MADISON, Wis. — Efforts to combat climate change with climate-resilient crops may be doing more harm than good.
According to some scientists, climate-resilient crops may be causing increased levels of malnutrition among the world’s most vulnerable populations. This is primarily due to the fact that genetically modified crops are lacking in the vitamins and minerals necessary to sustain a healthy life.
MIT defines genetic engineering as the process in which a “desired gene of an organism is isolated, spliced out of the surrounding genetic sequence, cloned using laboratory techniques and inserted into the host organism which is being modified.” In the field of agriculture, this allows for certain plants to be modified so they can display traits from other plants. Such an action takes less time than selective breeding, but permits genetic changes that may not occur naturally.
“In the face of climate change, the focus has been on climate resilience, yields and sometimes resistance to emerging pests and diseases, with very little attention on micronutrients,” HarvestPlus spokesperson Yassir Islam said.
According to Rwanda’s Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resource Agnes Kalibata, evidence suggests children in African countries have become visually and mentally impaired due to a lack of micronutrients in their diets. In fact, one in three Rwandans is anemic. Estimates from HarvestPlus suggest nearly 40 percent of children under 5 and 17 percent of women in the country possess an iron deficiency.
Even obesity and other common health concerns may be a result of genetically modified agriculture. Because of this, while people may have sufficient food to eat, they suffer from nutritional deficiencies thanks to the food they consume.
However, the often-cited benefit of climate-resilient agriculture is the lack of dependence upon water. With an uncertain future most likely featuring diminishing water supplies worldwide, scientists and those within the agriculture industry believe this idea to be a positive and an even vital component of the future.
In fact, according to Harvard Kennedy School professor Calestous Juma, genetically modified crops saved roughly 473 million kg of crops from active pesticide ingredients between 1996 to 2011.
Juma said that the world would need an area the size of Ethiopia to produce the same level of agricultural output with the use of these kind of crops. Because 9 to 10 billion people may inhabit the planet by 2050, the need for innovative agricultural methods is massive.
Genetic modification of crops can also lead to drastically reduced levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Widespread adaptation of genetic modification could lead to the equivalent of tens of millions of cars disappearing from the roads.
Yet, genetically modified crops threaten surrounding farmlands and natural habitats — a threat which could lead to decreased biodiversity among food crops. Such a threat could produce wide-reaching consequences for food consumers throughout the world.
While there are obvious benefits to climate-resilient agriculture, the evidence of malnutrition is equally, if not more, important. If a scientific innovation may be doing more physical harm than good to the populations it is designed to alleviate from the effects of hunger, society must take a collective look at the practicalities of this technology and reassess its implementation.
– Ethan Safran
Sources: allAfrica, The Economist, Water For All, Responding to Climate Change