Biotech advances not helping poor: breeder

RED DEER — Proponents of genetically modified crops often say such crops are needed to help feed the world’s poor and expanding population.

They should stop using that argument, says a Cornell University plant breeder, because so far it hasn’t proven true.

Margaret Smith told those at the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar March 8 that portraying GM crops as a food supply saviour is misleading and could hinder public acceptance of the technology.

“Let’s not use this sort of red herring argument that doesn’t appear to really stand up to examination because that just gives people an easy target to shoot down,” Smith said in an interview after her presentation to about 700 dairy farmers.

“I think it’s a bit of a bogus justification at the moment, and that just gives people who are against the technology the material to say, ’well, don’t be ridiculous, none of those people are benefiting from it.’ And to a certain degree — not 100 percent — they are correct.”

Smith is a corn breeder who uses traditional plant breeding in her work and speaks frequently about GM crops.

She said the problem with the “GM crops helping feed the world” argument is that most of the world’s starving people are in Africa and Asia, where biotech crops are either too expensive or not yet developed for regional crop needs.

“(GM crops) have not touched those areas partly because the farmers that are in the most food insecure position don’t have a lot of money, so they’re not really a strong seed market,” she said.

“So who is going to develop the kind of products they need? You can’t just take Canadian or U.S. products and have them grow in Africa. They won’t for a whole array of reasons — because they’re not adapted, they have the wrong diseases and insects resistances and everything else.”

GM crops have touched some aspects of the developing world, however.

Stuart Smyth, research chair in agri-food innovation at the University of Saskatchewan, has outlined the benefits of GM cotton in India.

In an article on the Ag-West Bio website, Smyth said GM cotton has improved farmers’ income in India, China and Burkina Faso. GM corn has also been a positive factor in some developing countries, he added.

In her talk, Smith outlined the widespread North America adoption of GM crops, most of them developed to be resistant to either herbicides or insects: corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets and alfalfa.

Those developments have indirectly resulted in yield improvements through reduced losses from insects and weed competition, but higher yields strictly as a result of modifications for that trait are less clear.

Smith said U.S. corn yields have been rising by about 1.8 bushels per acre per year for the last 30 years. GM crops reached the market in about 1996, but average yield continued to increase at the same pace.

As the U.S. National Academies of Sciences said in a 2016 report, “the nationwide data on maize, cotton or soybean in the U.S. do not show a significant signature of genetic engineering technology on the rate of yield increase.”

Genetic modification to increase yield is “a tougher nut to crack,” said Smith, because it is a function of many different variables.

In any case, farmers in countries where people do not have sufficient food are not yet reaping the benefits of GM crops to address that problem, Smith said.

“Someone needs to actually de-velop varieties that people there need, and that’s a costly process, doing genetic engineering, and if you have a market of people who don’t have much money, where’s the business opportunity there?

Traditional plant breeding might also provide some solutions, “but again, who is going to do that work,” said Smith.

“It has to be done either as a public good or in the private sector, but those people have to then be a seed market. So the equation, no matter which technology you pick … the fundamental economics of having an investment in a product the farmer can afford and can buy, and it actually reaches those farmers, is still a challenge.”

About the author


  • Ag-West Bio

    Smith appears to not be aware of all the work being done on crops right in developing countries. Research scientists in those countries are working on cassava, brinjal, rice and more. Groups like the Gates Foundation and the Norman Borlaug Institute are helping to fund research for the public good, in order to increase food security in developing countries.

    Many leading scientists spoke on the subject of technology to improve food security at the Emerging Technologies for Global Food Security in the Developing World conference held in Saskatoon last year. You can view videos here:

    And the Golden Rice project began as an effort to help people who can’t afford to eat much more than rice, as a way to prevent vitamin A deficiency. If not for interference by groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, this crop could have been saving eyesight and lives for years already.

    Btw – yield increases are a DIRECT result of lowering weed and pest pressure. This was the GOAL of the gm varieties, and has been a big success, along with happy side effect of zero-till agriculture, which has been improving soil since the crops were introduced.

  • Harold

    Explain how vitamin A prevents eyesight loss. Explain how the people of America are losing their eye sight; lack of Golden rice? Do we walk away from our opticians with a “super-scription” for Vitamin A or a bowl of golden rice? A prescription to eat more GMO of some sort will restore or prevent eyesight loss? Ag-bio west; you are the one. Correct? I watched your recommended clip and the most relevant was mentioned, but was also the most ignored. I expected no other because profits from a plant are their concern, and they do not hold concern for any human being that isn’t just a facade. The two Key factors are: a lack of Democracy and the lack of Electricity and those speakers, or industry representatives, were not there, indicating that these human wants were none of their concern. Have the so called “for profit help groups” left that to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth? It is so. Many African people live and die in conditions that we can’t even imagine and we just need to remove our electricity to see what will become of our country and our food supply to know its difference. No clean water, no heat, no toilet or sanitation, no hospital, no refrigeration, no packaging industry, no jobs, and the list goes on; add to this NO Democracy. Our country is built on electricity and democracy and the same will build Africa and lead them out of starvation and into health; with these speakers and Golden rice and ag-west bio? Give me a break!

  • Welderone

    Yes, the world needs GM crops to feed the world is nonsense. Poverty is the reason people don’t have enough food at the end of the day. Africa is rich in minerals and oil. And could easily buy enough food for the people there. Maybe not a western diet but enough that people would have the proper amount of calories a day. Really so far all GM crops have done is aided in the ruining of crop prices such as wheat and corn. The massive supply on the markets only drives the price down even for countries of much wealth that could easily pay twice as much as the price of wheat and corn is selling for on world markets. Africa probably has enough good land on the continent to grow all their grains and vegetables and fruits they need without importing any food. Once the problem of corruption and storage and their other problems are corrected.

    • Harold

      Africa is rich in minerals and oil indeed, and if they were used to provide electricity and to provide to their own industry creations throughout Africa, they would be enabled to feed they and produce trade themselves and their economy would grow exponentially. Being a sole exporter to the sole benefit of corporate acquisition has kept them poor. You never buy food in trade for your resource if there is any chance that you can produce food or product yourself. That is like exchanging your soil for a carrot. They need electricity and they do have the resources to produce electricity, but corporate greed and a lack of democracy stands in the way. Take electricity away from Canada and we would be just as Africa is today; awaiting world hand-outs and giving in to corporate fiction and control. It burns me to the core that these human beings are deliberately made the victims of suffering at the hand of North American corporate greed and influence, and their partnering with us to grow their corporate product to feed Africa to keep them poor. The corporate is content that we feed Africa their corporate “fish” and not content if Africa were to “fish” on their own. This is why we do not see world corporations building Africa’s electricity grid and their corporate intellect bringing about democracy. The Corporate Climate change hoax has further dashed any hope of using the cheapest resources to expand the electricity grid in Africa. The corporate would have Africans die by the millions instead. Now they are faced with so called “green” energy costs that not even we in “rich” Canada can afford. Imagine how many of our corporate pandering shovels would drop if Africa had democracy and electricity. Corporations right now hold all of the money that is necessary to eliminate all of the worlds hunger and they got it in betrayal from the honest and hard working people who believe in their corporate rhetoric. Why is the corporate, after decades, still a non event, yet they retain billions of our dollars and collectively a trillion or more; eyes wide shut. From the very top, these suffering people are truly seen as corporate profit; they are not at all seen as suffering and dying human beings.

  • Ag-West Bio

    I don’t think anyone claims that GM technology is a panacea; there are many other techniques for crop development, and some new gene editing technologies that are very effective. But it is a valuable tool for crop development. It is more precise and faster to develop traits using gene editing – and it is safe.

    Regulating bodies around the world have deemed food produced through genetic modification to be as safe as any other food. In fact, more than 120 Nobel laureates signed a letter to ask Greenpeace to stop their campaign against genetic modification:

    Regarding food security in developing countries, obviously there are political issues in many places, and technology won’t solve that problem. But fear of technology doesn’t help anyone (and I can’t see how anyone benefits from higher food prices – I’m certainly grateful for affordable food).

    In North America our farmers and consumers have been benefiting from crop development; why would this be kept away from farmers in developing countries? The work is being done right in those countries, for the people there.

    • Harold

      When a gene is left in original state there are no questions other than what is it; Its base is energy. When you edit a gene you open up a vast variety of new questions and some may never be answerable. The unanswerable is not evidence of safety. Gene editing research has not answered all questions and even after its introduction there are many more questions created. You have no grounds in which to legitimize your claim that Gene editing is safe. Natural state does not have to be proven, nor can it be patented for the profits of capture and its control. Further, explain to me my fear of technology because I am having difficulty feeling its fear; I don’t seem to have any. Perhaps I’ll kiss a Lion between the ears for a reminder. Can I have some of yours; perhaps your fear of rejection and subsequent profit loss and control of a human being? It is a clever tactic of Industry to say that I fear and therefore making the Industry my very own Saviour. (mind and thought control 101). Without fear you are a “nobody” so therefore you like to claim that I have some fictional fear to make you a necessary somebody. (the tactic works well for governments to gain people control as well – makes them money – fraud 101) Moreover, what good is your group or any other group for that matter, if with all of your collective reasoning and intellect combined; you cannot bring Democracy or electricity to the people of Africa. On this scale I know exactly where you sit and I have heard the corporate empty for profit happy Monologue many, many, times. Our food In North America is trash and our obscene health care costs explain this fully. There is only one reason to eat and that is for nutrition only. We DO NOT have affordable Food, only Food that resembles Food; our bellies are full yet we are sick. Our house pets are sick and our farm animals are sick yet you claim some fame to food safety yet costs of health care and sickness are not declining but increasing instead. You can conjure up you claims of food safety but their nutritional value remains undemonstrative in public health. Gm technology is about food capture and obscene profits and baseless as a panacea which is why there is no claim to GE being such. Take away you’re for profit motivation and there is only Greenpeace and similar standing. Explain to me why I should bow my head to “120 Nobel laureates” and “Regulating bodies around the world” while human suffering still sits at their feet.
      I have chosen to bow my head to those who burn cow dung to cook their meals and will die from toxic smoke because corporate greed will not bring them Electricity or Democracy. I will also bow my head to those who will bring those human beings Democracy and Electricity.
      Corporations are doing something “for the people there”? …

  • Harold

    WP; do you have the technology to remove one misspelled word or do you have to delete the entire sentence. If you can remove the one misspelled word then I would like the last sentence returned with that word removed. #### are not letters of the alphabet and they are of a misspelled word. The remaining words of the sentence were spelled correctly and the sentence expressed a sincere thought. Cheers.

    • Harold,

      Yes, I can remove an individual word if I wish.

      Seems pretty clear to me just what that sentence was trying to say, and my oft-stated forum rules forbid the use – or even an allusion to – profanity.

      So I deleted the sentence. Doing so did not, in my opinion, alter your intended message(s) whatsoever.

      Paul – WP web editor

      • Harold

        Your house your rules allowed the same sentence minus the one word in the comment previous. I believe that your emotions got in the way of your own house rules. The elimination of the one word would have left my entire comment in tact as to how I wished to express myself and not how you wished to express me. This is the delicate work of the editor and the intended message is solely in the eye of the writer and not the eye of the editor. You have previously led us to believe that this ideology was protected by the editorial staff. I pushed the boundaries to see what would happen and I am reporting to you the results in detail. Do with it as you wish. Cheers


Stories from our other publications