Will genetically modified organisms (GMOs) help feed the world? It is one of the principal arguments put forward in favor of their use in agriculture. As with most of the claims made about GMOs (and there are many), it is hard to prove.
The first difficulty is created by the sheer diversity of GM seed varieties. There are hundreds of modified forms for major crop types such as corn or soya. Agricultural production can vary dramatically from one year to the next, and from one field to the next. Few serious studies have been made on the subject, and no two have reached the same conclusions.
At best, GM foods increase returns by just a few percentage points. But controversial issues such as the impact of GMOs on health and the environment, the potential for widespread diffusion of modified genes, and the impossibility of reversing this process are the source of heated debate. Besides, dealing effectively with food shortages is more a question of distribution than of agricultural production.
Given the uncertainties surrounding GMOs and the relatively modest advantages they bring, most opponents have been lobbying for governments to be cautious and wait before using. them. They protest against existing GM crop cultivation and criticize the lack of public debate on the subject. Strong opposition movements are being formed across the globe, for example in France, led by José Bové, and in India, led by Vandana Shiva.
This has not stopped the spread of GM crops. In 2008, they covered a total of 309 million acres (125 million hectares) in twenty-five countries. In response, international measures have been put in place by the Convention on Biological Diversity, focusing principally on the labeling and traceability of products that contain GMOs. For some, these measures don’t go far enough, but at least they ensure that consumers who disapprove of GMOs can avoid them.