Genetically Modified (GM) crops have shown to provide a new path for farmers by allowing selection of the desired characteristics for their crop. This selective ability has been used to allow crops to grow in much harsher environments or to produce crops that yield more of the key component for biofuels. Production of biofuel GM crops reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also reduces the availability of food and thus increases food prices. Should engineers focus GM design on fuel or food?
Keep the lights on
Within the developing world, in countries such as India, many regions are not covered by the electrical grid or the electricity supply is very unreliable. The shortage of electricity greatly affects economic activities and also the daily lives of inhabitants with notable implications upon the provision of water.
Through the use of GM, biofuels have become an increasingly prevalent and reliable energy source, providing aid and relief to areas where energy shortages are a prominent issue. GM technology enables the production of corns rich in starch which help to generate ethanol and soybeans which are optimised for the generation of biodiesel through its vegetable oil derivative. The efficiency of the biofuels associated with the aforementioned processes is greatly increased, which goes some way in aiding the reduction in the disparity between the power demand and the power supply.
It should be noted that within these areas, the widespread nature of the power shortage supersedes the issues relating to the availability of food in terms of the numbers of those affected. The argument therefore that positively impacting the lives of the greater community, through the improved provision of energy, is one which holds notable significance within a utilitarianism type concept.
Moving this concept into the other side of the argument, the various downsides of GM crops for the wider public when not used for fuel should also be considered.
There is an increasing trend in the use of pesticide and herbicides upon GM crops due to the rise of super resistant strains of weeds. Superweed, for example, has developed a high resistance to many different types of herbicide through its own natural selection.
The current solution implemented in the removal of strains like superweed is to spray increasingly toxic and dangerous types of herbicide upon the crops in order to maintain the high production rate so closely associated with GM crops.
Research indicates that there are serious health risks associated with GM food on animals. It implies that there is a potential threat in eating food produced by GM crops. Intuitively, this is potentially an issue which can be negated through the use of GM crops for biofuel instead of food, thereby removing the potential risk completely while gaining the benefit of GM technology.
Are we running out of thyme?
While the world is in need of new sources for providing energy, there are many alternatives to the use of agricultural land. A greater issue facing the world today is current food poverty rates, with one in nine people suffering from chronic undernourishment, and the ever growing population creating more of a demand for food.
For farmers, the benefit of utilising GM crops for food crops over fuel is the added reliability for future. Biofuels are not going to be a long-lasting need of society, every generation alternatives to meet society’s needs are discovered. However, food is a biological necessity for every living person on this earth, so the market will always be there. As well as the farmers themselves, GM food crops would greatly aid in conquering the food crisis, allowing the poor and hungry to have vastly more access to food. Furthermore, a wider availability and location range of food sources will not only reduce prices for average consumers but also drive up profits for food producers, whereas an increase in GM crops grown for fuel would have the opposite effect.
Utilitarianism suggests that “the proper course of action is the one that brings the greatest pleasure to the greatest number”. This principal can be used in this case, as greater control over food crop production has the potential to benefit a vast amount of people, whereas using this land for fuel production only takes away this potential and would provide pleasure to fewer, richer people.
Though some may say the initial capital outlay of GM crops grown for food is not outweighed by the increased yield, it has been shown that farmers can benefit from $4-105/hectare after deduction of the initial cost. The consequence of crops for fuel rather than food is large enough that the EU implemented, at the start of 2012, an updated policy restricting the use of biofuels that were grown on land that could have been used to grow food. With engineers assistance into the advancement of GM technologies and understanding, this food-viable land will only continue to grow. In addition, Millers have said that if the new biofuel crop cross-contaminates with corn intended for food it could lead to soggy cereal and bread.
It may be said that engineers have a responsibility to focus GM technology towards providing more food availability and to reduce distance covered by foods in transportation. This would reduce the need for GHG emissions in transport and allowing GM crops to be grown in harsher conditions which is often where poverty and low food availability lies. Funds for fuel should be put towards renewable energies such as wind and solar, rather than on fuel crops grown on land previously used for food. Farmers are obviously finding GM crops for fuel appealing because of higher profit/yield potential, so engineers should aim to provide them with the ability to grow similar profitability from GM crops for food.
So, what are your thoughts? Should resources be put towards developing crops for fuel to tackle the fossil fuel issue and ever growing fuel demand, or to provide food in harsh areas of poverty?