Parts one and two covered the current controversy and criticism behind expanding GMO technology’s reach in agriculture. There is, of course, another side to the current argument, and this technology may play an increasingly important role in solving global food security issues, and introducing provocative forms of innovation.
The first Green Revolution – The man who saved a billion lives
“Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature.” -Thomas Malthus
In 1970, Dr. Norman Ernest Borlaug accepted the Nobel peace prize for ushering in the green revolution, a series of pivotal scientific breakthroughs in agriculture that resulted in the increased production of wheat, rice and maize in developing countries on the brink of widespread famine.
His team searched extensively for dwarf wheat varieties to hybridize with a Mexican cultivar which was responding well to revolutionary fertilizer techniques. Mexican dwarf wheat was the result of this selective breeding effort, which produced higher crop yields per hectare, up to eight-fold; the selective gene technique was passed along to Maize and rice varieties to increase their yields as well. Mexico, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, notably, were revolutionized by the introduction of these crops. (“Acceptance Speech”, 1970)
In his Nobel Lecture and acceptance speech, Dr. Borlaug humbly describes his honorific, “The man who saved a billion lives”, as a misnomer since he attributed the effort to the many organizations, officials, thousands of scientists, and millions of farmers involved in thwarting a potential food crisis. (“Acceptance Speech”, 1970)
In addition to the novel selective breeding techniques, these countries benefited from new farming technologies such as fertilizers, smaller machines herbicides, and pesticides that increased the crop yield per hectare of arable land, thereby raising production. Economic policy changes ensured the availability of these technologies, while credit and subsidies and fair prices at the point of sale helped spur economic growth. Mass famines and food security crises in these countries were largely averted. (“Acceptance Speech”, 1970)
Dr. Borlaug notes that the green revolution was really a breakthrough mainly in cereal production; Pulse (legume) crop availability in these regions was largely unaffected and still very much in need.(“Acceptance Speech”, 1970)
Farmers also faced a losing battle with plant diseases, infestations and land quality. The next wave of technological developments delved deeper into the genome of plants. What selective breeding couldn’t deliver in producing pest and weed resistant hybridized crops, genetic engineering would attempt to provide wholesale.
The next Green Revolution – Innovate or die
According to the UN, More than half of the global population growth between now and 2050 is expected to occur in Africa, and another thirty percent in South and Southeast Asia.(“World Population”, 2013) These developing regions, which are heavily affected by climate changes and poverty, are the source of the call for the next green revolution. It is estimated that twice as much of the current food supply will need to be available by 2050 to avert a food security crisis, and the problem is only exacerbated by reports of yield reductions being affected by the recent climate changes. (IPCC, 2014)
The future of Farmer – All roads lead to GMO?
The current players in the future of farming are focused on the expansion of working solutions and useful innovations. Genetic Engineering biotech leaders assert that GM crops will take a lead role in achieving the second green revolution of the 21st century.
The FDA’s official stance is that GM foods grown in the US are safe to eat and present no human health risks at this time.
Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s Executive Vice President and Chief Technology officer, engaged in a December 2014 Intelligence Squared debate on the safety and benefits of GMO foods.(“Genetically Modify Food”, 2014) Environmental benefits to using these crops include eliminating the need to plow soil before the planting season since weeds are killed using herbicides, but the plants are tolerant. This reduces the associated nitrous oxide and greenhouse gas emissions from tillage, and reduces soil erosion. GM crops have built in resistance to pests, eliminating the need for pesticides. New technologies are also offering weather hardy crops for regions facing climate changes.
Innovation in plants, taking the tech inside
From Bt corn to the Arctic apple, innovative gene modifications to crops abound, and new patents spring up every year with potentially ground-breaking application. A full list of patented GM crops may be found here.
Get involved, stay informed
Are you ready to accept GMOs? Is more information needed to know if they are safe after decades of consumption in the US?
To view legislation on the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014, review the congressional bill. For more information on GMO labelling efforts in the US, check out Just label it, and the Non-GMO Project. Join fellow doctors online to continue the discussion on SERMO.
- Acceptance Speech. (1970, December 1). Retrieved June 11, 2015, from http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1970/borlaug-acceptance.html
- Guyton, K. (2015). Carcinogenicity of tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate. The Lancet Oncology, 16(5), 490-491. doi:10.1016/S1470-2045(15)70134-8
- [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.(2014) IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.
- Part 4 – Genetically Modified Crops. (2012). In FAO Statistical Yearbook 2012. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
- Genetically Modify Food. (2014, December 1). Retrieved June 11, 2015, from http://intelligencesquaredus.org/debates/past-debates/item/1161-genetically-modify-food
- Hopkinson, J. (2014, April 9). GMO labeling bill would trump states. Retrieved June 11, 2015, from http://www.politico.com/story/2014/04/gmo-labeling-bill-105548.html
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2001). Retrieved June 11, 2015, from http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/ucm059098.htm
- Fact Sheet: Questions and Answers on EU’s policies on GMOs. (2015, April 22). Retrieved June 11, 2015, from http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-15-4778_en.htm
- World Population to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 with most growth in developing regions, especially Africa. (2013, June 13). World Population Prospects; The 2012 Revision, Press Release. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division