In March 2000, Barun Mitra of the Liberty Institute, a progressive free-market think-tank in India, sent questions concerning agricultural biotechnology to the AgBioView listserv, with the hope that expert members of the list would be able to address them. Today we focus on the question:
Is Genetic Engineering (GE) the only way of increasing food production?
No, it is not. It is only one of the tools we can use to increase food production. However, it is a powerful tool that will significantly increase our ability to produce the quantities of food that our growing world population will need.
Whether the genetic alteration is done haphazardly by selective breeding or in a more systematic way by directly altering the genome, increasing the useable food content of an organism requires some form of GE.
For grains and oilseed crops, increasing food production most often means the ability to produce better yields under the same conditions or, more generally, the ability to better resist weeds, insects and diseases. Many important improvements have been achieved by ordinary breeding, but it is a slow process. Given the rate at which the demand for food is likely to increase in future years, substantial productivity enhancements will still need to be made. In conjunction with other methods, GE can help agronomists make the productivity gains necessary to supply enough food at reasonable prices. It is thus not the only way, but it could in the future become the most efficient and economical way.
Another way to answer this question is to consider the growth in world population over the course of the past century and the impact that it has had on farmlands. World population in 1900 was roughly 1 billion people. In the year 2000, world population was about 6 billion people. And world population is projected to grow to 9 or 10 billion people by the year 2050. Until the Green Revolution spread to South America and then to Asia, beginning about 40 years ago, the only way for developing world farmers to keep up with population growth was to convert forests, jungles and deserts into farmland. More productive crop varieties developed during the Green Revolution and allowed farmers to grow vastly more food on only slightly more land.
It is, of course, possible to increase crop yields by simply planting and harvesting more crops. This can be done by planting them more densely or increasing the number of acres devoted to growing them. Other methods include increasing the use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and irrigation, each of which have well-known risks. Though effective at boosting yields, vast monoculture regions of intensively farmed land have had significant ecological affects, especially including the loss of biodiversity. Unless a viable alternative is devised the destruction of important ecosystems will increase as the need for more food production increases.
In the developed Western countries, advances such as hybridization, agricultural chemicals, and farm machinery have boosted production per acre of farmland to the point where it appears that the amount of food per acre has reached the limit of the ability of crop plants to convert sunlight to energy. As these western countries produce all the food they need – and are likely to need in the foreseeable future – their problems are not the same as those in the undeveloped countries, where poverty requires that low-cost solutions be implemented.
Local populations in the developing world will have to rely on low cost solutions that do not require unrealistic practices such as local farmers buying expensive chemicals or equipment. However, biotechnology could provide seed to farmers that are better adapted to their cultivation requirements. The engineered seeds will have the added benefit of pest resistance and tolerance to extreme environmental conditions such as drought that are needed to sustain village farms.
While pondering this question, it is also important to bear in mind that there is a danger that people will confuse prospective benefits with ones that have already been realized. Although there is ample reason to believe that GE may in the long term have substantial benefits for food production, there are many hurdles still to be overcome, both scientific and political.
This puts the proponents of GE in the dangerous position of over-selling the technology, and thus looking foolish when on occasions it fails to live up to its promise, or fails to do so quickly enough. The opponents of GE are equally in danger of denying access to a potentially useful technology for many people who might benefit from it.
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