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Hunger, a technical or social problem? Do we really need GMOs?


Olivia Jeffers

March 19 · Issue #19 · View online

Welcome to Compassionate Technologies. Here you'll get a dose of real science and business in your inbox every Sunday morning. Why? Because cutting-edge research shouldn't be locked in an ivory tower. This newsletter covers the relationships between machine learning, robotics, genetic engineering, and climate science. It's all connected, and it's my passion to simplify and make clear those connections for all of you. Love, Olivia.

Spring is almost here, which means it’s time to talk about food, agriculture, and bring these heady topics back to Earth. Today we’ll talk about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and whether or not using them in agriculture is worth the risk. And of course in typical Compassionate Technologies’ style, we go back to the beginning and look at some unexpected consequences of hunger and food shortages in our world today…

Before the military-industrial complex, there was the agricultural-industrial complex, and damn - those guys created some things! From steam engines to mills, John Deere’s tractors, and hydraulic pressure lifts - they’ve been figuring out better, faster ways to grow and move food from the land to the people.
“Farmers have always been tinkerers,” says Andrew Walmsley, director of biotech congressional relations with the Farm Bureau, “and those same people have just gotten really tech savvy.”
CRISPR enters the arsenal of farming technology, with Pontifax Ag Investments investing $10 million into Jennifer Doudna’s Caribou Biosciences. As smaller players enter the scene, previously dominated by 6 giants on the brink of mergers: Dow and DuPont, Bayer and Monsanto, Syngenta and Chemchina (merger approved), the time and cost of bringing GMOs from the lab to dinner table shrink.
But Wait, Aren’t GMOs Bad?
80% of Americans surveyed would like DNA to be labeled on food products, this would mean all our meat, dairy, lentils, legumes - anything with protein and that isn’t a pure chemical, would be labeled with DNA, the molecules that write our genetic code.
Was the DNA modified? Well, yes - some DNA was modified by natural breeding, some of it was modified by selected breeding, and some was modified transgenically, which means DNA from other organisms were spliced in.
Where’s the worry? Yes, it is possible to engineer a human-loving virus into plants and animals. Before you get scared though, consider the viruses and parasites that exist already in our meat, there’s a reason why you don’t eat uncooked pork. The heat of cooking denatures harmful parasites, proteins and DNA, turning deadly microscopic tapeworms into just some more crunch.
Is it worth the risk to use GMOs?
Hunger and malnutrition are real problems in many parts of the world. While severe food insecurity is only a problem among less than 6% of the population in the United States, undernutrition is a much larger problem in countries like Guatemala (15%), Afghanistan (26%), and Zambia (48%).
Global Hunger Index from IFPRI
Global Hunger Index from IFPRI
While there is more than enough food on this planet to feed everybody, food distribution is the bottleneck that stops food from getting into people’s mouths. How do you get food into countries with crumbling infrastructure, lack of education, or geopolitical instability?
Looking at Syria: The Link Between Hunger and Terrorism
Just like the U.S. wants to be free from dependence on foreign oil, it would sure be nice if Syrians were free from hunger. In 2000, Syria suffered a drought - but it wasn’t drought per se that drove 200,000 villagers into a crowded and tumultuous Aleppo in 2011, where the seeds of al Qaeda and ISIS were ripening [2] [3].
Misallocation of water resources, crumbling irrigation infrastructure, and some odd market liberalization strategies that sent diesel prices soaring and put a halt to irrigation pumps, all-in-all culminated in a severe food shortage. Nonetheless, genetically engineered drought-resistant grains like barley, sorghum, and millet would have removed the war-inducing desperation that hunger creates [4].
The Big Questions for Technologists
Solving hunger calls for our mutual compassion, for innovations in science and technology, for politicians, governments, businesses, and individuals to act just a little bit differently. So, what can we do? Can we just throw technology at a social problem? And how to we know the difference?
Useful Links...
New study confirms that 80 percent of Americans support labeling of foods containing DNA
Powerful U.S. Panel Clears Chinese Takeover of Syngenta
Drought, Climate, War, Terrorism, and Syria
The Syrian ‘Drought’ That Created ISIS Is An Urban Myth
Thanks from Olivia :)
Mmm. Speaking of food :)
Mmm. Speaking of food :)
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