients from the soil until there are non-left and since in GMO farming there are often little breaks in between different yields to increase the profit even more, the soil does not have enough time to recover and will eventually become irreversibly damaged. Also, the deforestation that is often caused by the need for more space for farming can lead to erosion because the tight network of roots which usually is a great support and helps to hold the soil in place is suddenly missing. The lands are then more prone to erosion and even massive earth slides after strong rainfalls.

Moreover, GMO crops are not only bad for the environment but also for the economy. GMO crops are – as most crops – protected by patents. Usually, even patent-protected crops are allowed to be breaded and evolved by others through to fuel the competition. With GMO crops it is different. Since the genetic source material is not publicly accessible farmers have to pay high sums to be allowed to use GMO crops. While in general, the farming process of GMOs is supposedly cheaper than the normal one, the costs of patents makes it expensive. In addition to that the profit is not divided among many smaller breeders but instead goes to fewer big companies. They have a monopoly on GMO crops which is good for them – but bad for the economy in countries like Kenya.

I think it became quite clear that GMO farming should not be taken lightly and while it has great potential to lead to better harvests, there are still many disadvantages. Not every crop is the same of course – so in every situation, the use and the efficiency of GMOs should be decided based on extensive testing and studies. In Kenya for example the testing of the new crops has been very untransparent and therefore it is harder to foresee the consequences of using them. In general, it should not be forgotten though that even if we assume GMO farming has the potential to help against hunger and droughts in countries like Kenya – this would only be treating the symptoms and not fighting against the cause. They are not a cure-all to hunger, and this complex problem should not be forgotten. Maybe GM foods will play a role in resolving this issue, but they are not and they should not be treated as a magical solution.

Angelina Berndt

Sources:

Der SPIEGEL “Sieg der Gentechnick-Lobby” by Heiner Hoffmann

National Geographic “Are Genetically Godified Crops the Answer to World Hunger?”

INSIDER “Are Genetically Modified Crops the Answer to World Hunger?”

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