Terry D. Etherton
The public discussion about the need for adequate food is a luxury that well-fed people in developed countries can afford. But in developing countries where the population is growing while the supply of farmland shrinks, people are grappling with a much thornier and higher-stakes dilemma. Unless they can grow more food on less land, they may not have enough to eat. The scale of this is already daunting – more than 1 billion individuals in the world go to bed each night hungry.
Agricultural biotechnology is helping to solve this by making it possible to grow more and healthier food in conditions and places where it could not be grown before. The new agricultural biotechnologies offer great promise for producing enough food for the growing world population. The world’s population is expected to increase to 9 to 10 billion individuals by 2050, with more than 60% of the growth occurring in Africa, Southern Asia, and Eastern Asia. This increase in population translates to a projected increase in annual global food production from 9.9 trillion pounds to about 14.3 trillion pounds in 2050 (see post at Terry Etherton Blog on Biotechnology at: http://blogs.das.psu.edu/tetherton/).
Some may be amazed at the extent to which plant biotechnology is being adopted in agriculture. The rate is accelerating impressively. For example, in 2010, the accumulated acreage planted during the past 15 years (i.e., from 1996 to 2010), exceeded one billion hectares for the first time. This is equivalent to more than 10% of the total land area of the USA or China. This translates to an 87-fold increase in acreage planted to GM crops between 1996 and 2010, making biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture.
It is important to appreciate that feeding the growing world population will be a challenge. As farmers in developing nations clear-cut more land and consume more natural resources to grow the food their mounting populations need to survive, the world faces an environmental dilemma in addition to a humanitarian one. I don’t think we want to continue to destroy more wildlife habit or tropical rainforest to plant more soybeans. What is the answer? One important answer is to invest in science to develop future generations of technology that improve productive efficiency of plant and animal agriculture. (Food productive efficiency is an increase in the quantity of food produced per acre for crops, and the quantity of meat or milk produced per unit of food consumed by animals.)
Opponents of ag biotechnology contend (incorrectly) that many consumers are opposed to modern biotechnology. However, the science-based consumer survey evidence clearly shows that the majority of Americans have accepted the benefits of the new food biotechnologies (see: Terry Etherton Blog on Biotechnology at: http://blogs.das.psu.edu/tetherton/).
There are many compelling reasons to support and promote ag and food biotechnology for the global village. These “biotechnologies” contribute importantly to alleviating some of the major challenges facing global society, including: food security and self-sufficiency, sustainability, alleviation of poverty and hunger, and help in mitigating some of the challenges associated with climate change and global warming. We are fortunate that we are traversing an era where there is so much science that is being applied to pressing societal issues. Let us celebrate the many positive contributions that ag biotechnology has made to the world, and will make in the future!