The other food security debate

Public discussion on GE crops continues to be dominated by fear and prejudice.

Over the next 50 years, global demand for agricultural products may double. When supply cannot keep pace, food prices and hunger will soar. But how can agricultural supply be doubled without overstraining the environment? Climate change is an additional challenge. The only option is by using science and technology, including modern biotech and genetic engineering. Modern biotech helps to develop higher yielding and higher quality crops that are more tolerant to pests and unfavourable environments, and which use water and soil nutrients more efficiently.

Genetically engineered (GE) crops are already widely used. Last year, 12 per cent of the global crop area was grown with GE varieties of soybean, maize, cotton, rapeseed and sugar beet. Herbicide-tolerant GE crops facilitate weed control and have contributed to the rapid spread of conservation agriculture in North and South America. Insect-resistant crops, also called Bt crops, contribute to lower insecticide use and better pest control.

Adopting farmers benefit significantly. With my research group, I have analysed the impacts of GE crops in various countries over the last 15 years. In India, where Bt cotton is now used by seven million smallholders, yields were raised by 25 per cent while insecticide sprays were reduced by 50 per cent. In spite of more expensive seeds, Bt cotton farmers realise 50 per cent higher profits. Farm households have notably improved living standards. Similar effects were demonstrated in China, Pakistan, South Africa and elsewhere.

The public debate about GE crops has been dominated by fear and prejudice. Urban consumers often have a romanticised notion of farming and prefer traditional forms of agriculture. But given dwindling land and water resources, traditional agriculture cannot satisfy the needs of the 9.5 billion people that are expected to live on our planet by 2050. The widespread fears are overblown; 30 years of research show that GE crops pose no environmental and health risks different from conventionally bred varieties.

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