Opinion

Can we feed the world without GMOs?

Marc Ghislain

GM crops: lessons from nature and two decades of cultivation

Doubling world food production by 2050 is THE major challenge agriculture faces today. In order to feed an additional two billion people, we must use all available resources. We simply do not have the land to produce the extra food required, we do not want to accelerate the destruction of natural habitats to free up new land for cultivation, we do not have the boats and planes to ship food from over-producing countries to the hungry ones, and we do not want to increase pesticide and fertiliser use. We do, though, have the biotechnology to produce new high-yielding varieties that are more resilient to stress and more efficient at using natural resources.

Presently grown on more than 13% of the world’s arable land, genetically modified (GM) crops are already contributing significantly to the global effort to improve food security and generate income for the rural poor. Analysis of GM crops has shown a 37% reduction in chemical pesticide use, a 22% increase in crop yields and increased farmer profits of 68%. Eighteen million farmers worldwide, of which 90% are resource poor, already benefit from GM crops. No negative impact on human or environmental health has been scientifically proven to be due to GM crops after two decades of commercialisation, and therefore GM crops are as safe as their conventional counterparts. Phasing out GM crops would only aggravate the present food deficit, increase pesticide and fertiliser use, and accelerate the destruction of the natural environment.

Increasing food production can only come from an increase in productivity to close the gap between potential yield and the actual low yields due to pests, diseases, low nutrient and water efficiencies, and abrupt climate variations. Many traits capable of closing the yield gap require genes from other species or the modification or editing of existing genes. This has been happening naturally for a long time. Sweet potatoes, one of the top ten world food crops consumed for thousands of years by billions of people, were recently shown to have acquired bacterial genes and hence be naturally transgenic. Genomes have evolved through mutations, deletions, duplications and movements of blocks of genes, which means that the genetic changes made through genetic modification are small compared to what happens in nature.

Genetic improvements can be done much more quickly, easily and precisely by GM than by traditional breeding. As an example, we recently developed a zero-fungicide potato in about five years by introducing three resistance genes from wild relatives. By contrast, it took 45 years to breed just one of these genes into a variety that is still not fully protected from late blight disease.

In light of these benefits and GM’s safety record, GM technologies should be embraced and thoughtfully used as one tool among others to achieve food security in a sustainable manner whilst protecting the natural environment.

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.