Newsweek Letter to the Editor: You Are Totally Wrong about Genetically Altered Foods
Newsweek’s “You Are Totally Wrong about Genetically Altered Foods,” got a lot wrong (including in the original version of the article claiming that the world’s population was only 2 billion people. Oops!). I wrote this letter in response. It didn’t run on the site, but I thought I’d share here:
The article “You Are Totally Wrong about Genetically Altered Foods,” gets a lot of things wrong itself. As the basis of the argument for genetically engineered crops, journalist Tom Parrett claims the United Nations believes we need to double food production in the next 35 years and, he argues, the best way to do so is through investment in genetic engineering. That’s wrong on two fronts.
In my 2011 interview with United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, he characterized the notion that we need to double food production by 2050 as a “gross simplification.” De Schutter explained, it feeds the common, but false, idea that the problem of hunger is one of production. The world already produces enough food to ensure everyone on the planet is well-fed, but nearly one billion go hungry. That’s partly because of what the United Nations calls “leakages”: in developing countries, post-harvest losses eat up as much as 40 percent of food that could be eaten. Because of those post-harvest losses along with unstable markets, many farmers underinvest and produce far less than they could. In other words, investment in infrastructure and storage facilities as well as in market supports could make 40 percent or more food available in the global South without any increase in agricultural yields. The claim that we need to figure out a way to double food production on the same land we use for farming today also assumes no change to demand: It assumes we continue to use valuable farmland to grow crops like corn and palm oil for biofuels, and soybeans and corn for livestock feed. But shifts on the demand side could free up vast amounts of farmland for food for people, too, all without any change on the production side.
But Parrett’s argument is wrong on another front, too: He argues for the benefits of genetic engineering while at the same time ignoring the spotty track record of the technology’s implementation to date or the proven benefits of sustainable practices, like agroecology. As Jon Foley, the head of the California Academy of Sciences has said, many scientists have long urged caution in the introduction of biotech crops. Ecologists know you can’t develop an herbicide-resistant crop, then spray copious herbicides, and “expect the weeds to sit still,” Foley said in a Climate One conversation last year. “They will evolve. Now we have Roundup-resistant weeds, Bt-resistant bugs… Every ecologist predicted that. It’sa big problem.” Foley and others also note that the traits introduced so far have focused on pest and herbicide-resistance; they have not improved yields. At the same time, Foley and other experts point to the results of agroecological approaches, which have proven to be especially beneficial for cash-poor farmers in the developing world where these techniques boost yield without farmers needing to purchase expensive inputs, like engineered seeds and agrochemicals such as herbicides.
I was pleased to see Newsweek taking on an important issue like global hunger and sustainable development, but I was disappointed that Parrett failed to reflect the perspective of the leading agricultural and hunger experts in the world.
Founding Principal, Small Planet Institute
Author, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It