While hungry people from Haiti to Somalia rioted this month over food shortages and price increases, South Koreans protested the arrival of 63,000 tons of grain at their ports.
The grain was corn from the United States, likely grown in Minnesota or another Midwestern state. The objection was that it was genetically modified corn, something Korean processors had shunned throughout the decade-old controversy over fiddling with genes in food.
Now the looming global food crisis has rekindled that debate. Protesting Koreans called GM crops “monster food.” Many scientists, however, call them a partial solution to threatening hunger in poor countries.
“It could get us a good part of the way if people would let us do it,” said Ronald Phillips, a regents professor who holds the McKnight Presidential Chair in Genomics at the University of Minnesota.
The debate is all but settled in Minnesota’s farm country. Last year, the state’s farmers planted 92 percent of their soybeans and 86 percent of their corn to GM varieties, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But South Korea has company in its persistent backlash to the crops, especially in Europe. Indeed, staunch opposition remains in the United States, too, and some Minnesota farmers serve a robust market for foods labeled GM-free.
Scientists argue that only the well-fed can afford to be so picky about food that millions of people have eaten for a decade without getting sick.
“Nobody has even gotten a stomach ache from the food,” Phillips said.
Famine’s many fathers
No one is claiming that filling the empty rice bowls and grain bins around the world will be easy. Crop scientists would need to achieve a landing-a-man-on-Mars scale of a breakthrough to fully erase the long-term threat of hunger.
A prime reason hunger threatens now is skyrocketing demand driven by economic upturns in China and India, home to one-third of the 6.6 billion people on Earth.
It was China’s food-security worries that pushed South Korean processors this month to accept the shipment of GM corn. South Korea had relied on China for a good share of its corn for processed starch that goes into cookies, ice cream and other foods. But China recently limited corn exports to avoid domestic shortages.
Strapped for supplies, South Korean processors say they had no choice but to take GM corn, the Associated Press reported.
A second and related cause for food price spikes is soaring energy prices, making everything from tractor fuel to fertilizer more expensive.
Add weather to the list. Prolonged drought in Australia clipped wheat crops. The cyclone that devastated Myanmar hit where it could do lasting damage: in the rice-growing region. In longer-term scenarios, global warming plays havoc with yields.
The one cause that easily could be erased is the diversion of corn to ethanol, said C. Ford Runge, a professor of applied economics and law who directs the Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy at the University of Minnesota.
“The enormous volume of corn required by the ethanol industry is sending shock waves through the food system,” Runge and Professor Benjamin Senauer wrote in an article published last year in Foreign Affairs.
“This might sound like nirvana to corn producers, but it is hardly that for consumers, especially in poor developing countries, who will be hit with a double shock if both food prices and oil prices stay high,” they wrote.
Still, corn accounts for only a fraction of the food price spikes that are setting off riots. Globally, wheat prices have spurted 146 percent over last year. Rice is up about 29 percent.
Runge agrees that crop gains are needed, too.
“Of course, we should do everything we can to increase yields,” Runge said in an interview. “We have been disinvesting in agricultural research for the last 15 or 20 years.”
Regret over the neglect of agricultural research for developing countries echoed around the world last week.
Since the 1980s, aid from the United States and Europe for agricultural research has wilted to practically nothing, the journal Nature scolded.
The British-based journal said that a contributing factor was Europe’s vehement rejection of GM crops, which “chilled research” and scared other countries away from the technology for fear of losing European markets.
On Wednesday, the European Union delayed a decision on allowing farmers there to grow new varieties of GM corn and potatoes, prompting the Economist to complain that the EU “continues to bully developing countries not to plant GM crops and this week refused permission to grow varieties of GM maize and GM potatoes in Europe.”
Restart the Green Revolution
Between the 1940s and 1970s, Norman Borlaug and other scientists achieved huge gains in crop yields. Using conventional breeding tricks Borlaug had learned at the University of Minnesota, he manipulated the genes of wheat in Mexico’s fields, added fertilizer and showed the world how to save millions from starvation.
Could scientists deploy the tools of genetic engineering to do that again?
They already have on a small scale.
In Hawaii’s papaya groves, a virus was deforming fruit and killing trees. Ringspot had slashed papaya output in half during the 1990s. Plant scientists inserted the gene for a protein that could resist the virus into papaya seeds and saved the crop. Today, the GM trees account for some 80 percent of Hawaii’s papaya, the journal Science reported in April.
Despite the effective defeat of ringspot, criticism is fierce. Consumers in Japan and some other countries don’t want the fruit.
A key objection is that GM papaya could infiltrate conventional groves. As consumers discard the seeds, they get around and impose the novel gene in places where it isn’t welcome.
Such environmental concerns are one of the strongest remaining arguments against GM crops. Although 282 million acres in 23 countries have been planted to the crops with no reports of catastrophe, a team of U.S. biologists called last month for more data on where they have been grown — including maps showing the farm fields — so environmental impacts can be assessed.
Advocates for the crops argue that they are as green as Earth Day. One reason Minnesota growers embraced them is because farmers can target pesticides more precisely and get by with less tilling.
Meanwhile, the genetic research that brought forth the GM crops also has boosted conventional breeding to a new level of precision.
When Phillips isn’t on the university’s St. Paul campus, he is as often as not in the Philippines, where he is a program chairman for the International Rice Research Institute and also serves on the board of trustees.
Scientists there have bred rice that withstands floods. The plants can be completely submerged for as long as two weeks.
“In flood-prone areas where some of the poorest people live, this could rival the gains of the Green Revolution,” Phillips said.
The plants weren’t genetically engineered. But they also weren’t bred by the methods of Borlaug’s era.
Then, it could have taken eight years to breed enough generations to stabilize a trait. Now it was done in less than three years, Phillips said, with the help of genetic markers that eliminated the guess work. The rice is set for release this year in flood-prone areas of Bangladesh, Vietnam and India.
A comparable breakthrough would be plants that tolerate drought. GM varieties are in the works for that. But it remains to be seen, Phillips said, whether the current food-price squeeze will open a path for them to reach poor farmers too.
“A lot of this comes down to economics,” Phillips said. “When the economics start to hurt, then maybe it will be OK.”
Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.