We live in a world of mass production and mass consumption. First world countries have more than they know what to do with, to the point that many items are single use only, made to be thrown away. On the opposite side of this abundant wealth, however, is a world of people struggling to feed and clothe themselves, with little money and resources. For many years, people in plentiful parts of the world have tried to figure out how to end what they call “World Hunger.
” Many regular people living in places of abundance try to help. They give food and donate to various charities, but it has never been enough.
Recently though, scientists have proposed a new solution: Biotechnology, the artificial genetic creation of food. Many big food companies support biotechnology, saying that this is the answer to the problems of famine and the quickly depleting resources available in the 21st century, but they are wrong. Biotechnology is not the key to fixing world hunger.
Although using biotech would give us more resources, touting it as a solution to the problem of hunger completely ignores the crux of the issue. We are not lacking resources, we simply aren’t using the ones that we already have in an efficient and sensible way. If we create more resources but keep sending them to places that already have food in abundance, nothing is going to change. Creating more food won’t equalize the spread of food to all of the world; it will widen the gap between the overfed and the starving further.
Many people who argue in favor of biotechnology say they support it because biotech will “feed the world and protect the Earth from chemicals” (Lappe, 294). These are both admirable goals, and it makes a lot of sense that people would turn to science to fix problems like famine and chemical pollution. On top of that, the exponential growth of our population makes it easy to think that we are running out of necessary resources. With all of these things in mind, it almost makes biotechnology seem like a perfect solution. If we can create food artificially, that alleviates a lot of fear about depleting resources, and that makes people feel safe. Unfortunately, this support is often based on fear and lack of information.
The idea behind biotechnological food is that we have reached the earth’s limit when it comes to feeding humanity; in fact, this could not be further from the truth. Humanity has plenty of food for whoever needs it, but this food has been overprocessed and unevenly distributed. Frances Moore Lappe, an environmental activist and author claims that the arguments for using biotechnology feel “eerily familiar” (Lappe, 293). In her article “Biotechnology Isn’t the Key to Feeding the World,” she explains that she has learned hunger “is the result of economic ‘givens’ that [humanity] has created, assumptions and structures that actively generate scarcity from plenty” (Lappe, 293). She asserts that we are not lacking the resources needed to feed all of Earth, but resources we could be using are being turned to unhelpful and illogical pursuits.
Much of the nutrients that could be used to feed hungry people are being shuttled away into the growing and fattening of animals to fit the first world standards of good meat. To create desirable cuts that people want to eat, companies are pumping their animals full of unhealthy fattening foods and growth hormones that they shouldn’t be consuming. Livestock aren’t supposed to eat grain; despite that, about half of the world’s grain supply goes toward the feeding and fattening of cattle and other animals. A similar issue is arising with seafood. Since the food that is being used to feed fish is–unfortunately–fish, the potential supply of fish as a food source is being reduced (Lappe, 293). All this goes to show that we are not lacking in food; in fact, we have so much of it that we have begun wasting our resources.
With all of this waste, it seems confusing that biotechnology would be companies’ answer to the so-called food shortages that our world is facing. By putting the fate of the food industry in the hands of biotechnology, we reduce the consumer’s choices to almost nothing. Chemically creating food isn’t going to make it more available to those who couldn’t previously afford it. Instead, it will simply add a flood of unmarked, chemically changed foods to the surplus already filling up the carts of those who “can create a sufficient ‘market demand’ for the fruits of the earth” (Lappe, 293). As food companies like Montesano grow ever more powerful, biotech is not only becoming an option, it’s becoming an option we might not even know we are choosing.
Even though the public desperately wants mandatory labeling of biotech foods–and just as desperately don’t want the patenting of biotech seeds–none of that really seems to matter with the grip that food companies have on the government. At this point, biotechnology has become less of an issue of resources and more an issue of democracy. If people are being lied to about the food they are eating, that is a big cause for concern. Feeding us genetically modified food without our consent is more morally corrupt than big food companies are willing to acknowledge, but at this point, there doesn’t seem to be anything that the general public can do. With the ability to do something as necessary to survival as choosing our own food taken out of our hands, the disparity between the wants of the people and the reality of the food industry now is becoming ever wider.
Not all people rely on biotechnology to fix hunger; many people think of it as a way to save the planet. According to an article from The University of Montana Ethics department, people are relying on biotech to “increases pest resistance in crops or disease resistance in animals leading to decreased uses of pesticides and antibiotics…more efficiently utilize nutrients..[and] lead to increased production on agricultural land” (Mansfield Ethics). These are all fantastic things, and it makes sense that people would argue in favor of them.
Unfortunately, the positives of biotechnologies impact on the environment don’t necessarily outweigh the negatives. There are still lots of harmful biotechnological impacts on the environment; they are just addressed much less in an effort to promote the positives. One of the most talked about negative impacts biotech can have is on the gene pools of the various plants and animals being genetically modified. This concern has been named gene flow, which is where genetic mutations are transferred from crop to crop. Sometimes so much gene flow can occur that two crops almost merge and become the same plant.
Obviously this is not good. If genes and alleles–the traits that give plants their characteristics–are transferring from plant to plant and different species are blending together, it muddies the gene pool and can create problems with keeping plants separate. This is not the only issue with biotechnology though. Similarly to farms using grain to feed animals that aren’t supposed to grain as their diet, using biotechnology to genetically modify plants can also have detrimental effects on the organism itself. If you create a tree that produces double the amount of fruit, it might have a positive effect on our resources–double the fruit for us to eat–but the strain of creating twice the fruit it’s supposed to would likely be extremely harmful to the tree.
In University of Montana’s article, they warn that “a gene that dramatically increases the size and number of fruits produced by a plant is desirable from an agricultural perspective, but will likely have detrimental effects on a wild plant, because the plant would have less resources to devote to other needs like herbivore defense and drought tolerance” (University of Montana). Creating a new generation of plants that are made to burn themselves out just to give us food is not going to help us create more resources. In fact, possible negative effects like this could make the options we have now even more temporary and fleeting than ever. Single use plastic and packaging is one thing; but single use plants and animals feels like it’s going too far. If you create a tree only to help people but kill the tree in the process, that is only going to be worse in the long run for future generations.
Even though at first glance biotechnology might seem like the answer to environmental issues, resource depletion, and hunger crises, if you dig a little deeper it becomes obvious that at best, it is only a temporary solution. Putting a bandaid over an open wound might temporarily staunch the bleeding but it won’t heal the wound, and biotechnology is a bandaid on the open wound that is our agricultural economy. To fix the problems that people look to biotechnology for we need to dig deeper and find real solutions, something that can spread the resources equally and involve people in a consensual, democratic way. With the clear moral, environmental, and political ramifications that biotechnology is having on the world, it is difficult to imagine that its use will end positively. We need to stop and rethink our use of biotechnology now, before the detrimental effects of it become too much to reverse.