future research questions in this vein are inherently geographical, and given increasing food prices, growing landlessness, urbanization, and rising (food-price related) civil unrest, research at the human–environment interface will become more pressing.
Even though multiple factors contributed to the food crisis of 2008 (including use of grain crops for ethanol production, financial speculation, increasing meat consumption in the low-income states, rising energy prices, and a growing population), many of the proposals for avoiding another food crisis focus on technological fixes, particularly the expanded use of GMCs. GMCs often elicit a bifurcated response—they are either cast as beneficial to both the environment and food production (Federoff and Brown, 2004) or criticized for their corporate origin and control, and their potential negative effects on agriculture.3 Evaluating these different claims requires geographically grounded empirical studies at multiple scales (household, village, region) in regions where GMCs have been introduced.
While the green revolution approach (involving the use of hybrid seeds, irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides in low-income countries) increased yields, it also created a host of environmental and social problems. Proponents of GMCs argue that these crops not only increase yields, but also they avoid many of the environmental problems associated with the green revolution approach, including pesticide and fertilizer runoff. Critics of GMCs are concerned about corporate control of seeds, the access of the poor to GMC packages, and genetic contamination of wild species (McAfee, 2003; Roff, 2008; Sitko, 2008). Early studies in South Africa indicate that genetically modified cotton was initially adopted with great success, but that later most farmers were abandoning the crop because agricultural extension services were inadequate and net profits were less than those obtained with conventional cotton (Gouse et al., 2008). In 2008, Burkina Faso became the second African state to openly adopt GMCs, essentially the same genetically modified cotton that failed in South Africa (Dowd, 2008).
Charting the social and environmental consequences of such experiments in coming years could reveal the positive and negative impacts of GMC adoption in different regions. Studies integrating the physical and human dimensions are particularly needed, as one of the critical underresearched issues concerns the changing biogeography of genetic contamination (Parker and Markwith, 2007). Finally, the GMC approach needs to be compared to other agricultural methods, such as the system of rice intensification, which was initially developed in Madagascar and is now being tested in Asia and West Africa (Broad, 2008).
Sustainably feeding Earth’s population over the coming decade and beyond requires better understanding of how food systems interact with environmental change, how they are connected across regions, and how they are influenced by changing economic, political, and technological circumstances. The geographical sciences’ analysis of food production and consumption, when coupled with recent conceptual and methodological advances, can provide new insights into this critically important research arena.
The top GMCs in the world in 2006 by area were soybeans, maize, cotton, and canola (with soybeans accounting for over half of this area). The world’s leading producers of GMCs are the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, and China (with the United States having nearly three times as much hectarage as Argentina in such crops). Other significant producers are Paraguay, South Africa, Uruguay, and Australia (GMO Compass, 2007).