Misconceptions About Overpopulation and Global Food

capitalism genetically modified food GMOs overpopulation third world

I don't actually take issue with using genetically modified crops in ethical ways. I believe that, like most technology genetic modification can be used for good or evil. Monsanto, with it's Roundup Ready crops that rely on their own pesticides and which produce no viable seeds, is clearly in the latter category. Developing seed lines that can reproduce and do not need other inputs, but which are resistant to devastating parasites or floods, seems less problematic. In the context of a non-profit, humanitarian effort, there isn't much incentive to make bad seeds (pardon the pun).

The Things We Never Question

Nevertheless, there were a few problems I had with the article. The first is the premise that unlimited human population growth is both permissible and desirable. I always find it odd in social science texts that the discussion of all the problems with human overpopulation is never accompanied by an honest assessment of the root cause. Authors will ominously cite predictions of huge growths in population, and then offer a wide variety of suggestions that only seek to address the symptoms. Why doesn't someone say that maybe human population should be limited? The world will not really be any better off if there are another 7 billion of us on it. So why do we feel the need to keep adding to our numbers?

The upward trend in human population is used as an argument in support of GMOs. Monsanto claims that they are using science to feed a growing world. Without their innovative products and helpful services, millions would starve and billions more wouldn't have the food to come into being in the first place.

I don't advocate killing people off, but if population is still growing, that implies that there is enough food to support procreation. Also, maybe we shouldn't be creating conditions that support more and more people. Don't get me wrong, I love people, but you'd have to be pretty out of touch to think that overpopulation isn't a big problem.

The second problem I had with the article is the assumption that there isn't enough food to feed the world's population as it is. The truth is that there is plenty of food to feed every human being on this planet. The problem isn't one of production, but rather of distribution. US supermarkets and restaurants throw out tons of perfectly good food every day. This is done because of expiry date requirements and laws that are in place to ensure a constant demand for food. It's all about making money.

Interestingly, there is an entire movement of people who dig through supermarket trash for fresh, untouched food that they take home. This is, oddly, illegal. These people are called Freegans.

So there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone, and yet it goes to waste. This seems stupid to me because I can go to my local grocery store and buy apples from New Zealand, that are fresh and crisp and tasty (though not as tasty as New York apples). Clearly it is cost effective to ship food across the world. So why don't we ship some of our food to the people that need it, instead of moving it to supermarkets who just throw it out?

The Causes, and a Bit of a History Rant


Food goes where the money is, not where the hungry are. This is a sad reality of our world. But it is important to keep in mind that the real reason people are starving in Africa has nothing to do with our planet's inability to support a growing population and everything to do with the profit-incentives of American farmers and agribusiness.

Sufficient food used to be grown in Africa. After all, it is the cradle of humanity. You'd think the continent would know how to feed itself after playing host to humans for the better part of our history as a species. And then Europeans got involved, colonizing and generally messing things up. Nevertheless, food wasn't originally one of those things. Economy and infrastructure was. In an attempt to make amends, the Western world offered development aid to the third-world, but in order to qualify for this aid, the third-world nations had to follow certain guidelines. One of these was that these countries should stop wasting their arable land on crops that provide a balanced and sufficient diet (subsistence farming, it was called) and instead focus on cash crops that the rest of the world will actually pay for. That is what a modern nation would do, and if the third-world wanted the money, they had better at least pretend that they were serious about being 'modern.' So all the arable land went from growing a wide variety of nutritious food to monoculture plantations that created either non-edibles, a single edible crop (effectively eliminating most of the nutritional profile of a nation's diet), or crops that needed to be processed to be eaten (soybeans, rapeseed, etc).

Add to that the Western government's decision to protect their farmers by tinkering with the prices of these crops, and pretty soon the third-world was producing grain nobody would buy, and which their own citizens couldn't afford. Grain shortages in Egypt were the result of the British-controlled government growing only cotton in order to sell to Britain. Nowadays, certain African countries are better environments for growing wheat, but because of price controls and American subsidies to its own farmers, these countries cannot sell their wheat. Poverty makes it impossible for locals to afford their own country's grain, and companies like Monsanto ensure that farmers' costs are so high by selling them non-viable seeds that require the use of expensive machinery and pesticides.

Some Solutions

There are at least two solutions I can see to this problem. The first is simply to get over our obsession with money and show a little humanity. Food should go where it is needed, especially if it is our profit-incentives that caused the problem in the first place. Just give it away. Or at least play nice with price controls. The second solution is to make it profitable to move food where it is needed. I don't know how to do that, but it makes a whole lot more sense than fat people in America and starving people in India.

Maybe the solution is to create GMOs that are cheaper and easier to grow, but I feel like, given all that I've explained above, this is really just a way to sidestep the real issue. Instead of wasting time and effort on genetically modified crops, why don't we just make better use of the crops we already have? In the meantime, we might want to start questioning the wisdom of enabling continued and unchecked population growth. If we spend all of our time playing catch-up just to keep that trend going, maybe it's something we shouldn't be so quick to accept and defend.

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