A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

The Feeding of the 12 Billion

Robert W. Herdt
Jennifer A. Herdt

How are we to feed the 7.2 billion people perched on this planet and the two to three billion more who will be here before 2050? Are there things we must not do, in our efforts to feed the hungry? Christians regard the world not simply as matter to manipulate but as God’s creation. May we “engineer” creation to alleviate hunger?

Fifteen percent of humanity is hungry today; world population will likely rise beyond 9.6 billion in 2050 to approximately 11-12 billion in 2100.1 Rising incomes of poor people mean they want to eat more and different food; production will have to increase about twice as fast as population. Many agricultural scientists find this a daunting challenge, understanding that if production does not keep pace with demand, food prices will rise and the poor will suffer first and worst.2 Christian love calls us to respond to hunger in the world with as good an understanding of God’s creation as we can muster.

Early Innovators

Early farmers selected seeds for the next season’s planting, becoming the first plant breeders and thereby gradually increasing food production. At the beginning of the 19th century, 80 percent of the world was chronically hungry, but agricultural scientists, learning from those first plant breeders, created improved varieties and crop production methods. The use of those innovations, together with more land, has allowed food production to more than keep pace with population. By the end of the 20th century, less than 20 percent of the world was hungry.3 Though over 800 million people are undernourished today, that is 168 million fewer than in 1990.4 That reduction would not have been possible without modern agriculture.

The genetics of nearly every crop and animal used as food have been changed over the past century, and companies have been making profits on hybrid seeds for nearly a century.5 What, then, is new about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or varieties created by genetic engineering? Genetic engineering uses molecular knowledge to clone genes from any organism and to introduce those cloned genes into any other organism, so for example bacterial genes can be made to function in plants.

This raises three ethically salient issues. First, genes that could not be introduced into plants by means of their ordinary reproductive pathways – the fertilization of seeds – may now be implanted directly into their genomes through genetic engineering (GE).6

Second, the introduction of known genes usually requires an accompanying “marker” gene that can, if not carefully managed, have unintended consequences, such as the introduction of allergens.

Third, in the U.S. the law allows the patenting of molecular tools and cloned genes. This controversial decision has allowed consolidation of plant breeding in a few very large companies, whose essential monopoly creates conditions ripe for unjust profits. While the threat to the common good posed by monopolies is hardly new, we need to be clear-sighted about how profoundly new patent law shapes the potential for new genetic technologies to be used to line the pockets of a few, rather than to benefit the many.

New Loaves and Fishes

Christians relate to God’s creation as a gift loved into existence, a world to be cherished. When we behold creation as gift, scarcity is transformed into plenitude as the loaves and fishes become enough to feed the crowds when they gather in gratitude. This does not mean that we are simply to sit on the hillside and wait for bread to be placed in our hands, however. What it does mean is that as we use knowledge and understanding to transform the natural world, we ought always to do so in a way that serves God’s purposes.

The gift of creation is given in love to serve love’s ends. Christians, confronted by hunger and a sometimes harsh and alienating natural order, seek solidarity with the suffering – seek to respond to the hunger in the world. But love must be married to justice and tempered by humility. Many harms have been inflicted in the name of good intentions. We must reflect on the potential consequences of our actions and must be vigilant for unintended consequences – effects on the disenfranchised, on markets, on other species, and on the natural world more broadly.

Weighing the Risks

It is easy to conclude that we should not play God – much harder to know precisely what we may and may not do as we “till and keep” the garden in which we find ourselves. The known costs of conventional agriculture are high, in terms both of damage to human health and to the environment. When we weigh the risk of unintended consequences of new efforts to increase food production, we must seek to reduce, not increase, such costs.

Crops engineered to be resistant to a certain herbicide enable farmers to use it to kill weeds, while crops engineered to resist insect damage enable farmers to reduce insecticide use. The two are significantly different in their environmental effects: The former requires ongoing use of herbicides, whose toxicity remains an issue; the latter reduce pesticide exposure in farmworkers and the environment. In both cases, the impact requires careful assessment.

A comprehensive review of the scientific literature on the environmental effects of GE crops concludes that it is agriculture itself that affects biodiversity – by encouraging the growth of a particular species and discouraging the growth of competing species – and that GE crops do not increase this impact in any predictable or generalizable way.7 A much publicized study of monarch butterflies was done by feeding GE crops to them in a laboratory; many subsequent studies in farm fields failed to confirm the lethal findings of that study.8 Recent reviews of research on the effects of GE crops on human health concluded that no adverse effects from GE food had been substantiated.9 It is important that such research continue to scrutinize the impact of GE crops. However, a blanket condemnation of genetically modified organisms is not consistent with our duty to understand their consequences as well as we can.

Wheat, rice, and corn are the primary food of four to five billion people, providing two-thirds of their food calories and protein. Corn and soybeans are the primary feed for poultry, pigs, and dairy cows. Virtually all the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are from genetically engineered seed, while no genetically engineered wheat is grown because virtually no research has been done to create GE wheat.

Golden Potential

Rice is different. In 1995, at the dawn of crop genetic engineering, it was recognized that Vitamin A deficiency led to blindness, immune deficiencies, and the deaths of millions of children in poor countries where rice is the main food source. Vitamin A comes from beta-carotene, which naturally occurs in green leafy vegetables, carrots, and other foods that are scarce in these countries, and getting people to add such foods to their diets is slow and difficult. Some in the philanthropic community imagined that if rice could be engineered to produce beta-carotene, great tragedy could be alleviated. Such rice varieties have now been created.10 Their grain is light yellow but tastes like normal rice. Called “Golden Rice” for their color and their potential to reduce human suffering, they have been tested for efficacy in providing Vitamin A and have passed all safety and environmental tests by the responsible agencies in India, China, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

The biotechnology research to create Golden Rice was carried out with philanthropic and government funding and made use of available science and technology, some of which is patented. The philanthropic community has convinced the patent holders to license their inventions at no cost so those who need Golden Rice in poor nations where rice is a staple crop have free access to it.

Despite this, except for small test quantities, Golden Rice has never been grown where it is needed because political opposition in those countries has prevented it. Here too, it is not clear that a blanket opposition to genetically modified food reflects adequate ethical assessment.

So, we have work to do. We are called to feed the hungry, be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and use all human knowledge and ingenuity to do so. But we are responsible for all that we do: Both ends and means must be permissible and defensible, and the risks of potential unintended consequences must be weighed against the reduction of present dangers and potential future benefits using the best knowledge available.

Encountering creation as gift, we can draw on science and technological innovations – but only insofar as we assure these are responsibly tested and regulated with an eye to the common good. Creative gratitude, responding to need with a love that works justice, can transform scarcity into plenitude.

Jennifer Herdt is Gilbert Stark Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School. She is the author of Putting On Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices (Chicago, 2008) and other writings. Robert Herdt is International Professor of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University’s Dyson School, and was Director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s global agricultural program from 1984-2000.


1 World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013).

2 Agricultural Productivity Strategies for the Future: Addressing U.S. and Global Challenges, Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), 2010, Issue Paper 45.

3 Robert W. Fogel, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1900-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

4 The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013. (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2014).

5 Hybrid corn, widely grown since the 1930s, cannot be replanted, so new seeds must be used each season. Farmers have chosen to buy the seeds because the higher yields and revenue generated consistently outweigh the extra cost of the seeds.

6 Since all crops have been genetically modified, we prefer GE to GMO.

7 Alan B. Bennett, et al., “Agricultural Biotechnology: Economics, Environment, Ethics, and the Future,” in Annual Review of Environment and Resources, vol. 38 (2013), pp. 249-79.

8 A.J. Conner, T.R. Glare, J.P. Nap, “The release of genetically modified crops into the environment,” Plant Journal 33 (2003), pp. 19–46.

9 S. Key, J.K. Ma, P.M. Drake, 2008. “Genetically modified plants and human health,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 101 (2008), pp. 290–98. American Medical Association, Report on the Council on Science and Public Health (American Medical Association, 2012). Royal Society, Review of Data on Possible Toxicity of GM Potatoes (Royal Society, 1999) toxicity-gm-potatoes/. European Food Safety Authority, “Final review of the Séralini et al. (2012a) publication on a two-year rodent feeding study with glyphosate formulations and GM maize NK603 as published online on 19 September 2012 in Food and Chemical Toxicology,” European Food Safety Authority Journal 10: 2986.

10 Golden Rice Humanitarian Board. See

Issue Title: 
At Risk: Our Food, Our Water, Ourselves
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