GM crops and food security

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According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 868 million people were undernourished in 2010-2012. Food security has much improved in recent decades, as the undernourishment rate dropped from 18.6% in 1990-1992 to 12.5% in 2010-2012. Over the same period, population grew from 5.4 to 7.0 billion. Hence, the number of persons fed increased from 4.4 to 6.1 billion.

But as Bill Gates once said, “I am an impatient optimist. The world is getting better, but it’s not getting better fast enough, and it’s not getting better for everyone”: we would like hunger to decrease at a faster rate. Could GM crops make any difference? Let’s take a look at the concept of food security, the potential effects of GM crops, and some recent evidence on Bt cotton in India.

Determinants of food security

Food security means access of all people at all times to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for an active, healthy life. At the micro level, a household can be characterized as food secure if (Leathers & Foster, p. 126):

(Food consumption requirement – Food production) x Price of food  =< Income available to buy food

Farm household in Kenya (by CAFOD)

From the equation, we can infer the impact of different variables on food security. In short, food security improves when a household produces more food, faces lower food prices, or makes more money.

Who exactly are the hungry, and where do they live? Food insecurity is concentrated in developing countries in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps surprisingly, most of the hungry are not slum dwellers in cities but poor people in rural areas who are often involved in agriculture as smallholder farmers. The tragedy is that many of these poor farmers are not productive enough to meet their needs. Subsistence farming may not produce enough food. Growing cash crops for the market or working off-farm may not generate sufficient income to cover all food requirements. And other sectors of developing economies may not yet offer opportunities to move out of agriculture.

Current GM crops

Are GM crops needed to feed the world? This is a common question heard in debates. It isn’t a very useful question, because it offers little guidance concerning investment priorities (and regulations). A better set of questions is: Is the net impact of a particular GM crop on feeding the world positive or negative? How big is the effect? And, which GM traits in which contexts might contribute more than others to feeding the world?

Consider the mechanisms by which GM technologies might affect food security. First, they could enhance food production of hungry subsistence farmers. This enhancement may come in the form of increased availability of calories and/or macro- and micronutrients. GM technologies could also enhance food production of non-hungry farmers, which may reduce the prices faced by food-insecure farm and non-farm households who need to buy food. Third, GM could make cash crops of hungry farmers more productive, raising their income and allowing them to purchase a greater quantity and quality of food.

What’s with the GM crops that have been cultivated so far? Let’s take the case of Bt cotton, grown by 7.2 million farmers in India in 2012. Previous research showed that Bt cotton adoption has increased cotton yield and profit. New research recently published in PLOS ONE by Matin Qaim of the University of Göttingen and Shahzad Kouser of the University of Faisalabad investigates the link to food security.

Cotton field in India (by jankie)

After repeatedly surveying a representative sample of cotton farm households in central and southern India between 2002 and 2008, Qaim and Kouser were able to use a large database for estimating the impact of growing Bt cotton versus conventional cotton on food security. Food consumption was recorded as recall data, transformed into calories, and allocated among the household members according to their energy requirements (adjusted for gender and age). The resulting daily calorie consumption per adult equivalent (AE) was about 500 kcal larger for Bt cotton growers than for conventional cotton growers. Applying statistical techniques that control for observed and unobserved differences between farmers, the researchers estimated that switching from conventional to Bt cotton increased calorie consumption by more than 70 kcal per AE. The consumption of more nutritious food (pulses, fruit, vegetables, animal products) also increased. Since Bt adopters grow several ha of Bt, the farm-level effect of adopting Bt was an additional 145 kcal per AE on average.

But what about food insecurity? The safe minimum intake of 2300 kcal (adjusted for moderate physical activity) per AE suggests that 20% of non-adopters of Bt were food insecure but only 8% of adopters. When non-adopters switch to Bt cotton on most or all of their area, the percentage of food-insecure households shrinks to 16-17%. This may not seem like much, but if you think of 7.2 million households with 5 persons each, 3-4% actually translates into over 1 million people who now live in food secure households thanks to Bt.

In sum, while GM crops are neither sufficient nor necessary for the elimination of hunger, they do seem to have improved food security in India. This improvement came about because Bt cotton helped food insecure farmers to strengthen pest control, raising effective yields, and in turn generating more income to buy food.

Apart from Bt cotton in India, we do not have good evidence about the impact of other currently grown GM crops on global food security, and more research is needed to answer questions including:

  • Has GM maize grown as a food crop improved food security of subsistence farmers through larger yields?
  • To what extent have commodity price reductions due to the global cultivation of GM crops reduced the local food prices faced by food-insecure households?
  • Has food security among farmers growing cotton, maize or soybean grown as cash crops improved through higher incomes as a result of using GM traits?

The future

Golden Rice (by IRRI Images)

Current GM crops will eventually reach more farmers, for instance when Bt cotton will be approved in a larger number of developing countries. In addition, GM crops with new traits specifically targeted at improving food security are under development or waiting for authorization. Here are a few examples of GM projects that have received support from an impatient optimist:

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Jonas Kathage is a research fellow at the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission. The views expressed are his own.