When it comes to bolstering food security, genetically modified (GM) crops are at once a highly promising and a highly vilified solution. Opponents label it as “Frankenfood,” imply that untold health risks are lurking in your breakfast cereal, and perpetuate a threatening image of GM crops (see the menacing ears of corn above). Meanwhile, a large body of scientific evidence disputing many of these claims is often overlooked in favor of a more alarmist narrative.
In recent months, however, advocates of a more scientific and less polarized discussion on GM crops have had reason to celebrate. Last week, author and former anti-GM activist Mark Lynas made a stirring speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, which he kicked off by apologizing that he had “helped start the anti-GM movement back in the ’90s and that [he] thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can and should be used to benefit the environment.” He credited his reversal with his having “discovered science,” and characterized GM crops as a way to increase food production for a growing, hungry population while mitigating the environmental harm of production increases. Describing his earlier pursuits an “anti-science movement,” he said that “what we didn’t realize at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not the GM technology, but our reaction against it.”
In October, France’s science academies discredited a widely-read French study that suggested GM corn and the pesticide Roundup caused tumors and early deaths in rats, also criticizing the study’s promotion as “help[ing] to spread fear among the public that is not based on any firm conclusion.” However, the real-life consequences of this flawed study are ongoing: in November, the study apparently encouraged Kenyan leaders to ban the import of GM food products. It seems that the ban would apply to emergency food assistance with GM components, and some scientists are also concerned that the ban will discourage biotechnology research and innovation in Kenya.
As these debates continue, the need to bolster agricultural resiliency around the world, and particularly in Africa, remains obvious. In the chronically food-insecure Sahel, the past year was considered a good one in terms of rainfall–and yet, in 2013, an estimated 10.3 million people there will likely go hungry. As I’ve mentioned previously, many kinds of solutions are needed to improve global food security, particularly in Africa. Genetically modified crops, better irrigation, improved transport and storage of crops, investments in smallholder farmers, and better regional trade integration should all be on the table and subject to clear-eyed, honest scientific and policy debate.