Commercial Science and World Hunger: Issues of Social Justice Concerning Genetically Modified Organisms

[1] The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s social statement on economic life, “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All,” cites Martin Luther’s assertion that Christians violate God’s commandment, “you shall not kill,” when people lack the ability to meet their basic needs of life.[1] Since nearly one-sixth of the world’s population lacks access to the food necessary for an active, healthy life, it is safe to say that Christians are not living up to God’s expectations. Approximately 800 million people in the developing world face chronic food insecurity.[2] In the United States, nearly 34 million people faced food insecurity in 2001.[3]

[2] With the world population expected to continue to rise, it is reasonable to pursue scientific research and new technologies to meet the food needs of the growing population. However, because the potential advantages and disadvantages, and potential risks and benefits, of any scientific application or new technology are not known or understood at the outset, it is also reasonable to proceed cautiously and skeptically.[4]

[3] One new technology that is receiving much attention is genetically modified organisms (GMOs).[5] Those who favor using GMOs in agricultural production point to the potential to produce more commodities with less energy, chemical, and labor inputs. In contrast, some researchers contend that rural and community development programs that focus on agroecological, organic, and other low-input production strategies directed at meeting the needs of farmers and communities would be more effective at meeting present and future food needs.[6] This emphasis on farmer and community issues serves to highlight the social, economic, and political concerns surrounding agricultural production and food distribution that are all too often ignored by GMO proponents.

[4] When considering the advantages and disadvantages of GMOs in agriculture and food, three criteria have dominated discussions: safety for human consumption, animal and environmental risks, and efficacy. William Lacy argues that a fourth criterion, regarding the distribution of the risks and benefits of GMOs, has been largely ignored.[7] Although there are reasons to be concerned about the regulatory capacity to monitor the first three criteria, regulatory agencies are in place to monitor and manage emerging risks.[8] What does not exist is an agency to monitor the social justice of the distribution of the social, economic, and environmental consequences (negative and positive) of a new technology.[9] Furthermore, GMOs are being produced by large companies with relatively new patent protections that favor company profits over the capacity of farmers to tailor their crops to their local social, economic, and ecological contexts.[10] Without adequate policies to distribute the advantages and disadvantages of GMO fairly and justly, it is even reasonable to speculate that this new technology could exacerbate the problem of world hunger.

[5] Despite these valid concerns, proponents of GMOs claim a moral high ground in the GMO debate. This is problematic because they tend to base their claims on two problematic ideologies that serve to obfuscate a pragmatic evaluation of the potential risks and benefits of GMOs. After discussing GMO proponents’ morally loaded claims, I will critically evaluate the two underlying assumptions. I will then discuss the basic policies and conditions that would need to be in place for GMOs to contribute to reducing world hunger.

The Struggle for the Moral High Ground
[6] Perhaps because they realize the power behind the claim that they can feed the world, GMO proponents have launched morally loaded attacks against their opponents, especially since the European Union banned GMOs in 1998.[11] For example, President George Bush recently “charged…that Europe’s ban on genetically modified food had discouraged third world countries from using that technology and thus undermined efforts to end hunger in Africa.”[12] The implication is that hunger in Africa would end if the opposition to GMOs were to end. GMO proponents even staged a fake parade of “real, live, developing-world farmers” at the Earth Summit in August 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa, to create the impression that small farmers want access to GMOs and that they reject activists and environmentalists who presume to speak on their behalf.[13]

[7] Some accuse the Bush administration of using the issue of world hunger as a cynical attempt to distract the public from the real goal of serving the interests of large agricultural biotechnology companies by toppling Europe’s ban on GMOs.[14] Margot Wallström, the European Union’s environment commissioner, called the GMO proponents’ argument a “lie” generated by biotechnology companies to mask the real intention, which “was to solve starvation amongst shareholders, not the developing world.”[15]

[8] Despite the cynical and manipulative practices of the Bush administration and of large corporations, there are well-intentioned scientists, farmers, policy makers, and others whobelieve that GMOs can serve as a useful tool in solving problems associated with hunger.[16] The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) claims that “biotechnology offers the prospect of a more secure food supply in developing countries through improved yields, improved suitability for local conditions and improved nutrition.”[17] Unfortunately, the marriage of two ideologies is preventing the honest assessment of the social, political and economic contexts necessary to meet the GMO potential.

The Ideologies Behind Commercial Science
[9] Lawrence Busch has described three prominent problem-solving discourses that emerged during the crisis of moral authority and order that followed the Protestant Reformation: scientism, statism, and marketism. Scientism rests on the assumption that scientific methods enable scientists to generate knowledge that is free of social interests, so that it may serve as the source of unlimited public goods and as the final word in political debates. Statism presupposes that human beings are individualistic, boorish and aggressive, making a powerful state structure necessary to maintain civil order. Marketism refers to the belief that a society that is organized around a market that enables the free exchange of goods and services is largely self-regulating and will serve as a cornucopia.[18]

[10] According to Busch, these problem-solving discourses became dominant in various contexts and at different periods in history. One could argue that the welfare-state (a.k.a Fordism or Keynesianism) in the U.S. after the Second World War reflected the scientism ideology. The assumption was that nation-states could use scientific principles to manage economies to ensure the natural resource and labor conditions necessary for continuous economic growth.[19] Furthermore, Americans were so certain that science could bring social and economic salvation after World War II that they would have considered it absurd to think that science was politically or economically charged.[20]

[11] Scientism as a state-management strategy came into question during the economic problems of the 1970s. Business leaders, economists, and politicians asserted that the private sector’s ability to generate profits while producing cheaper products and simultaneously increasing wages within the assembly-line factory system had reached its limits. However, despite its demise as a governing philosophy, the products of science were still seen as the foundation of economic growth. Scientism advocates claimed that university-based science could serve as the foundation of an “information economy,” specifically the life sciences industry, which would provide new opportunities for companies to add value to (i.e., to extract profit from) the production process.[21]

[12] One could argue that these shifts in governance rhetoric were a form of statism. After all, the changes were the result of nation-state deregulation and reregulation strategies.[22] However, the rhetoric accompanying the efforts to convert research universities into economic growth engines has been anti-state and dependent upon a rationale that public resources should be used to promote university-based scientific research that may be converted into marketable products. The 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which encouraged universities to patent federally funded research discoveries, and the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision Diamond v. Chakrabarty (447 U.S. 303), which provided complete patent protection for genetically engineered life forms from microorganisms to plants and animal, institutionalized the new ideology.[23] Thus, it may be more accurate to characterize the governing ideology as a scientism-marketism hybrid.

[13] In order to look more clearly at the potential for GMOs to solve the problem of world hunger, we need to dissect this new marketable science ideology into its component parts and explain how scientism and marketism serve to obfuscate the search for solutions to hunger.

Scientism and the Problem of (Over)Production
[14] The Green Revolution popularized the notion that the world would see the end of hunger, poverty, population growth, and the rise of communism by applying science to increase production.[24] The problem is that hunger is more complicated than scientism believers tend to understand. Subsidized overproduction in industrialized countries; debt, exploitation and poverty in the developing countries; and politicians captured by free-market dogmas and corporate interests in industrialized and developing countries are the causes of hunger. Because of the lack of recognition of this complexity, the Green Revolution fell short of expectations, which is why the strikingly similar assumptions behind the GMO claims are troubling.

[15] A recent New York Times article recorded 350 million hungry people in India, even as crops rotted in the field and as crops from past years sat untouched in granaries.[25] Such occurrences have been common since the first modern famine, the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, when a fungus nearly eliminated the primary food source for the tenant farmers in Ireland. As Busch notes, “Ironically, during the entire period of the famine, Ireland continued to export grain, meat, and other expensive foodstuffs-in quantities that would have been more than able to alleviate the famine.”[26] The problem was not a lack of food. The problem was an economic system in which the productive land was owned by a few who exploited poor tenant farmers to produce commodities for export while a free-market ideology paralyzed the political will to solve the problem (more on that ideology in the next section). And the same can be said of more recent famines, hunger, and starvation. They are seldom caused by food shortages.[27] The Indian agricultural crisis of the 1950s was one caused by Colonialism, which concentrated land holdingsin the hands of the few and made Indians dependent on cash crops for export to Great Britain.[28]

[16] One of the horrible ironies of today’s world hunger problem is that food shortages are often caused by agricultural commodity surpluses.[29] The introduction of industrial agricultural practices in the United States about 100 years ago created the problem of overproduction.[30] Overproduction drove the price of agricultural commodities down, leading to a decline in farm numbers in the U.S. from 6 million in the 1930s to less than 2 million today.[31] Currently, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, just over 180,000 farms (under 10% of all farms) produce 75% of agricultural products sold.[32]

[17] After the Second World War, the U.S. sought to fix the problem of overproduction by exporting surplus commodities to the developing world. The claim was that one export policy could solve three problems: 1) overproduction inthe U.S., 2) hunger in the developing world, and thus 3) undermine the spread of communism.[33] Instead, the U.S. simply exported the problem of overproduction to the developing world, leading to a mass migration of small farmers and peasants to join the landless poor who live in slums surrounding large cities. The Green Revolution exacerbated this trend. For example, an important component of the strategy was to “transform Mexico into a modern industrial state by reducing the proportion of the population working on the farm.”[34] When the Green Revolution was exported to India and other countries, the goal was the same: develop input-intensive monocropping that primarily large, wealthy farmers were able to use. The primary goal of increasing production was achieved. But the failure to consider collateral issues led to depleted soils, disease- and insect-vulnerable crops, drained aquifers and water-logged deserts from irrigation, and indebted farmers.[35]

[18] More importantly, “as the yields rose [and commodity prices fell], many farmers lost their farms entirely and became part of the rapidly growing shantytowns, bidonvilles, and favelas surrounding the large cities of the developing world.”[36] Between 1950 and 1990, the world’s labor force in agriculture dropped by 33% (by 40% in the developing world). In 1950, NYC was the only megacity in the world. By 1995, there were 14 megacities. Ten of those megacities are in the developing world, and they are filled with poor, jobless people. These shifts are largely due to poor people moving to cities because their means of subsistence disappeared.[37]

[19] One prominent assumption behind the scientism of the Green Revolution, and now GMOs, is that cheaper food will mean that more people will have access. The problem with this assumption is that it ignores the fact that hunger and the demand for food are not the same thing. Millions of impoverished people in Africa and other parts of the world, including the United States, are making no demand in the market for food simply because they have no money. Increasing supply will not change that. But the marketism ideology inhibits this realization.

Marketism and the Public Good
[20] GMOs as intellectual property are the manifestation of the interconnection of scientism and marketism. The image cultivated by GMO proponents is one of scientists solving production and nutrition problems in the laboratory and then selflessly releasing the discoveries to anyone who might be able to apply the discoveries to a real-world need. A more accurate image is that research discoveries, whether in private companies or public research universities, are patented so that those companies and universities may generate a profit. This is true of all parts of the life sciences industry: chemical, pharmaceutical and agribusiness. Even the GMO research conducted in the public sector is patented so that universitiescan profit from their research and so that private companies can develop a product from it.[38]

[21] The knowledge economy, of which the GMOs are a part, has altered the economic landscape by making the value-added process (i.e. the justification for extracting profit) dependent upon the knowledge injected into the production process, not the amount of labor invested. Those who are able to generate, apply, and control intellectual property are more likely to benefit at the expense of those who supply the labor in the production process. The vast majority of intellectual property and the intellectual skills needed to generate it are concentrated in large companies, run by white men, in urban areas, in industrialized nations-especially the Unites States. As a result of this process, we should expect to see a continuing restructuring of the global economy that will lead to greater levels of poverty among women and people of color in rural areas because, especially in the developing world, labor is the most abundant asset.[39]

[22] The private sector’s efforts to solve problems like world hunger are limited because its capacity to conceptualize solutions is limited. Private companies and universities that are interested in profiting from their research will lack the motivation to seek out solutions to problems facing poor people, because poor people lack the money to make demands in the market. Problems facing fruits and vegetables that are important for a balanced diet and staples for poor people may also lack market share necessary to attract private-interest research. And finally, research on organic methods, cropping rotations, and other kinds of research that cannot be easily packaged into a marketable product will fall by the wayside.

[23] With the likelihood of continuing economic disparity in access to the new technology, and the general inability of the private sector to address the complexity of world hunger, one may ask how well-meaning people could even think that GMOs could generate widespread public benefits?

[24] This question tends not to get asked because of the prominence of a belief system, first articulated by Adam Smith, that holds that selfishness, greed, and competition generate public benefits. Buzzwords like “globalization” and “free markets” are the euphemisms used to mask policies and practices driven by selfishness, greed and competition, that in effect exploit people and nature. An alternative, competing belief system may be traced back through the Enlightenment to Jewish and Christian traditions. According to this belief system, altruism and cooperation are better suited to solving problems than selfishness, greed, and competition. In the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, God states that it is wrong to charge interest on a loan or to otherwise exploit people. Based on God’s commandments, the Christian governments of Europe once outlawed greed and usury. But the selfish-competition belief system has become so dominant in the public discourse that people seem incapable of conceptualizing alternatives.[40]

[25] New technologies and markets driven by self-interested interactions may be useful tools in enabling people to achieve some of their basic needs. However, trusting in technologies and markets becomes a part of the problem when these tools are raised to the level of ideology that trumps consideration of the social, economic, and political contexts of a social problem. Likewise, commercial-science products produced by large companies can be useful tools in addressing public needs, but they simply cannot supply the entire solution.

[26] It is seductive to imagine how large companies using the latest science and technology (in the form of GMOs) could quickly and efficiently solve the problem of world hunger. However, we should resist the seduction because it is irrational to think that science and technology are capable of overcoming problems that are inherently social, political, and economic. Moreover, self-interested competition is no substitute for altruistic cooperation in achieving the public interest. Despite public relations ploys-such as the donation of the 70 relevant patents on Golden Rice technology so that it might be released to the developing world-agricultural biotechnology companies are pushing GMOs because they envision profits.[41] If any company were to suggest donating the results of billions of dollars of research, the company’s shareholders would cash in their shares, and the company would collapse. GMOs are driven by profit seeking, not altruism. However, right now, any proposed solution to world hunger “that costs money puts it out of reach of the poorest households and countries.”[42]

[27] The private sector is simply not capable of addressing the vast majority of the problems our society faces. New ideas, new kinds of social organization, and new approaches to persistent problems seldom come in the form of a commodity. Technological quick-fixes and market magic are not adequate. Well-funded universities, spirit-filled religious communities, and informed and dynamic civic organizations are the necessary qualities for solving problems.

[28] Commercial products, like GMOs, may play a role in reducing world hunger, but only if rhetoric regarding science and markets does not become so hyperbolic that it displaces moral deliberation and collective action, oversight by strong governments and an alert and mobilized civil society to guarantee that the benefits from the private sector are distributed fairly and broadly. It is also essential that the focus on GMOs does not distract scientific and social scientific research on multiple perspectives and strategies for raising food. There are numerous examples of agroecological and sustainable agricultural practices generating high yields, improving community economic conditions, and reducing the negative impacts on the environment when the ingenuity of small farmers is combined with well-meaning researchers and extension agents.[43] Altruistic cooperation will be necessary to generate the political will to enable the implementation of policies necessary to conduct research and mobilize resources to solve the world hunger problem.


[2] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 1999. The State of Food Insecurity in the World. Rome, Italy: FAO.


[4] Pretty, 2002, 127. National Research Council, 2002. Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants: The Scope and Adequacy of Regulation. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

[5] Genetically modified organisms refer to any technique to manipulate plants and animals at the genetic level (identifying and isolating, inserting or removing, and/or activating or deactivating genes). Pretty, Jules. 2002. Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature. London: Earthscan Publications Limited. Pp. 126-128.

[6] National Research Council. 2002. Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants: The Scope and Adequacy of Regulations. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

[7] Lacy, William B. 2000. “Agricultural Biotechnology, Socioeconomic Issues, and the Fourth Criterion.” (pp. 77-89) In Thomas J. Murray and Maxwell J. Mehlman Encyclopedia of Ethical, Legal, and Policy Issues in Biotechnology. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

[8] NRC, 2002.

[9] Thompson, Paul. 1997. Food Biotechnology in Ethical Perspective. London: Blackie Academic and Professional. Pp. 235-239.

[10] Hubbell, Bryan J. and Rick Welsh. 1998. “Transgenic Crops: Engineering a more sustainable agriculture?” Agriculture and Human Values 15: 43-56.

[11] Bruno, K. 1998. “Monsanto’s Failing PR Strategy.” The Ecologist. 28(5): 287-293.

[12] David E. Sanger, “Bush Links Europe’s Ban on Bio-Crops With Hunger.” New York Times 22 May 2003: A3.

[13] See Val Gidding’s opinion piece “A Turning Point in Johannesburg?” Nature Biotechnology November 2002 20(11): 1081. After this parade, newspapers all over the world, including the Times of London, ran stories and op-ed pieces to chastise environmentalists and activists for their stance against GMOs (see James Shikwati, “I do not need white NGOs to speak for me” The Times of London, Tuesday, September 03, 2002). Eventually, journalists exposed the parade as a fake orchestrated by an organization representing transnational agricultural biotechnology companies (See Jonathan Matthews, “The Fake Parade.” Freezerbox Magazine. 3 December 2002.

[14] Elizabeth Becker and David Barboza, “Battle Over Biotechnology Intensifies Trade War” New York Times 29 May 2003. Section C , Page 1.

[15] Michael McCarthy, “US firms &=javascript:goNote(39tried to lie’ over GM crops, says EU” The Independent 14 October 2003.

[16] Pretty, 2002. Thompson, 1997.

[17] See summary of report at

[18] Busch, Lawrence. 2000. The Eclipse of Morality: Science, State, and Market. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

[19] Bonanno, Alessandro.1998. “Liberal democracy in the global era: Implications for the agro-food sector.” Agriculture and Human Values. 15(3): 223-242.

[20] Kleinman, D.L. 1995. Politics on the Endless Frontier: Postwar Research Policy in the United States. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[21] Krimsky, Sheldon. 2003. Science in the Private Interest: Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research? Lanham, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

[22] Bonanno, 1998.

[23] Eisenberg, R. S. 1996. “Public research and private development: Patents and technology transfer in government-sponsored research.” Virginia Law Review 82: 1664; Busch, L., W.B. Lacy, J. Burkhardt and L.R. Lacy, 1991. Plants Power and Profit: Social Economic, and Ethical Consequences of the New Biotechnologies. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

[24] Busch, 2002, p. 56.

[25] Waldman, Amy. 2002. “India’s Poor Starve as Wheat Rots.” New York Times. 2 December.

[26] Busch, 2002, p. 100.

[27] Sen, A.K. 1982. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[28] in the hands of the few and made Indians dependent on cash crops for export to Great Britain.

[29] Lappe, Frances Moore, Joseph Collins, Peter Rosset, and Luis Esparza. 1998. World Hunger: Twelve Myths. New York: Grove Press. Kloppenburg, Jack. 1988. First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[30] Danbom, David. 1979. The Resisted Revolution: Urban Agriculture and the Industrialization of Agriculture, 1900-1930. Ames: The Iowa State University Press.

[31] Glenna, Leland. Forthcoming. “Farm Crisis or Agricultural System Crisis: Defining National Problems in a Global Economy.” International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food.

[32] A slightly different figure is reported in a New York Times story: “300,000 full-time farmers account for 80 percent of production.” Feder, Barnaby J. 1996. “Old MacDonald Has a New Policy: Sowing Confusion on the Farm.” New York Times: February 11, Section 4, Page 5.

[33] Constance, Douglas H., Jere L. Gilles, and William D. Heffernan. 1990. “Agrarian Policies and Agricultural Systems in the United States.” In Alessandro Bonanno (ed.) Agrarian Policies and Agricultural Systems. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

[34] Busch, 2000, p. 58.

[35] Shiva, 1997, p. 19.

[36] Busch, 2000, p. 62.

[37] Araghi, Farshad. 2000. “The Great Global Enclosure of Our Times: Peasants and the Agrarian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century.” Pp. 145-160. In Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster, and Frederick H. Buttel. Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment. New York: Monthly Review Press. P. 146.

[38] Lacy, William B. 2000. “Commercialization of university research brings benefits, raises issues and concerns.” California Agriculture. 54(4): 72-79. Brown, James R. 2000. “Privatizing the University-The New Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 290:1701-1702.

[39] Enriquez, Juan. 2001. “Technology, Gene Research, and National Competitiveness.” Pp. 225-256. In Otto T. Solbrig, Robert Paarlberg, and Francesco di Castri. Globalization and the Rural Environment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[40] Glenna, Leland. 2002 “Liberal Economics and the Institutionalization of Sin: Christian and Stoic Vestiges in Economic Rationality.” Worldviews 6: 31-57.

[41] Lau, 2003. “Biotech and hunger–empty promises? Critics will confront scientists on genetic modification of food.” Sacramento Bee June 15.

[42] Pretty, 2002, 101.

[43] Pretty, 2002, 101.

Leland L. Glenna

Leland L. Glenna is Associate Professor of Rural Sociology and Science, Technology, and Society at The Pennsylvania State University.