GM Wheat To Feed The World (And Lower Prices) | Vol. 4 / No. 15.4

Wheat: ~21% of the world’s calories. | Photo: Susanne Nilsson, CC BY-SA 2.0

Pursuant to my rant yesterday about anti-GMO science denialism, here’s some good news: GM wheat is coming, and it should have much higher yields and prevent starvation deaths. The bad news? GMO science-deniers are apparently also economics-deniers, too.


So scientists in the UK have designed a wheat that (according to the BBC, though where they got these numbers is unclear) could potentially increase yields by 20-40%. One scientist quoted in the story, Dr. Malcolm Hawkesford (from the team at Rothamstead Research responsible for the new wheat), said they’d basically be over the moon with even a 5-10% yield increase. They’ve gotten the okay to try growing it in outdoor field trials, where previously they’ve only been growing it in greenhouse conditions. This is very promising, and if it pans out it will be truly amazing. Life-saving. Famine-preventing.

But anti-GMO science deniers aren’t having any of it.

“People aren’t starving because photosynthesis isn’t efficient enough; people are starving because they are poor,” said [terribly wrong person] from [stereotypically-named anti-science organization].

“Techno-fixes like GM wheat suck up public funding that could make a real difference if it was spent on systemic solutions like waste reduction and poverty eradication. Then we could all enjoy food that is produced responsibly, fairly and sustainably.”

The speaker of the above complaints seems to have suffered a head injury, for all the logic in her complaints. Because here’s the thing about people starving because they’re poor: no degree of wealth redistribution is going to produce the extra 70% on top of our current food production that the stupidly-expanding population is going to need by 2050. Supply and demand are pretty simple to see: when you can’t add to the supply, but you do add to the demand, food is going to cost more and more.

That’s because what we have is not a price issue (and therefore not a poverty issue), it’s a fixed supply issue.

Certainly, many people do starve because they are poor, right now. How cancelling a field trial of wheat designed to increase supply — and therefore lower prices — is supposed to help those poor people is beyond my reckoning, mind you. (I mean my god, how much do they think scientists are paid? And do they think cancelling a field trial would suddenly lead to that money being automatically given to poor people? It boggles the mind.)

But many, many more will starve in the future if we can’t improve agricultural yields. We basically already use all our arable land already. On the planet. All of it. To think that we can just “reduce waste” enough to feed billions of extra hungry people is patently absurd. And frankly, the idea that producers aren’t already throwing money hand over fist at “waste reduction” is also lunacy. I mean seriously, efficiency maximizes profits — even if evil-corporate-bayer-monsanto-chemical-greed were the sole motivation of food producers (and it’s not, they’re humans like you and me) they’d be doing everything they could to reduce waste because it would make them more money.

So here’s the TL;DR:

  1. Increased yield means increased supply.
  2. Increased supply in a fixed-demand environment means lower prices.
  3. Increased demand in a fixed supply (i.e. no increased yields) environment leads to higher prices.

So she’s arguing she’s going to help the poor by making food less affordable.

This isn’t just another load of science-denying lunacy from the anti-GMO scaremongers, it’s basic economics-denying lunacy, too. Poverty eradication would have a lot of positive side-effects, don’t get me wrong — we absolutely do need to work on wealth redistribution — but it wouldn’t solve the problem that increasing yields will solve, which is that there just isn’t going to be enough food.

Anyway, Steven Novella (of Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe fame) has a detailed post on the technology over at NeuroLogica Blog, as well as its potential benefits and shocking lack of risks. You should go check it out to get more on the story.

And have a great day.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.