Food Crises and Technological Phobia

Image of farms brown from the 2012 U.S. drought. Credit: Theresa L Wysocki.
2012 U.S. drought, credit: Theresa L Wysocki.

Drought across the United States has reduced substantially the expected yield of corn and soybean fields for the fall 2012 U.S. harvests.  With reduced yield, prices have risen rapidly for these crops that are widely-used food and feed ingredients, huge international agricultural trade commodities, and important food aid essentials.  With the price increases, persons around the world have expressed concerns that a situation similar to 2008 is about to occur.  In 2008, high food prices led to social, economic, and political instability – hunger, export restrictions, riots, and the overthrow of governments.
In light of these concerns, commentators have expressed varying opinions about appropriate actions to prevent a 2008 food crisis from coming again in 2012 or 2013.  Several commentators, including the FAO Director General and twenty-six United States Senators, urged the United States to waive its Renewable Fuel Standard that results in about 40% of U.S. corn being used for biofuel (ethanol) production. (Soybean, to a much lesser amount, is also used for biodiesel).  Other commentators, including the Holy See’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva and several food aid NGOs, have expressed concern about commodity speculators.  What these commentators have in common is a plea that the United States take actions to place food above fuel as the priority usage for its reduced crops.
In counter to these pleas for food over fuel, the US Secretary of Agriculture, agricultural commodity processors and traders, representatives of the biofuel industry (refiners and farmers), and a Purdue agricultural economics report respond that the market is properly allocating corn and soybeans between food and fuel without needing drastic legal interventions or changes in energy policy.  These commentators argue that a waiver of the Renewable Fuel Standard would have limited or no impact upon U.S. crop commodity prices.
I do not write to enter the debate focused on fuel standards, markets and commodity speculators.   I acknowledge that other factors also contribute to food crises, particularly in developing nations – e.g., underfunded agricultural research and extension, inadequate infrastructure, and insecure land tenure.  However, I write to highlight another often overlooked factor in the on-going food versus fuel debate:  technological phobia that has either exacerbated the food versus fuel dilemma or doomed public policy that may have avoided a food versus fuel dilemma from arising.
Anti-GE activists broke into a Monsanto facility in France earlier this year to dump GE maize seeds.
Anti-GE activists broke into a Monsanto facility in France earlier this year to dump GE maize seeds. Source: AFP

More specifically, politicians, governments, and many NGOs have adopted positions antagonistic to modern farming practices, especially agricultural biotechnology, that have proven their ability to increase both yield and farm income.  Increased yield and increased farm income are more likely to prevent food crises than current prominent concerns about biofuel standards, commodity speculators, and market forces.  Many examples of the impact of this technological phobia on yield, farm income, and food prices exist.
In the United States, the Renewable Fuel Standard does not mandate the use of corn and soybeans.  Rather the standard mandates renewable fuel sources that was expected to include fuels produced from non-food crops such as grasses, bushes, and trees.  Due to regulatory resistance and hostility, genetically modified trees, grasses (e.g., switchgrass), and bushes have not gained timely and feasible approvals for field trials.  None of these advanced biofuel sources are close to regulatory approval for commercial release.  As a consequence, the United States is satisfying its renewable fuel standard from food crops, rather than from non-food plants.  Unless the regulatory attitude at USDA and EPA changes, the situation will only get worse because, by law, the mandate for renewable fuel sources goes up each year.  Two Thousand and Thirteen will put more pressure on the food versus fuel debate than two thousand twelve.  Fortunately, the United States has approved several drought-tolerant genetically modified maize traits that show promise this summer in enhancing American farmers management of drought.
In Europe the antagonism towards agricultural biotechnology has exacerbated food crises in three distinct ways.
• The European Union and its member states have only approved one genetically modified crop for farmers to grow.  Several countries even ban this one crop (a Bt maize) using bogus science to justify their technological phobia.  Consequently, European farmers are not allowed to use the best available seeds to produce crops.  In Romania, its farmers grew herbicide-tolerant soybeans from 1999 to 2006.  But once Romania joined the EU, its farmers were prohibited from growing these genetically-modified soybeans and lost the 10% yield increase they had experienced.  Thus Europe does not grow as much of its food and feed supply as it easily could if Europe abandoned its unjustified discrimination against genetically modified crops.
Chart showing that the EU satisfies 90% of its demand for soybeans mostly from Brazil and the U.S., which primarily grow GE soy.
The EU satisfies 90% of its demand for soybeans mostly from Brazil and the U.S., which primarily grow GE soy. Source: Stein & Rodríguez-Cerezo, 2010.

• Europe, of course, does not go hungry.  Rather Europe overcomes its reduced yields by importing foods from other countries.  But European importers, reflecting the same technological phobia, often demand that the imported food be produced without genetically modified seeds.  Thus farmers in other countries lose increased yields and, depending if a premium (and how large) is paid or not by European importers, additional income from growing modified crops.  In other words, Europe exports its food deficit to other nations and then exacerbates the export by demanding these nations engage in food deficit agriculture too.
• European technological phobia is most profound at the policy level.  Europe funds, particularly through United Nations agencies such as the Global Environmental Facility, training programs relating to genetically modified crops that urges the adoption of the European regulatory model – a model of technological phobia and bogus science.  Implied in this training is that developing nations will lose access to European food markets unless the developing nation does as Europe not too subtly commands.  The foregone benefits for food security in developing nations is nigh incalculable.
Developing nations have responded to the technological phobia emanating from Europe and the United States, by being extremely slow to adopt genetically modified seeds and crops.  China has not commercialized genetically modified rice despite studies showing that trials of genetically modified rice resulted in significant productivity improvements for farmers (modified yield and reduced costs).  Kenya refused entry to genetically modified maize — perfectly safe for humans, animals and the environment and grown in South Africa — even though Kenyans were facing maize shortages and escalating prices.  Kenya has not authorized their farmers to have access to these modified crops despite favorable information from South Africa.  According to one study, South African farmers growing this genetically modified crop (Bt maize) experienced an 11% increase in effective yield and a 42% increase in gross margin.  In the Philippines according to the same study, farmers growing Bt maize had a 34% increase in effective yield and a 53 % increase in gross margin.
Increased yields means a larger supply and thus lower prices on the demand side of the equation.  Increased gross margins for farmers mean that they have greater income to access food that they must purchase, reducing the poverty that is at the root of food insecurity in developing nations.
For the sixteen years these crops have been in commercial release, studies have consistently shown that genetically modified crops are either scale neutral for poor farmers or, in fact, scale positive for poor farmers – i.e., meaning that poor farmers benefit as well as or more than other farmers.  Farmers in country after country – Burkina Faso, Honduras, India, Pakistan, Paraguay, Uruguay – have proven that they adopt these crops very rapidly if they are allowed access to these modified crops.  Unfortunately, the technological phobia of the well-fed and wealthy imposes itself upon the poor farmers of the world.  When we engage in discussions of food crises we should also engage in discussion about technological phobia that exacerbates or causes food crises.
If we addressed this technological phobia, we would be giving proper attention to the Statement of the Study Week of the Pontifical Academy of Science, 15-19 May 2009, especially conclusion #15 that states:

Given these scientific findings, there is a moral imperative to make the benefits of G(enetic) E(ngineering) technology available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations who want them and on terms that will enable them to raise their standards of living, improve their health and protect their environments.

We would also more likely be averting a repetition of the 2008 food crisis in 2012, 2013 and the years beyond.


  1. Given the political climate I thought I’d add a thought…..While it may be true that there is a need for a change of “attiditude at USDA” (I would question if it is”regulatory resistance and hostility” and suggest it be classified as ‘bureaucratic and political ineptitude’) there is another side of the public support for these crops that you ignore: USDA-NIFA and DOE have given tens of millions in grants for biofuel research, much of which is going directly to work that benefits private sector (CERES, DuPOnt, etc) via public-private partnerships.
    This is public money that many other industries would love to have in exchange for suffering “regulatory resistance” (a delay really, not a roadblock). At a time when the Tea Party and Republican party are attacking welfare and entitlements of all sorts, no matter how we might make a case for “public good”, these R&D firms get grants that go under the radar of these “We built it” politicians. Let’s remember that if we do build biofuel solutions it will be because of tax-payer investments. The public sector research infrastructure is challenged by much more than just public fear of innovation/technology.

  2. Dear Rita,
    Thank you for your thoughtful comments.
    One factual response. USDA-NIFA and DOE have given millions to biofuel research. However, I have heard from several sources that research proposals utilizing transgenic breeding to create biofuel crops were discouraged and, as a general result, were not funded.
    For a fuller discussion of these issues, please read Steven Strauss et al., Far-Reaching Deleterious Impacts of Regulations on Research and Environmental Studies of Recombinant DNA-modified Perennial Biofuel Crops in the United States, BioSciences (2010), 60:729-741

  3. Dear Rita,
    I agree about complaints; I agree that genomics research is valuable for transgenic research and that the agenices do not have a bias against genomics research. As for bias about transgenic research, two leaders of groups funded were sources that said that they wrote their proposals to avoid a transgenic component. Although the use of transgenic breeding would have been very helpful, discussions with the agency led them to understand that including the transgenic component would result in being denied federal agency funding.

  4. why should usda bother with targeting
    transgenics for biofuel research upfront.
    When the real question is inputs versus outputs,
    ethanol from valuable land is nonsense.

  5. Dear pyst,
    I agree with you that the underlying issue is the use of farmland for biofuel crops as opposed to food crops. I have two points to make on that underlying issue.
    1) Farmers have used their land to grow non-food crops, including fuel crops, for a long time whenever a profitable market exists for the non-food crop. (Think of farmers using their land to grow crops for use in industrial endeavors, e.g. starch, indigo.) Farmers are very likely to continue that approach to the use of their land.
    2) In light of what I said in point 1), I want farmers to use their land as productively and efficiently as possible so that, to as great an extent as possible, food crops and fuel crops can each be accommodated. I think that accommodation is more likely if farmers have available to them transgenic cellulosic crops (e.g., switchgrass) and genetically-engineered crops generally.
    In additiion, your point is correct to distinguish “valuable land” from “marginal land.” If farmerms have access to transgenic cellulosic crops, farmers may have the option to better allocate their lands between food crops and biofuel crops.
    Finally, as to why the USDA would target transgenic crops upfront, I refer you to the exchange with Rita. Both Rita and I agree that the political climate is affecting USDA policy in a way antagonistic to transgenic biofuel crops. Rita and I disagree with precisly how to evaluate and characterize that political climate, but I think she and I are in agreement that the reason for the “target” is the political environment.

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