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Wylie Kau

Professor Harrell and Professor Battisti


May, 2017

Genetically Modified Crops and World Hunger


A quick glance on the World Hunger Education Services website and you will find that in the few

years from 2014 to 2016, 795 million people were classified as chronically undernourished,

meaning that they could not access enough food or a certain type of nutrient necessary to live

healthy lives. Those people represent one ninth of the 7.3 billion people in the world, and their

plight is collectively called: world hunger (WHES, 2016). There are many proposed solutions

to the global issue, including providing aid to developing countries (where the vast majority of

undernourished reside) in the form of infrastructure (Jacobsen, et al., 2015) and addressing

poverty directly (WHES, 2016), but one solution is extremely contested, in modern science and

amongst the public: whether genetically modified crops (GMOs) are a suitable and practical

solution for combatting world hunger. Unlike other pressing global issues like climate change or

vaccinations, there is no blatant divisive line between what the scientific consensus and public

opinion, as scientists and members of the public take both sides. In this paper I attempt to

analyze the controversy, both public and scientific, surrounding GMOs and their ability to

alleviate world hunger.

Genetically Modified Organisms

A genetically modified organism is created when a gene from the DNA of one species is

artificially inserted into the genes of another, with the idea that in doing so advantageous traits

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can be passed from one species to another unrelated species (Institute for Responsible

Technology). These modifications through years of experimentation have proved to achieve the

desired effects, creating crops that are resistant to blights, diseases, insects, etc as the

science behind genetic modification becomes more advanced. Genetic modification of crops

has become extremely prevalent in modern first world societies, and since 1994, when the US

Food and Drug Administration first approved genetically modified organisms for utilization in

commercial markets (Jordan, 2002), the amount of GMOs in US agriculture has skyrocketed.

As of 2016, the US produced 72.9 million hectares of GM crops (ISAAA, 2016). Of the total

agricultural productions in the US, 94% of all soy is genetically modified, 90% of cotton, 90% of

canola, 95% of sugar beets, and 88% of corn, all major crops that have products derived from

the original plant used throughout the food industry (Institute for Responsible Technology). With

such high prevalence and dependence in modern society, what are the issues with GMOs and

where are they coming from?

State of the Science

Artificial genetic modification has been around for years. Humans graft plants, joining two on

one root system, we selectively breed for traits in animals in order to create the most desirable

phenotype, and modern day genetic modification is just further advancement of what humans

have been doing for decades. Compared to grafting in plants, the latest technology used to

modify crops is almost unbelievably more advanced, and when when reading about it for the

first time, I was struggling to comprehend its reality. CRISPR-Cas9, which stands for Clustered

Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats while the Cas9 suffix is the name of a

protein that is vital to the process, was introduced in 2012 and represents the F-16 fighter jet

of genetic modification technology (Parrett, 2015). This technology, basically, is able to select

very specific sets of genes within a plants genome and then either block its effect, enhance its

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effects, or completely remove it. Using this technology, enhanced crops which used to take

almost 2 decades to develop could take as short as a few days to correctly alter the genome

(Parrett, 2015).

Genome mapping of crops is another function of this new technology. Huge databases

of crop genomes and the effects of certain gene sequences are now being compiled around the

world, which will greatly expedite any genetic modification process, as a desired trait within an

organism will have a known gene (Parrett, 2015).

One important distinction is that this technology is not used to create new species.

CRISPR is able to target and manipulate such tiny and specified pieces of the DNA of an

organism that it remains virtually the same species, just with enhanced features that may be

traded from say, the wild version of a crop to a domesticated strain of the same species.

CRISPR-Cas9 is the most modern technology in genetic modification, and has proven to

be able to produce crops with higher yield, more resistance to disease and bugs, all while

maintaining, or increasing, nutritional value of the plant.

Issues with GMOs

There are two main issues with GMOs and the topic of this paper, their suitability for combatting

hunger, is the lesser known of the two. The issue that you may be most familiar with often

appears in the public eye: whether or not GMOs are safe for consumption, which is inherently

linked to the issue of world hunger. According to a telephone poll performed by ABC News in

June of 2016 surveying 1,024 randomly selected adults, 52% of those surveyed responded that

they believed genetically modified food is unsafe to eat. Unlike the controversy over GMOs and

world hunger, in this case the two realms of scientific consensus and public opinion are firmly

divided, with the general public believing GMOs are unsafe while scientists believe otherwise.

The Pew Research Center, which published a study in 2015 on the gaps between public and

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scientific views on controversial issues including climate change, vaccinations, evolution, and of

course, whether or not it was safe to eat genetically modified foods. The findings of this survey,

published a year earlier, corroborated the ABC News results, as 57%, the majority, of the US

Adults (public) surveyed also did not believe that GMOs were safe for consumption. This study

also surveyed members of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, an

organization of founded scientists, and the results showed that 88%, the vast majority, of

members believed that GMOs were safe to eat (Pew Research Center, 2015). This disparity

has created issues for proponents of GMOs everywhere, those driven by profit or otherwise, as

the some of the public push back through vocal anti-GMO activism. As we have seen

throughout the course of this quarter, public opinion can easily be swayed to oppose the

science, no matter how grounded it may beso what makes anti-GMO opinions so appealing

and convincing that more than half of the public opposes the grounded science?

Although these statistics not necessarily related to whether GMOs are able to combat

world hunger or not, there is an intersectionality, which I will discuss later in the paper, between

world hunger and general receptivity to GMOs.

The Appeal of GMO Opposition

Just as climate change is publicly opposed because there is an intuitive appeal to proposing

regulation in conservative mindsets, the very definition of GMOs can very easily sway the

uninformed public to oppose them. GMOs are inherently unnatural, being synthesized in the

lab, and recent studies have proven that certain tendencies of human thought processes

inherently leads people to believe that GMOs are, in laymans terms, bad. Published in Trends

in Plant Science, Stefaan Blancke, of Ghent University, along with a cohort of other authors,

explored what made the opposition of GMOs so appealing. The group concludes that intuitions,

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or mental processes underlying conscious thought, play a large rolemainly psychological

essentialism(which includes religion) and emotions like disgust (Blancke, et al., 2015).

Psychological essentialism in regards to GMOs can be boiled down to the notion that

humans have a tendency to believe that organisms hold an unobservable, immutable core

determining their identity and, thus, their development and behavior (Blancke, et al., 2015).

The intricate scientific understanding of natural processes has rapidly developed since the times

Mendel began to experiment with peas, and psychological essentialism coupled with the fact

that genetic modification technology has also rapidly developed and is relatively new, is a force

that can easily sway public opinion away from grounded science. Psychological essentialism,

as Blancke and company suggest, makes sense as an evolutionary adaptation; an example

they use is encountering a tiger, in which essentialism prompts the human to recognize the

danger that a tiger, as a large predatory animal with its sharp claws, represents as opposed to

say, a house cat which poses no present danger, which although feline, does not qualify as a

tiger. Because of this intuitive understanding of natural organisms which we depend on to

interact with the natural world, it is hard to understand that traits amongst species can be mixed

and matched (a rough definition of genetic modification).

Religious beliefs, including intelligent design, are at their core a byproduct of

essentialismthat the perfection of the natural world cannot be due to natural and random

chance. Playing off religious essentialism, some anti-GMO advocates liken genetic engineering

to playing god (Blancke, et al., 2015) something that within fiction, historically has only ever led

to disaster. One of the more renowned pieces of fiction, the story of Frankenstein: is one

example of essentialist belief that offers an essentialist moral teaching that can be analogized to

the issue at hand. I can understand how confusing it may seem for a scorpions venom gene to

be introduced into a cabbage and engineered to not effect humans, but only bugs (to name one

example of genetic modification). That seems ridiculous.

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Emotional responses to GMOs like disgust can also be attributed to underlying


In the case of GM food, feelings of disgust possibly arise because of psychological

essentialism by which people intuitively interpret gene modification as an unwarranted

and contaminating intervention into the essence of an organism, rendering the organism

impure and, therefore, no longer consumable. (Blancke, et al., 2015)

Any negative emotional response to an intellectual issue automatically creates an

inadvertent aversionthe human mind is inclined to fall back onto instinctual essentialism, and

a negative judgment is passed onto the GMOs.

Why Intuitions Matter to World Hunger

Genetic modification is supported by massive organizations that bring in massive amounts of

revenue. As anti-GMO emotions spread, negative light is shed on GMOs, making them less

desirable despite their current prevalence. Recent movements in modern society have called

for branding all products that contain genetically modified organisms. If enacted nationally,

legislation requiring GMO labeling will highlight all GMO products, and if the poll statistics of

distrust in GMO crops indicate future consequences, there will be a stark movement away from

GM crops, and profits within the GMO industry will drop. Companies like Monsanto, which

dominate GMO production and research, will lose profits and technological advances will slow

delaying or preventing completely any future advances in GM technology. While there are

currently massive amounts of money being poured into GM technological fields, I believe that a

spread of anti-GMO sentiment in food production resulting in legislature such as the mandatory

labelling GM foods, if not countered by education reassuring and informing the public of the

safety of GM crops and practices, will result in loss of opportunity. As developed countries are

the technological leaders in genetic modification as well as the leaders in production, a societal

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move away from GM foods will have negative trickle-down effects on developing nations where

world hunger is most prevalent, those that could potentially benefit from utilization of GM crops.

Increased Receptivity of GMOs

If GMOs are the answer to combatting world hunger, how can we reverse the trend of increasing

public aversion and ensure that we pursue technological advancements? A study performed by

researchers at the University of Georgia and Syracuse University revealed that receptivity to

GMOs can be increased by showing their potential for combatting world hunger. The study

asked college students across the country, among other questions on GMOs, if they thought

farmers should be allowed to use bioengineered crops for food production? before and then

after attending an exhibit on hunger globally and the role of modern agriculture (Carter, et al.,

2016). The results of the study showed that statistically college students were more accepting

of GMOs, with an increase of 13.3% (from 36.2% responding no to 49.5%) in belief that farmers

should be allowed to use bioengineered crops after learning about world hunger in an academic

setting (Carter, et al., 2016).

By increasing public knowledge of world hunger, public opinion can shift away from

GMO opposition to mirror the scientific consensus. By indicating the positive benefits of GMO

utilization in combatting issues that are easily empathized with in the human existence, public

receptivity to GMOs can be increased on a wholein domestic situations like buying them in

the grocery store as well as potential humane benefits like solving world hunger. As Sven-Erik

Jacobsen points out: A successful adoption of GM crops depends on several aspects such as

public perception of risks and benefits of GM technology; a countrys participation in

international environmental agreements and agroindustry to support the adoption (2013).

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World Hunger

Now that I have discussed the causes of controversy in public opinion regarding GMOs, I will

move to illustrating the conflicts specifically in regards to if GMOs are capable of solving world


The root of the issue is really quite simple, demand for food in a growing world, in

population and economically, will eventually and ultimately outstrip supply ability. More people

will go hungry. Public sentiments and essentialism aside, what does the science propose as a


Scientific Controversy

The main scientific arguments for widespread and intensive utilization of GMOs are the speed

and quantity at which new cultivars(variations of cultivated crops) can be produced, the

decrease in pesticide usage, and the potential benefits in modifying to increase amounts of

nutrients. Take for example Golden Ricea genetic modification project spearheaded by Ingo

Potrykus, Professor of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and

discussed in an article published in 2000 in Time magazine. Golden rice, a concept that began

to take shape in 1980, was a change to the traditional model of genetic modification of crops.

Up until this point, there had been very little to no research into what genetic modification could

do to the nutritional value of crops, mostly a scientific focus on the potential increases in

productivity and yield. Potrykus wanted to help those in the world stricken by hunger, something

he had experienced in his own lifetime (Nash/Zurich, 2000). By adding genes that would

promote the synthesis of beta-carotene, Potrykus hoped to provide the millions that depended

on rice as a staple food source a new source of Vitamin A and fight malnourishment caused by

micronutrient deficiencies. In 1999 Golden Rice, which was a conglomeration of genes from

traditional rice, bacteria, and dandelions, was ready for world consumption (Nash/Zurich, 2000).

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The actual propagation of Golden Rice was much less impactful than the initial prospects, but

as a scientific and technological endeavor, it represents the lofty prospects of genetic


Despite the proven ability increase crop yield and resilience, there are many arguments

that suggest that large-scale agricultural implementation of GMOs would have negative


One question of advanced GM crops raised by Carl Jordan of the University of Georgia,

hinges on the basic laws of thermochemistry, which I personally thought very convincing.

Energy must be conserved, so it logically follows that there can only be so much that a plant is

able to convert energy too. Just as domesticating wild crops led to increased yield in exchange

for a decreased natural resiliency (to bugs, disease, etc) at the very beginning of agricultural

practices, modern day selection of genetic traits in order to increase the resilience of modern

crops may have the reverse effect (Jordan, 2000), a decrease in yield. And some studies have

proven that this is a potential outcome, experimentation on a native eurasian plant found that

seed production was less in plants modified to be more herbicide resistant (Jordan, 2000). If

extensive genetic modification runs its course, there is the high possibility that we will end up

completely nullifying the agricultural advancements that have proven to benefit general human

populations. Instead of susceptible, high yield crops, we would have low yield, but very resilient

crops. Another issue not discussed by Jordan, but highlighted in most discussions of GM crop

utilization, is how draining they are on nutrients within the soil. Higher yield crops are more

energy intensive, will drain the soil of essential nutrients and harm the sustainability of future


Agrobiodiversity, or the biological diversity of organisms used in agriculture, is at risk

according to some scientists. Sven-Erik Jacobsen, a researcher at the University of

Copenhagen, maintains in his paper Feeding the word: genetically modified crops versus

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agricultural biodiversity that strategies that utilize and preserve high levels agrobiodiversity are

more logical for future crop stability and provide better yields than utilization of genetic

modification of organisms. Sustaining agrobiodiversity allows the existence of many different

crop genomes: We argue that food production can be best understood and increased by

analyzing yield as the result of genotype, environment, management, and their interactions, and

that existing biodiversity can provide the genes needed to satisfy future global

demand (Jacobsen, et al., 2013). There is a strong scientific backing of the notion that an

increased focus and implementation of highly specified GM crops would starkly reduce the

variety of crops currently in use today, reducing the possibility for potential advancements

through traditional agricultural practices. Jacobsen relates that It is agronomically, ecologically,

nutritionally, and economically risky and unsustainable to rely almost exclusively on a handful of

major crops to provide food for the worlds population (2013). Agricultural techniques that

utilize agrobiodiversity ensure the availability of wide varieties of available nutrition, and

minimize lifestyle diseases that have been linked with simplified agricultural systems such as

GMO monoculture (Jacobsen, et al., 2013).

Public Controversy

Fay beyond the debates within science, the high public scrutiny of GMOs stems from other,

including humanitarian, concerns.

Any discussion of GMOs would be remiss if not mentioning the name Monsanto.

Monsanto represents the pinnacle of profiteered GMOs, and the majority of all GM technology is

held under patent by Monsanto, and like companies.

At Monsanto, we focus on and provide technologies, tools and information that

empower the worlds farmers to find solutions to the challenge of feeding 9 billion people

expected to inhabit the earth by 2050. (Monsanto, 2015)

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Despite what Monsanto may publish in their own statements and the apparently good intentions

behind their actions, many find fault in the way that they go about business. Headquartered in

the US, Monsanto follows capitalist tendencies to exploit farmers around the world who have

become dependent on their seed. In India alone, Monsanto controls 95% of the cotton seed

market, dominating with their engineered strains of more desirable crop (Jacobsen, et al., 2013).

Ensuring that they can turn a profit year after year, Monsanto has even gone so far as to utilize

technologies that make 2nd generation seeds sterile, forcing farmers, after harvest, to buy

completely new, expensive seeds as opposed to using reserves from previous years (Robbins,

2011). Because GMOs can be highly specified, they have begun to be patentedleaving farms

in proximity to areas where patented GM crops are grown open to the possibility of cross-

contamination of genes, and susceptible to any legal action the owners of the patent may take.

There have even been linkages between increased rates in farmer suicide in developing nations

where dependence on engineered crops is high (Jacobsen, et al., 2013). Profit motives and

humane impacts make Monsanto the ideal target of powerful humanitarian activism. Because

GMOs have become so inherently tied with capitalismand by extension exploitation of the

manythere is a strong public resistance who seek to expose and address the larger issues

with the GMO industry by targeting the main product as a whole. Manifesting in anti-GMO

activism fueled by humanitarian beliefs, the inherent intuitions discussed earlier, coupled with an

image of a syringe being stabbed into a strawberry and then the berry turning blue (a

misrepresentation of the process) easily turns members of the uninformed public against all


There is also a large economic concern with widespread utilization of GMOs. GM crops

have proven to show economic benefits when compared to their conventional counterparts, but

that correlation does not prove to be true in all cases. When GM crops are introduced to an

area plagued by a specific parasite that have been engineered to resist the parasite, although

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an initial dip in pesticide cost and increase in yield, soon another secondary pest will develop

that requires the original levels of pesticide consumption (Jacobsen, et al., 2013). A study on

168 instances of comparing conventional to GM crops resulted that in the majority of the time

(124/168) adoption of GMOs increased the individual farmers yield, while there were still several

instances in which profits dropped (13/168) (Jacobsen, et al., 2013). Ensuring the persistence

of wide varieties of different crop, agrobiodiversity is also profitable as people, at least in my

experience, will often seek out exotic foods and will pay higher prices.

The economic impacts are highly variable, and if GMOs are to be utilized to combat

world hunger, in the current economic/social regime in developed countries, the endeavor must

in some way be profitable to those controlling the GMOs. In some cases GMOs have proven to

increase profits for farmers and increase the amount of food produced, in other cases other

agricultural practices have proved to be more beneficialI think that this important and

unavoidable variability is extremely significant to the question of this paper.

Can GMOs Save the World From Hunger?

In my opinion, GMOs can help address world hunger. But it has become clear that they cannot

do it alone. As the economics have shown, introducing a GM crop, although it does quite often

increase profit and yield, does not always workthere are other factors at play. Especially in

the areas where hunger is concentrated, developing nations specifically, the ability for regional

farms to produce food doesnt lead to a decrease in hunger prevalence. Poverty has shown to

be the principle cause of world hunger (WHES, 2016). This shows that food availability is not

the issue, but the ability to access food is. An even more shocking realization is, that the worlds

agricultural industry produces enough food for everyone to have 2760 calories per day, more

than the average amount required by humans for normal function (WHES, 2016). Poverty has

its own set of causes, from unequal wealth distribution to lack of infrastructure, and extensive

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efforts must be made to reduced the number of impoverished people and societies in order to

decrease the number of of the hungry.

GMOs can help, they really can, despite how unnatural they may seem or who is making

thembut they can also harm. Introducing GM crops that may be better suited to have larger

yield in the specific environment will increase the amount of food available, reducing the price

and increasing accessibility to food, but it can also create a dependence within regional farmers

that results in year after year expenses and could create new, unexpected costs and issues. So

basicallyits tricky to say they will or wont help, because they haveand they havent.

If there are any future benefits to be had, one thing that must happen is an increase in

public education of GMOs in the developed countries. It is in countries like the US, that we

have the privilege of being able to question what we eat and if public aversion to GMOs builds

to the point that it begins to effect the international industry, our public ignorance to the science

has potentially incredibly harmful consequences for those in need around the world. I believe

that by instead of hiding GMOs within everyday foods, only to be revealed by anti-GMO activists

later as hidden poisons of corporate interest, companies should put just as much effort into

educating consumers as they do as creating products for consumption.

Increased public knowledge, along with socially and regionally practical, well

researched, and cautious implementation of GMOs in developing societies can potentially help

solve world hunger. Specifically in regards to GM crop implementation, instead of the all-or-

nothing view some scientists tend to take when it comes to widespread GMO utilization, I would

favor a more moderate plan that combines the specification and advancement of few staple

crops proven to be extremely beneficial to human health and easily produced with few negative

consequences while simultaneously utilizing practices that preserve agrobiodiversity. In this

way, based off the two weeks of research, I believe that there can be massive strides made in

addressing world hunger harnessing the advantages of genetic modification technology.

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Works Cited

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Blancke, Stefaan, et al. Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition. Trends in
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Carter, B. Elijah, et al. Concern About Hunger May Increase Receptivity to GMOs. Trends in
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Langer, Gary, and Analysis (ABC News). Poll: Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods. ABC
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Monsanto. World Hunger Day - Monsantos commitment to help feed the world. Monsanto, 28
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Pew Research Center. Major Gaps Between the Public, Scientists on Key Issues. Pew
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Robbins, John. Can GMOs Help End World Hunger? Huffpost, 01 Sept. 2011, http://
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