Genetic modified crops: the solution for the world food problem??
Can gentech help us feed all 10 billion mouths in 2050?
An estimated 815 million people go hungry these days according to a report of the World Health Organisation (WHO). This is about 11 % of the world population. Shocking numbers.especially when you realise that things have been better. For years the number of people going hungry was deminishing – until 2016. In that year suddenly 38 million more people were confronted with food shortages. World hunger is a growing problem again.
Why does the number of starving people rise?
The WHO blames among other things conflicts and wars. At least 489 million of the 815 million people live in an area in conflict. Also climate change – often one of the driving causes of conflicts – plays a role. The warmer earth will cause more extreme weather, like heat waves and extreme amounts of rain, or draught, that will threaten the food security
In 2018 it will still be hard – with all the knowledge and skills we have – to feed all. This is extra alarming because there are two trends: first the global warming – one of the causes of hunger – is continuing, making it more difficult to grow food in many places. In the same time the need of food will just keep growing because the world population keeps growing: in 2050 we are expected to be 10 billion. It does not look very hopeful. But the UN has made it a goal tot end world hunger by the year 2030. Such an ambitious goal asks for ambitious measures. Easy to think of gentech, genetic modified organisms (GMO) . Will they be the answer to the world food problem?
Genetic modified crops are still controversial. Some people fear that the GMO plants can cross with not-modified plants and bring in the modification into the natural crops. “There is no proof that this plays any role. And there are strict rules for growing GMO plants. There must always be a certain distance between GMO crops and non-GMO crops.” says one of the researchers, emeritus professor Johan Bouma, who worked as a soil scientist in Wageningen University (Netherlands).
Also the security is being discussed a lot. Bouma explains the fear from the word: ‘genetic modified’: it sounds frightening. But in fact the changing of one gene is a fast way of breeding to improve. Does that mean that it is ethical to give any plant any new feature? That is not what Bouma wants. He places big question marks on adapting crops in such a way, that they get resistent to weedkillers. This can lead to overusing of the weedkillers, because the crop does not suffer. “But the poison enters the soil and the ground water.” It is better to fight the weeds with robot weeders.
Genetic modified plants
Genetic modified crops exist already for some time. Big chance that you have been eating them already. GMO soja and corn are quite accepted now: plants in which the DNA is enriched with genes from other plants giving the plant a certain desirable quality. “There are for instance GMO plants that have a bigger root system, they can better survive draught,” says professor Johan Bouma. In the same way crops can be made more resistent against insecticides, or diseases. In short: these GMO plants can – in a certain area with the right adaptations – give a richer harvest – if all other growth measures are also implemented well
In this way GMO looks like the right answer to the world food problem. But Bouma is sceptical. “The research on GMO crops concerns mainly the making of crops with attractive characteristics.” There is not enough focus on what happens in the real world. “They forget the rest of the food chain: the production, growth and consumption.” In this way the real possibilities of the genetically modified crops are is not being used. He gives an example of the way it should be done. “In Wageningen professor Edith Lammerts van Bueren crossed organically grown potatoes with other varieties to make them less sensitive for moulds – and it worked rather well. Essential in her work is that she cooperated with growers, farmers and shops. She connected her work with the people who will work with the crops.” Bouma misses this attitude in the developing of GMO crops. “ I wonder if this is going to work. Especially knowing that in developing countries hardly any educated growers of farmers exist. The risk is that the GMO plants hardly will be used at all because other factors like soil fertility are failing.”
Bouma thinks we should stop our one sided approach of the world food problem. “There is not just one magic bullet!” That is also clear when we look at the causes of the problem. People think there is not enough food, but that is not true. There is enough food, but it is distributed unevenly. In developing countires about 30% of the food gets lost during the transport between farmer and consumer. Simply because the roads are bad or there is no proper cooling system. And in our part of the world – which we call developed – we throw away some 30% of the food. These are the problems we must address if we want to end the world hunger. “The moment it is clear that there will be 10 billion humans in 2050 and 70% more food needed, all disciplines react. Hydrologists say we have to work on the water supply, soil specialists want to improve the soil and the fertilisers, and biologists ask for more varieties. But in the end we will have to develope common solutions that work.”
Bouma concludes that genetically modified crops are certainly not the single solution. “But they will play a significant role. Claims that in 2050 50% of our food will be GMO can not be underpinned.”
We should take an holistic approach. “Look at the limitations of the area: the soil, the available water, the impact of climate change and especially the political and socio-economic situation.” Only when you know this make your plan of action. How big will the role of GMO plants be? This wil differ from land to land. “In developed countries their role will differ from that in Africa.”Do not underestimate the problems of an holistic approach. In science we are used to work in different disciplines.” says Bouma. But for this problem scinetists will have to cross the borders of their discipline sto be able to cooperate with colleagues in other fields and in dialogue with the people who will have to do the work: the local farmers.
Bouma is optimistic: solve the world food problem? “In theory we can and this theory can be underpinned.” But will it happen? – before 2030 like the UN wants? In principle it is possible, but nothing happens by itself – and this certainly not..
Read more about genetically modified plants
and here is the lesson about the possibilities and the use of genetically modified crops
Source: Scientias, 14 januari 2018, Author: Caroline Kraaijvanger.