The challenge of feeding the world’s growing population is set to be one of the most important issues to be dealt with by politicians in the coming decades. The “9 billion challenge”, as it is quickly becoming known, will mean feeding a population predicted to reach around 9 billion by 2050. This will require a 60% increase in food production over the next 40 years without destroying the Earth’s environment.
Although crop yields and the amount of land dedicated to agriculture have been rising for the past few decades, poverty and hunger in developing countries are still major issues. In addition, we are running out of land available for agriculture, and risk destroying thousands of hectares of valuable, biodiverse habitats. Genetically modified crops are designed to survive in the face of pests, diseases and drought, amongst other things, and are considered a possible solution by many in the scientific community.
GM crops have been used in the US since the 1980s. However, the EU’s stringent regulation has failed to allow their widespread use. Only two varieties are currently accepted, and a slow legislative process deters the acceptance of others into the market. The critique of GM is well known. Many scientists and politicians argue genetically modified food can cause risks to human health, while environmental groups believe its consequences are not fully understood and could be harmful for the natural environment.
Recently, the UK’s environment minister, Owen Paterson, has re-opened the debate, this time, from a different angle. Paterson states the potential of GM crops should be seriously considered, clearly addressing the benefits and consequences of their use. He wants to reassess their potential to help alleviate world hunger and contribute to sustainable agriculture. He made clear that evidence-based regulation and decision making is key for the EU to make any progress on GM laws, and believes Britain, as well as other developed countries, has an obligation to help provide food for poor communities using GM if necessary.
Paterson also makes reference to the political debate within the UK. However, science and politics are not the only things which influence use of GM crops. Public acceptance of GM food is much lower in Europe than in the US, were politicians and businesses have backed GM consistently. But how much does public opinion influence policy implementation, or vice-versa? People have long been divided on the benefits of GM crops. It seems, however, that this uncertainty is mainly due to a lack of information and evidence to support the use of safe crops which will help farmers to increase yield with less land, less water and less fertilizer use. Bringing in the question of Britain’s ‘moral duty’ to help provide food for the world’s poor could also make a difference to public acceptance. How significant this is remains to be seen.
In addition, the environment secretary speaks of GM as a market good which we will lose out on. His worry is that, if the EU does not support GM, we will be cut out of the market. It is not clear whether these worries are to do with health, the environment, or the economy. What is clear is that GM crops have proven benefits in all these aspects, provided adequate scientific monitoring and evidence-based decisions are made. Although the potential to save the lives of millions of children with the use of crops such as Golden Rice, enriched with vitamin A, seems to follow a moral pathway difficult to ignore, EU acceptance of GM will not be easy.
The innovation and technology which allow genetically modifying crops to be designed are among many solutions considered in order to find a way of sustainable growth into the future. It is not clear if the policy implementation in the EU and public opinion will catch on to the benefits of GM in time, as conventional “natural” crops are still considered better by many Europeans. But if we are to approach the challenge of feeding 9 billion people, the question may need to be re-phrased. “Do we need GM crops?” may soon become, “Can we feed the world without them?”