New Scientist magazine carried a story in its September “Blueprint for a Better World” edition about how ag biotech can help grow enough food for our ever-expanding population (by 2040 there could well be 9 billion people on the planet) and do it without wreaking more havoc on the planet.
- Experimental crop plants that use nitrogen more efficiently provide the same yields as normal crops with less fertiliser. Such crops could reduce both nitrous oxide emissions and the nitrogen run-off that creates dead zones in the oceans.
- Salt-tolerant crops under development will grow on land contaminated by irrigation or sea-level rise, and drought-tolerant varieties could find even wider use.
- In the longer term, even more dramatic changes could be made, such as altering the fundamental biochemistry of plants that carry out C3 photosynthesis – which includes nearly all staple crops – to carry out C4 photosynthesis instead. This would allow them to thrive in hotter, drier conditions.
- As pests and diseases evolve and spread, crops genetically modified to resist them could boost production, or at least maintain yields. The ringspot virus had halved papaya production in Hawaii before a resistant GM strain was introduced in 1998.
- Last but not least, genetic modification can make existing foods more nutritious. The lack of nutrients such as vitamin A remain a major cause of death and disease in developing countries. GM crops such as the soon-to-be-introduced Golden Rice will help to improve health and reduce child mortality.
Many people, especially in Europe, oppose crops like Golden Rice simply because they are genetically engineered, but there is no rational basis for drawing an absolute distinction between conventional breeding and genetic modification. Thousands of years of selective breeding have produced extensive genetic changes in the plants and animals.
Yes, there are other ways to improve nutrition and boost yields, but combining these methods with biotechnology could make them far more effective. With a third of species facing oblivion, environmentalists need to embrace a technology that could help to save many of them – and many of us.