Can technology help solve world hunger?

This was the central quesiton posed at a talk sponsored by Yale’s Institute for Social and Policy Studies on Thursday, in which Michigan State University professor of international development of agricultural, food and resource economics Melinda Smale spoke about implementing genetic modification agriculture technologies in developing countries to help solve the problems of mass hunger and crop failures. Smale, who has previously worked with both Oxfam America, a nonprofit international development organization, and the International Food Policy Research Institute, presented an audience of around 40 students, researchers and community members with research from studies she conducted with those organizations and analyzed the impact of the crops in sub-Saharan African nations.

Smale said one of the biggest challenges facing genetically modified crops in developing nations has been the need for education and money to properly utilize the technology.

“Biotech crops are not the first priority for poor farmers,” Smale said. “Without other investments, biotech crops will not make a difference for poor farmers.”

Smale said that while Bt cotton, one of the genetically modified crops used in a field study, has had positive impacts in general, there have been only modest improvements with regard to using fewer insecticides and less intensive labor. She added that before genetically modified crops are ruled out as too expensive for developing nations, more analysis of social impacts is needed.

Since richer farmers in developing nations have been adopting new agricultural technology, Smale said, distributing the technology to these farmers may cause the knowledge to “trickle down” to more struggling farmers.

Smale, noting that public trust is often low regarding unnatural crops, said that it is debated whether farmers are more likely to trust information spread to them by other farmers or by scientists and organizations external to the community.

Patrick Cournoyer GRD ’12 who organized the annual talk, said that by inviting Smale to speak at Yale, he was aiming to encourage an open-minded discussion about the controversial issue of new agricultural technologies by discussing factors beyond the usual pros and cons.

This balanced approach was part of the attraction of Smale’s lecture for some audience members.

“It was interesting to see that, even in the Third World, adopters of GM crops tend to be more educated and have more money than those who use conventional crops,” said Stephen Zepecki, a New Haven Public School science teacher.

For Adam Deresienski, a researcher from the University of Rhode Island, the desire to learn more about farmers’ acceptance of developments in farming pratices was the primary motivator for attending.

“I am involved with the production of commercializable GM crops with a particular focus on gene confinement strategies,” Deresienski said. “I wanted to see what [Smale] had to say about whether she found them important for the release of certain crops and if she believes the general public and farmers will accept them based on her experience.”

Smale earned her doctorate in agricultural economics from the University of Wisconsin in 1983.