The Horn of Africa Famine Demonstrates Why We Need More Transgenic Agriculture

10 Aug

The famine across the Horn of Africa is heartbreaking. Hundreds of thousands of children are facing death due to starvation. For now we can donate food and aid, hoping it makes the long and arduous journey to those most in need. This famine is a devastating tragedy that we all knew was coming and have yet to fully comprehend.

It’s also a reminder that we must invest in the transgenic technology to improve agriculture. The human population may top 10 billion by 2100 and regardless of whether you are comfortable with genetically modified plants, you’re likely consuming them already. More than 2.5 billion acres have been planted with genetically modified seeds by over than 15 million farmers in 29 countries. Although the majority of these crops are designed to be herbicide- or pest-resistant, they can also be engineered to grow without fertilizer which saves energy and cost. They can also be modified to survive on very little water.

While transgenic agriculture has mostly been limited to multinational companies that have the money and legal clout to gain approval, the greatest humanitarian benefit will be achieved through collaborative partnerships between public and private organizations. Greater detail about what must be accomplished at Bloomberg.

6 Responses to “The Horn of Africa Famine Demonstrates Why We Need More Transgenic Agriculture”

  1. Ewan R August 10, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    While it is true that transgenics can be used to modify plants to make do with less water it isn’t immediately clear that any amount of transgenic manipulation would have led to plants capable of surviving the current drought in the horn of Africa – that is essentially asking for the impossible – a 2 year drought isn’t the same as slightly less than optimal water (which is essentially the level at which transgenics can help us now, or in the forseeable future) or even pretty bad water supply (ie perhaps a prolonged drought covering the whole reproductive phase of the plant) – it’s a multigenerational drought.

    At best drought resistant transgenics in such a disaster would reduce (slightly) the geography over which it played out – marginal drought at the borders of the affected area may be helped, but given the political situation in Somalia it isn’t obvious that this would help to any great degree in the worst hit areas. Transgenics clearly isn’t the solution to such a severe drought and the fallout – this is obviously a case where the politics of the region needs to be fixed first and foremost.

    (disclaimer – I’m a Monsanto employee, the above comment reflects my own opinion and not that of the company, the preceding disclaimer reflects my desire to stick to company policy on commenting on this kind of thing…)

    • Sheril Kirshenbaum August 10, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

      I don’t disagree that this situation is beyond what transgenics could likely do now. The famine and desperate situation is largely due to distributional shortcomings, as well as intense drought. But it also reminds us that we need to invest in the technologies that will prepare for a drier conditions with billions more people to feed.

  2. razib August 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm #

    two things lead to wealth:

    1) innovation (increasing productivity). transgenics are in that category.

    2) demographic transition. overly fecund third world countries need to control population or they’re going to swallow up all productivity gains. this is one of the secrets of the east asian miracles, small families sizes shifted their dependency to worker ratio during critical years.

  3. Chris Lindsay August 10, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

    I just finished reading “Tomorrow’s Table” and had the priviledge of talking with one of the authors, Dr. Pamela Ronald, about genetic engineering, and am definitely in the Pro-GM camp. I can’t understand why people are opposed to GM food technology for under-developed countries where starvation is rampant.

    Greenpeace destroying the GM wheat in the lab really raised my ire.

  4. Kent August 22, 2011 at 2:06 pm #

    We need to work together and find a solution

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