The other food security debate
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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.
Most available GE crops were developed by multinational companies. This comes with concerns, as multinationals are believed to seek profits at the cost of farmers and the environment. In India, the myth of Bt cotton and Monsanto contributing to farmer suicides has been perpetuated for many years. In reality, the suicide rate did not increase at all after the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002. Countless scientific studies disprove widely held prejudices and demonstrate the benefits of GE crops for farmers and the environment. Unfortunately, these studies are not recognised in the wider public, or not believed because of the successful propaganda of the anti-biotech lobby.
Biotech supporters claim that GE crops could help improve food security. However, many of the current applications are not primarily for food use, and more interesting traits, such as drought and heat tolerance, are not yet available. So, are the promises exaggerated? Yes and no. Some complex traits are more difficult and take time to be successfully engineered. Many interesting traits are in the research pipeline, but may take a few more years to be ready for use. But that GE food crops such as rice, wheat or vegetables are not yet in the market is not a technical issue. It is instead related to low public acceptance.
Many agricultural developments over the last 50 years were not sustainable. The intensive use of agrochemicals coupled with bad agronomic practices have significantly contributed to natural resource depletion. Many consider GE crops to be a continuation of this unsustainable trend, but the opposite is true. Historically, yield increases required more external inputs, whereas by building on modern genetics, this can be overcome.
Of course, GE crops should not be considered a substitute for improved agronomy or other innovations. Sustainable systems require smart combinations of all areas of science. Like any technology, GE crops require sensible regulation. But a ban or a moratorium on field trials, as proposed by the technical expert committee in its report to the Supreme Court, is not justified on scientific grounds. It would be sad indeed if a critical technology that could help overcome the daunting challenges of feeding billions of people was sacrificed on the altar of fear and ignorance.
The writer is professor of agricultural economics at the University of Goettingen, Germany