Biotechnology – Feeding the World

Terry D. Etherton

The public discussion over biotechnology foods is a luxury the well-fed people of the industrialized world can afford.

But in developing nations, 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.

Agricultural biotechnology is helping to resolve this issue 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 top nine billion by 2050, with more than 60% of the growth occurring in Africa, Southern Asia, and Eastern Asia. As shown in Figure 1 (a world map where countries are “sized” on the basis of population), population growth is not projected to occur to any extent in North America, South America or Europe.


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. However, the rate with which ag biotechnology is being used is accelerating worldwide. For example, between 1996 and 2004, planting of biotech crops increased from 4.3 to 200 million acres worldwide.It is important to appreciate that biotechnology is not new. Humans have improved the genetic characteristics of animals and food crops for centuries by using cross- and selective breeding programs. The first recorded plant hybrid was recorded in 1719! Today, high-tech science is making it possible to target genetic characteristics more precisely and safely. Because of advances made in science and through the efforts of governmental regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, we have the luxury of having the safest food supply in recorded history.

The new food biotechnologies are one of the great scientific advances in agriculture. Based on rigorous scientific findings that have been extensively evaluated by regulatory agencies in the U.S., there is no increased risk to the consumer of using these foods compared to other foods in the diet. There are many promising new food biotechnologies being developed. The benefits these confer will be dependent upon the extent to which the public believes they are safe. Based on a recent survey conducted by the International Food Information Council in January, 2004 60% of consumers in the U.S. believe they will benefit from biotechnology within the next five years. Surveys conducted in the U.S. have repeatedly shown that the more people know about biotechnology, the more they support the use of food biotechnology.

In summary, the majority of Americans have accepted the benefits of the new food biotechnologies. However, it is important to appreciate that agricultural biotechnologies must be better utilized to feed people in developing countries where, for many, there is an inadequate food supply presently available.

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