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Genetically Modified Organisms and Global Agricultural Subsistence: An Anthropological Perspective

Copyright © Darrell A. Joyce 2003

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First posted: October 6, 2003; Last modified September 23, 2005

In the mid-eighteenth century, Ireland suffered from “The Great Famine” of 1845, the most severe potato blight in Irish history. Irish potato crops were plagued with a new fungus, phytophthora infestons, which reduced the crops to ‘rotted compost’ (Ireland’s Potato Famine 1999) in a very short time period. The country’s economy was left in shambles, and the population of Ireland decreased from 8.2 million to 4.2 million due to disease, starvation and emigration. Famine-related deaths are estimated at about 1.5 million. The Great Famine had a major impact on Irish subsistence patterns for years to follow, including the increased popularity of livestock farming. The country’s religious beliefs intensified (specifically Catholicism) and many Irish emigrated to Canada, the United States and England. What might have saved the Irish from this awful and devastating famine is the modern technology of Genetic Modification (or genetically engineered crops). We will return to this concept in a moment.

The observant reader will have noticed the phrase “An Anthropological Perspective” in the title of this paper, and wondered ‘What does Anthropology have to do with a potato famine?’ Cultural Anthropologists (and on a more detailed level, Biological Anthropologists) study subsistence patterns of various cultures. Subsistence patterns and strategies of a society is the method of how people produce, distribute and consume food (Robbins 1999). Since the 1930’s, anthropologists have classified cultures based on their subsistence patterns (foraging, pastoralism, horticulture and intensive agriculture). The intensive agriculture subsistence pattern is how most developed countries produce their food. Industrialized agriculture-based societies involve a small number of full-time farming specialists who use various farming methods (irrigation, mechanized equipment, fertilization, pesticides and herbicides) to produce high yields of crops (Hower 2003).  This type of society created the urban city centres where most of our commerce takes place today. Because of the production of high-yield crops, fewer people were needed to produce food to feed other members of their group, and so they could specialize in non-food producing jobs. They also became more stratified among age and gender than societies using other subsistence patterns (Hower 2003). This form of subsistence also brought about a new power hierarchy with divine rulers or popular elect at the top, non-food producing specialists in the middle (the middle class) and food-producing specialists at the bottom.

Each day, 35,000 children under the age of five die of starvation or preventable infectious diseases which result from malnourishment (Robbins 1999). Anthropologists play a special role in helping people to understand the reasons for this tragedy. A major area of anthropological research is the subsistence patterns and strategies of societies. By studying food production and consumption of various societies, anthropologists can better understand reasons for world hunger and create strategies to prevent hunger from increasing. Some of the many problems which cause world hunger are: infertile soil, inadequate growing climates, crop diseases, and poor resources. As an example, several anthropologists and world hunger specialists have studied the quantity of foods grown and produced in the world compared to the number of the malnourished and as one UN specialist noted “…there is enough food to feed each person, each day. But it isn’t happening because it’s access to food that’s the real problem” (Robbins 1999).

A possible solution to world hunger is utilizing genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) to make crops more disease resistant and able to grow in a harsher environment. Norman Borlang, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1970 for a lifetime of work feeding the hungry, states, “…more than 85 percent of future growth in cereal production must come from increasing yields on lands already in production” through the development of  “varieties with higher genetic yield potential and greater tolerance of drought, insects and diseases. To achieve these genetic gains, advances in both conventional and biotechnology research will be needed” (Glassman 2002). There is some concern with regards to GMO’s because of a possibility that these plants will create superweeds (weeds that have crossbred with crops to become resistant to herbicides) and superbugs (insects that build up a tolerance to insecticides which have been bred into the crops’ DNA). There is also concern that there might be adverse health effects which have not yet been discovered, to people and animals who consume GMO’s. What many people don’t realize is that genetic modification has been going on for many years, using the traditional method of cross-breeding different plant species. Americans have been eating genetically modified corn since the mid 1990’s without any adverse health effects (Glassman 2002). In addition, genetically modified crops represent half of all corn acreage and 70% of all soybean acreage in the U.S. (Glassman 2002). According to Borlang, “The world has the technology—either available or well advanced in the research pipeline—to feed a population of 10 billion people” (Glassman 2002).

Revisiting the potato famine example, we come to a potato problem which plagued the campesino farmers in Chacas, Peru. A few years ago, campesino farmers were weathering a drought as well as receiving shipments of blighted, virus-infected potato seeds. Scientists at the “Centro Internacional de la Papa” (CIP) or International Potato Center, developed a ‘new’ method of seed production called True Potato Seeds (TPS). This method (which was originally created by the Incas over 500 years ago) involved creating a cross-bred potato species made from a local potato and a potato the center developed specifically for disease resistance (Elton 2000). Usually, campesino potato farmers planted potato tubers which produced genetically identical plants (clones), which left the potato plants prone to disease. The TPS technology involved using actual potato seeds to start the plants in a greenhouse and then transplant them to the ground after they have sprouted. With TPS technology, farmers could produce a higher yield from fewer seeds, and these seeds were less expensive than similar products available on the market. In addition, these seeds did not spread disease or viruses (as occurs with seed tubers), and farmers can schedule harvests at their convenience (Portillo 1997). Other techniques currently being developed will allow farmers to reintroduce native potatoes, which have been unavailable for years, to their communities.

In conclusion, I believe that before we condemn genetically modified organisms, we should give them  a fair chance and perhaps with further study, we can utilize this technology to reduce or perhaps eliminate world hunger. From an anthropological perspective, we should continue to study how hunger, famine and genetic engineering could affect the industrialized-agricultural societies. From this research, anthropologists could greatly contribute to the social and economical impacts on society of genetically modified crops.

References Cited

Elton, Catherine. 2000. Science Saves Peru’s Potato. The Christian Science Monitor. March 21.

Glassman, James K. 2002. Norman Borlaug : Solving World Hunger Through Genetics. Capitalism Magazine. November 21. []

Hower, Sean. 2003. What are Subsistence Strategies?: Growth Through Biotechnology[] 

1999 Ireland’s Potato Famine [

Portillo, Zoraida. 1997 True Potato Seed, a Blessing for the Poor. July. ListServ [][]

Robbins, Richard 1999 Anthropology and Global Hunger. Editor’s Choice. April 15. []


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