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Why We Don't Need GMOs

Walking through a rice field in Bihar | Photo: yumievriwan/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Despite seemingly winning every state ballot measure and Congressional-level attempt to regulate, GMOs are inherently a tough sell on the public. And it's for a simple reason: no one really wants them in their food.

It's not like anybody's emailing Monsanto, demanding they continue pumping out GMOs. There's no "superfans" out there who'd come to their defense if a state law banning them was passed. If they ceased to exist, nary a consumer would shed a tear. And yet they've become accepted as simply part of the deal when it comes to producing food today because of a simple three-word defense that no one's able to refute:

"We need them."

The opening lines from this abstract discussing whether or not humans "need" GMOs sum up why:

As the population of the world continues to increase, it will be accompanied by an increase in the demand for food. Since the total acreage planted is no longer increasing, unless new production technology is adopted, such an increase in demand that is unmatched by an increase in supply in the world food market will raise food prices and lead to food shortages, especially in underdeveloped countries.

Because of our booming population, the argument goes, the only way to create enough food is to use genetically-altered organisms. In other words, if nature can only produce 500 loaves of bread, and we need 1,000 to feed everyone, then it's worth using possibly-risky methods such as GMOs to come up with the additional 500. To not agree to this is to be forced to answer the more morality-tinged question of just who, in that case, should starve?

It's really a genius debate tactic by the GMO lobby. (And one that seemingly worked on one of the anti-GMO side's biggest proponents.) But it also leaves an out that can be exploited. If someone can find a way to use natural, organic methods in order to create the same massive amounts of crops that GMOs are used to create, then there really wouldn't be a reason to use them anymore, right? As it turns out, the solution may have been found in one of the most unlikeliest of places: Poor rice farmers in India.

As this fascinating piece over at The Guardian reports, farmers in India's poorest state of Bihar have been growing record amounts of rice without the assistance of any GMOs or herbicides. Instead, they're growing crops using the method of System of Rice Intensification (or SRI), which forgoes men in white coats wielding syringes with simple, old fashioned techniques:

Instead of planting three-week-old rice seedlings in clumps of three or four in waterlogged fields, as rice farmers around the world traditionally do, the Darveshpura farmers carefully nurture only half as many seeds, and then transplant the young plants into fields, one by one, when much younger. Additionally, they space them at 25cm intervals in a grid pattern, keep the soil much drier and carefully weed around the plants to allow air to their roots.

By doing this, farmers have brought to fruition crazy-big yields of wheat, potatoes, sugar cane, yams, tomatoes, garlic, and aubergine. The method's being hailed as "one of the most significant developments in the past 50 years," and presents a long-term, sustainable, organic alternative to the current GMO-saturated solution.

Which isn't to say that SRI doesn't have its detractors. There's plenty of nay-sayers who claim there isn't enough "peer-reviewed" testing to prove the method works, and that some farmers had difficulty replicating the results. But the big takeaway from all of this shouldn't be the, as of yet, lack of verification. It's that GMO-producing companies may have just lost their one big defense. It's that, if these companies really are concerned about producing enough to feed the world, perhaps they should siphon a few of their top scientists away from the microscopes and fly them to the rice fields of India.

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