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The GM Food Potential

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Key Points

  • Genetically modified food has generated much debate about the safety and necessity of such foods.
  • Malnutrition affects over two billion people worldwide. Genetically modified crops have been developed to enhance the nutritional value of staple foods and to increase small farmers’ yields through pest and disease resistance.
  • The use of genetically modified food in developing countries could improve the health of millions of people.           


It has been over a decade since the first genetically modified (GM) crop was introduced into the market. There has been a mixed reaction to this development in food technology, with a great deal of apprehension in society. There is concern about the GM varieties being developed by the international agricultural research organisations. The goal of the developers of nutritionally enhanced crops is to distribute them widely in developing countries. Population growth in developing countries generates a huge challenge to food and nutrition security, with 93 per cent of world growth expected to occur in those countries. Consequently we need to ask: Could these developments in bio-technology be a promising way to improve the health of millions of people world-wide?    

There are significant differences between the types of GM foods that are being introduced into developed and developing countries. In developed countries, GM foods have been created to benefit industrialised countries and to enhance the commercial appeal of particular produce, such as tomatoes that have been modified for controlled ripening. In developing countries, however, GM food would be nutritionally enhanced and would be used to ensure the population was receiving adequate nutrients, rather than being aimed at increasing yields.

The major problem for food security in the developing world revolves around the fact that the population is continuing to increase, while arable land is being reduced by land degradation and climate change. The US Department of Agriculture suggests that most of the farmland available for cultivation worldwide is already in use. It estimates that there will be a widening food gap in more than 70 developing countries over the next decade.

In the last ten years, micronutrient malnutrition has been acknowledged as the root cause of many health problems in developing countries. Around the world, two billion people do not receive enough essential vitamins and minerals and are considered malnourished. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization(FAO) has estimated that 13 per cent of the world’s population do not have access to an adequate amount of food, with 826 million being undernourished. The World Health Organization believes that half of all childhood deaths in developing countries are due to malnutrition. One in three children are underweight and two-fifths have stunted growth. There is strong evidence that the main deficiencies are iron, vitamins, zinc and iodine. Half of all countries are facing heath issues revolving around vitamin A deficiency, with approximately 670,000 children under the age of five dying each year. Three billion people are iron deficient; globally, more than 115,000 maternal deaths each year are linked to anaemia. 

Little progress has been made by governments in overcoming this issue, partly due to the financial burden involved. Despite the efforts of international agencies and investors, there has been little change in the level of nutrient malnutrition in developing countries. This is partly due to the ineffectiveness of supplement tablets and injections.

Are GM crops the solution to malnutrition?

One solution that has shown promise involves nutritionally enhanced crops. Genetic modification could help to increase crop supply from smaller areas of land. It also has the potential to be utilised as a tool to enhance the growth and nutritional value of the staple foods that make up the primary diet in many developing countries. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) is a not-for-profit international organisation that shares knowledge amongst shareholders on the benefits of biotechnology. Since the early 1990s, the ISAAA has argued that there is potential for biotechnology to improve the standard of living for small-scale farmers in developing countries. The organisation states that "Biotechnology … is no longer viewed as merely a desirable element but an essential one in a multiple-thrust global strategy for food security."

Bio-technology can improve the nutrient content of the staple foods that lack some: macronutrients, such as amino acids; micronutrients, such as iron; and vitamins such as vitamin A. This technology could allow people in developing countries to have a more balanced and diverse diet. There are a number of staple crops that are being genetically modified or are in development. 

For some of the poorest people in developing countries, food consumes between 50 and 80 per cent of their income. The food that is purchased is usually high energy and low cost, such as rice. Rice is an important staple for many people around the world, making up 80 per cent of the daily intake of half of the world’s population. It is a high energy food, but it has micronutrient deficiencies and is not an adequate source of vitamin A. Vitamin A enriched rice could be a solution for many that are deficient in this vitamin. One organisation researching this is the International Rice Research Institute, a not-for-profit research and training organisation, which develops rice management techniques and rice varieties to improve the quality and yield. The Institute has developed a rice crop, ‘Golden Rice’, that contains beta carotene, which is converted into Vitamin A by the body. Golden Rice has not yet been used commercially. It is currently being developed to suit the Philippines and Bangladesh, and is also being considered in India. As well as improving the nutritional content of rice, the West African Rice Development Association has successfully crossed Asian rice with African rice, to produce a crop that can be grown on poor soils.

Much like rice, cassava is rich in calories but is lacking in nutrients, such as vitamin A, iron, and protein. In Nigeria and Kenya it is widely consumed and, as a result, malnutrition is widespread. In Nigeria 83 per cent of preschool aged children that rely on cassava are lacking in vitamin A, and 43 per cent are iron deficient. Likewise in Kenya, 41 per cent are vitamin A deficient and 78 per cent are anaemic. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center was founded in 1998. It is now the world’s largest not-for-profit independent research institute that is devotedto plant science and enhancing the nutritional content of plants. It is currently developing cassava varieties that will be high in each of these nutrients.

Sweet potato is also a crop on which research and development is taking place, with the aim of improving the nutritional content. Estimates indicate that 98 per cent of the world’s sweet potato crop is produced and consumed in developing countries. Scientists are attempting to mix the white African varieties, that do not contain vitamin A, with vitamin A-rich orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. There have been projects that promoted the farming of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes by educating communities and small farmers about the new crop variety. Evidence suggests that this strategy has been very successful. In 2005, a study of 24,000 households in Mozambique and Uganda found that the vitamin A intake of women and children had doubled. Researchers are also trying to develop a sweet potato crop that is protected against the feathery mottle virus, a virus that kills between 20 and 80 per cent of the crop. Globally, 40 per cent of food grown is destroyed by pests or disease. A reduction of just one per cent in crop losses could have the potential to feed millions of people.

Maize, millet, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, beans, cowpeas, chickpeas and groundnuts are also being developed to improve the quality.

In areas, such as Bolivia and Honduras, where malnutrition is extensive and health services are inadequate or inaccessible, improved rice, maize and beans will be shared. GM crops can now be distributed to areas that were once hard to reach. This is because farmers will be able to keep a portion of their seedlings for the next planting. The new seeds are bought, traded, and shared amongst farmers. The crops will thrive as the seeds are adapted for these agro-ecosystems.

Possible Benefits

The use of GM crops in developing countries could reduce the rate of chronic disease by increasing nutritional values. GM crops could alleviate malnutrition, with small increases in the nutritional content having a considerable effect. Malnutrition affects a person’s physical and cognitive ability, thus reducing a person’s ability to work. Nutritionally enhanced crops can improve a person’s capacity to work, which would result in higher productivity and income.  The price of food directly affects a large portion of the population. GM crops would allow farmers to use fewer pesticides, therefore helping the environment, reducing production costs and making the crops less labour intensive. This would, in turn, reduce the cost for consumers.


The development of this technology has come from corporate backed programs and grants by certain foundations. In early May 2011, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center was given a grant of US$4 million ($3.8 million) by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. The grant will contribute to the development of bio-fortified sorghum, which will be a more nutritious and digestible source of food for Africans. Sorghum is naturally drought tolerant and is relied upon as the staple source of food for many. The sorghum will be modified to increase levels of zinc, iron and vitamin A. These nutrients will reduce rates of malaria, diarrhoea, and pneumonia and reduce levels of Vitamin A deficiency. The crop will be distributed to communities in need, at minimal cost and royalty free. Howard G. Buffett, the president of the Foundation states: “Improving the nutrition of this staple crop has the potential to change the lives of more than 300 million Africans….. I have seen first-hand the devastating effects of malnutrition. I have a personal commitment to see that healthier sorghum gets to the people of Africa,” he said.

The source of funding for bio-technology is quite often controversial, as a number of the organisations funding the research are also supporting pro-GM initiatives and, in some cases, financially backing them. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports a number of initiatives that are attempting to combat malnutrition in developing countries. The foundation openly supports genetic engineering projects in developing countries but, in August 2010, the Foundation bought US$23 million ($21.7 million) worth of Monsanto shares. Monsanto is an agricultural technology company that has utilised biotechnology to increase its influence in the agricultural market. Monsanto created a wheat crop that was resistant to its own herbicide, which locked farmers into buying its products. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste of the Haitian Peasant Movement of Papaye and Caribbean coordinator of La Via Campesinaa, a global movement involving peasant farmers, stated “It is really shocking….to learn about the decision of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to buy Monsanto shares while it is giving money for agricultural projects in Haiti that promote the company’s seed and agrochemicals”. (Friends of the Earth International 2011, ‘Who Benefits from GM crops? An industry built on myths’, February, issue 121).

Possible Downfalls

Since GM crops were introduced commercially in the mid-1990s, there has been widespread debate about the possible costs and benefits, and the debate has not subsided. The concern is understandable due to the circumstances surrounding the development and distribution of GM crops. The majority of GM crops introduced are either resistant to insect pests or to herbicides used for weeds. The corporations that are funding the development of these crops are usually the multinational corporations that also sell the agricultural chemicals. For example, some farmers have adopted Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans, which have been developed to be resistant to the company’s Roundup-brand herbicide. This means that these large companies can develop a monopoly over farmers who decide to use their crops, but it also means that if any of the GM seeds are accidently transferred to other farms, by natural processes or farming equipment, they will contaminate other crops. It is understandable that there is some hesitancy about using nutritionally enhanced crops, because the bio-technology industry could be using this development as a tool in winning public acceptance of GM foods.

The fear of the development of GM foods also stems from concern about the effects that they could have on the health of consumers. The problem with engineering supposedly healthy ingredients into the bottom of the food chain, is that it may not be reversible if something goes wrong. In the long-term, other crops may become contaminated, which would affect food security and the safety of the crops for consumers. Food safety is impossible to assess under current testing regimes, because they do not look closely enough for any unintended compounds that are created through tampering with genetic material.

A study in America on public perception of agricultural biotechnology GM foods, found that 80 per cent of respondents agreed with its use to develop nutritionally enhanced foods to feed people in developing countries. Yet there is widespread concern amongst farmers, environmentalists and the general public, about the development of nutritionally enhanced crops. For example, La Via Campesina, has a world-wide membership of 200 million.


It is important that GM production is fully understood, especially regarding crops and the impact they will have on the consumer before being made commercially viable. A holistic approach is needed; looking at both the environmental and human health impacts. There is a need for case by case assessment, with each crop being examined for possible negative outcomes. Communication amongst researchers and corporations is vital and technology needs to be properly managed if it is to be effective.

The concept of enhancing the nutritional value of food by genetically modifying crops, is a controversial and multi-faceted topic. It has both possible positive and negative outcomes, however, does the idea of eliminating malnutrition from the globe outweigh the possible negatives?

The FAO reported in 2007, that “in 18 … [out of 34 countries], the food crisis is wholly or partially a result of current or recent civil strife or conflict.” The problem of tackling world hunger, therefore, will not be resolved simply by growing GM food. Rather, it will be achieved by challenging political systems and improving systems of food distribution. Former US President Jimmy Carter stated that "Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is", but the question remains; what is responsible bio-technology?

One organisation considering ways to improve the health of plants is the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau International, a not-for-profit organisation that has created the plantwise’ initiative. This initiative has set up 80 small plant clinics that diagnose and treat pests and diseases on crops. They are building up a global knowledge bank by gathering and sharing information. The benefits of such an initiative are evident in Bangladesh. Areas of Bangladesh around the clinic have seen a 24 per cent increase in net income and a 9 per cent increase in crop yields. As the ‘plantwise’ initiative shows, increased knowledge and education in the region could have widespread benefits. To achieve the yields required to feed the growing population, however, GM food should be considered.

The growing population is threatening global food security. By 2025, there will be a shortage of around 90 million tonnes of cereal if sub-Saharan Africa continues to use the present agricultural practices. Inefficient production techniques, disease and pests, as well as the poor nutritional content of the food, is threatening a continuing impact on millions around the world, unless dramatic actions are taken. Improving the nutritional value of staple crops and increasing the resistance of crops to pests and diseases, has the potential to eliminate malnutrition and starvation for millions in developing countries.

Catherine Anderson

Research Intern

FDI Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme