Feeding the world

Without GMOs

March 31, 2015

Feeding the world: The Challenge

Growing food is essential to our survival, but agriculture takes a major toll on the environment. In the coming decades, humanity will face the challenge of increasing food supplies for a burgeoning population while reducing food production’s impact on the planet’s land, water, and air.1 Biotech companies and proponents of conventional, industrial agriculture have touted genetically engineered crops (often called GE or GMOs) as the key to feeding a more populous, wealthier world,2 but recent studies show that this promise has fallen flat. To date, genetically engineered crops have not substantially improved global food security. Meanwhile, strategies that take advantage of what we already know about using resources and crops more efficiently have shown the potential to double food supplies while reducing agriculture’s environmental impact.

Pressure on the world’s food supply is intensifying as a result of population growth, changing diets and government policies promoting biofuels. Researchers estimate that by 2050 the demand for food will be twice what it was in 2005.3 One big driver of this trend is that as people get richer, they buy more meat, and producing meat requires huge quantities of crops such as corn and soy for animal feed.

Food production occupies about 40 percent of Earth’s land area and uses more fresh water than any other human activity.1 Cutting down forests, plowing up grasslands and draining aquifers to grow still more food would have disastrous environmental effects and ultimately threaten the planet’s life support system.

Biotech industry groups and advocates of conventional, industrial agriculture have heavily promoted the notion that genetically engineered crops are the key to increasing crop yields. These are novel varieties created in the laboratory using biotechnology to directly modify a plant’s genetic makeup by inserting new genes – often from other species. Traditional crossbreeding, by contrast, relies on sexual reproduction to combine the genes of related species to introduce or enhance desirable characteristics.

Global crop yields have increased just 20 percent in the past 20 years,4 so doubling the food supply in less than 50 years will likely be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Proponents of GE crops claim that they are essential to “feed the world,” but recent evidence indicates that so far, GE crops have not increased crop yields enough to significantly contribute to food security.

In recent decades, in fact, the dominant source of yield improvements has been traditional crossbreeding, and that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.5 Relying on genetic engineering to double food supplies by 2050 would require a huge leap in biotechnology and doubling the recent yield trends of crops.

Policymakers and industry seeking to expand the global food supply should instead explore how to make more efficient use of existing resources and the food we already grow, without causing harm to the environment.