Assessing genetically modified crops

There is a lot of tension between opponents of genetically modified crops and the use of pesticides in agriculture and the proponents of large, industrial agriculture. (“World Food Prize needs to change its mission,” Sharon Donovan, Des Moines Register, Jan. 20, 2018) In Iowa it has pitted anti-GMO protesters and the Occupy the World Food Prize organization against the Des Moines-based World Food Prize Foundation and the financial support by the state of Iowa and large agribusinesses.

The environmental concerns of environmentalists, organic farmers and small subsistence farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America are worthy of discussion.

Overuse of pesticides and nitrogen as well as the expensive GMO crops and their linked specialized herbicides are of concern.

Algae blooms in lakes and streams and downriver in the Gulf of Mexico needs to be addressed.

When it costs more to grow crops than their market price, something needs to be reassessed. When rivers, lakes and streams are green with eutrophication from runoff, solutions must be found.

However, I just got my issue of the Economist magazine and was alarmed by an article on agriculture in Africa.

It turns out that there is a massive infestation of fall armyworm caterpillar now raging across the continent. This pest reproduces very quickly and as a moth can travel 60 miles a night. The female lays as much as 1,000 eggs.

The worm itself loves maize (corn), which is a staple crop in Africa. There are roughly 35 million hectares of maize mostly planted by small farmers, most of it now under serious threat. Unless remediated, this crop loss will precipitate a food crisis in a continent that’s already stressed by population growth, war, violence and tight food supply.

I am looking at two maps of Africa. In the first, from 2016, only Nigeria is marked in red as confirmed presence of the fall armyworm. By December of 2017, in another map, all of Africa south of the Sahara is either dark red where the pest has been confirmed and pink where it is suspected and awaiting confirmation.

Some of the proposed solutions include more and vigorous crop rotation from maize, releasing natural predators and removing the caterpillar eggs by hand.

A more promising solution according to agronomists is to introduce genetically modified crops which are resistant to the caterpillar. 

That’s one reason U.S. farmers plant genetically modified crops and use new generation pesticides since the fall armyworm has also been a threat to crops in the United States. These high-tech agrisolutions have allowed farmers in Iowa and the U.S. to fight various pests albeit at significant cost.

But there is one problem with the proposed genetically modified seed solution in Africa. Thanks to anti-GMO activists, most African countries have prohibited these crops.

It would seem that a second problem would be the steep price for these seeds and the attending pesticides for small family farmers who are still the principal maize producers in that continent.

Foreign aid could make a big difference in this transition and in other ways of fending off the threat of crop destruction. However, we are living in a moment when many Americans and the administration in Washington are opposed to more government and deeply skeptical of foreign aid.

It’s not surprising that many of the recipients of the World Food Prize advocate for new, modern and perhaps GMO crops to accelerate yields and increase the food supply in places like Africa.

Now there is an additional reason to discuss the benefits as well as risks of GMOs — namely the threat of the hungry worms.

Steffen Schmidt is the Lucken Endowed Professor of Political Science at Iowa State University.

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