Approximately 800 million people are currently malnourished, and the world’s population is expected to rise by 2 billion by the year 2050. If we use current technologies—or, Heaven forbid, roll back use of modern agricultural practices—we will have to plow down literally millions of acres to relieve the projected hunger expected to come as a result of the growing population. Fortunately, a widespread embrace of biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) crops can help ensure there is enough food for all.
Earth is bountiful and fecund, but it does not yield its treasures without hard work. Earth’s natural ability to produce the food necessary to feed human and animal populations has been enhanced greatly since the agricultural revolution more than 10,000 years ago. Our forbearers applied ingenuity and innovation to the improvement of crops; increased the efficiency of our land and water use; and improved methods of distribution, storage, and defense against animal and plants pests.
Even so, millions of people still suffer from privation and starvation. The world’s farmers currently produce more than enough food to feed Earth’s 7 billion people, using approximately 6 million square miles—an amount of land equal in size to the United States and Europe. Where malnutrition, famine, and starvation still occur, it is caused by broken distribution systems due to wars (civil and otherwise), poor infrastructure, flawed political and economic institutions, and authoritarian regimes that use starvation as a political tool.
That won’t always be the case, however. The planet’s population is expected to peak during this century at approximately 9 billion. It will then likely taper off rapidly. In order to feed that peak population and their pets with diets similar to those currently enjoyed by people in developed countries, we will have to triple the production of food by 2050. Even if all farmers adopt the modern farming practices with high inputs of fertilizers and pesticides, the most we can realistically hope to do is double crop production on the current amount of land we are using.
There is only so much arable land and water usable for crop production. Substantially expanding the amount of land under active cultivation, which would be exceptionally difficult, would be a disaster for wildlife and native plants. The lands most likely to be converted to agriculture are forests, rangelands, and other wildlands, especially in the tropics—the most biodiverse region on Earth, where most population growth is occurring and where hunger and where malnutrition is most prominent.
Fortunately, there is another way of raising yields: The judicious use of biotechnology to produce hardier, disease-resistant, pest-resistant, vitamin-fortified crops that more efficiently use water and can be grown more readily on marginal lands can increase global food production by the threefold margin needed for the world’s 9 billion people. And it can be done while only marginally increasing the amount of acreage in production.
Unfortunately, environmental extremists have targeted the use of bioengineering. They raise baseless fears about “Frankenfoods” escaping the lab, and they argue no technology should be used until it can be shown to pose absolutely no risks whatsoever to humans or the environment.
Arguing biotech researchers are “playing God,” environmental groups such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group have threatened to lead a consumer boycott of companies that use bioengineered foods and to create a flood of negative publicity.
Several countries have banned the use of bioengineered foods, and the Free Thought Project lists 400 mostly small companies that claim not to use bioengineered products. More countries and companies jumping on the “ban the genetically modified organisms” bandwagon could devastate farmers who have begun to rely on biotech foods to raise yields while reducing their use of costly pesticides.
These scares are decidedly unscientific. Responding to environmentalist scare tactics, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and every major research body that has looked into the health and safety of genetically modified crops have endorsed their use.
A research assessment published in Critical Reviews in Biotechnology in 2014 examining 1,783 studies on the safety and environmental impacts of genetically modified foods confirmed this. The Italian researchers couldn’t find a single credible example of GM foods posing any harm to humans or animals. Nor did they find any evidence GM crops have any negative environmental impact.
Unlike crops developed through traditional crossbreeding techniques, genetically modified foods are among the most extensively studied scientific subjects in history. Simply put, they are safe.
Extreme environmentalists ignore the very real dangers of doing without the new technologies. Turning our back on nutritional, safe, bioengineered foods would irresponsibly condemn millions of people to unnecessary suffering and, in some cases, even death. Nowthat would be “playing God” with a vengeance.