Old versus new: don’t eat yourself up over food security

Is our appetite or distaste for GM food palatable? iklash

The debate between proponents of the use of genetically modified crops and opponents is not about the choice of the best available technologies to ensure food sufficiency in the developing world: it’s more far-reaching than that.

It has implications for any new technology to which a precautionary principle might be applied. It is, in fact, a clash between empiricist and non-empiricist world views, between science and non-science.

In one corner we see those who would test each new food product, individually, for safety and efficacy. In the other, we see those who would turn their backs on any food produced by genetic technologies. The fact that the debate has been couched as opposition between irreconcilable opposites is salutory.

Appetite for consumption

Between 1870 and 2000 there was a general downward trend in food prices, albeit with superimposed volatility. Since 2000 there has been a rapid growth in food demand. This is conservatively expected to double by 2050 – partly due to population growth, partly due to income growth in developing nations and partly due to limits on land.

The area of available arable land will increase by only 5% between 2000 and 2020, approaching less than 15 hectares per capita by 2050. We can expect widespread famine by 2050 if we are constrained by current agricultural practices and productivity.

Growth in production must be driven by increases in crop productivity. This required growth must take place in the context of pressures (environmental and economic) to reduce inputs of fuel, pesticide and nitrogenous fertilisers (nitrogenous fertilisers release potent green house gases; nitrous oxides are 296 times worse per gram than carbon dioxide).

Nitrous oxide gas production by biofuel crops fertilised using nitrogenous fertilisers negates any global warming reduction that would be achieved due to replacement of fossil fuels by biofuels.

New biofuel crops will need to be able to capture atmospheric nitrogen. Water will become more expensive, and there appears to be a continuing, subsidy-driven diversion of food crops into bioenergy production, which will continue to have an inflationary effect on maize prices.

**Predicted change in food prices (from Harald von Witzke, 2009)**

2003-20052013/15 (%)2013/15 (%)
Projectedif fuel reaches $US100 per barrel
Other grains+13+171

People make assertions based on different value systems. They might start from the premise, unrelated to safety issues, that so-called “natural” foods are “good” whereas foods produced using genetic engineering are “bad”, or vice versa.

The assertion of safety or nutritional value of foods produced by so called natural means, relative to foods produced by new technology, is false:

  • White rice is deficient in Vitamin A.
  • Coffee, even that produced “organically”, contains more than 1000 natural chemical entities. Of the 27 tested so far about 19 are known carcinogens (of course, toxicity is related to dose, so, for normal consumption, the human body is able to cope with detoxifying and excreting these compounds). Don’t eat a 250g jar of instant coffee in one sitting and you won’t find yourself in intensive care.
  • Many plants or plant products contain more dangerous natural toxins (for example digitalis, hyperforin, atropine, morphine, alcohol). These are much more dangerous than the toxins in coffee, and incidentally are all naturally occurring and naturally synthesised by living organisms; that is, they are organic compounds.

A third way …

It’s time to reframe the argument. Some foods produced by natural means are good (where “good” is defined as safe and nutritionally adequate, as determined by testing) and some are not. By the same measure, some foods produced by GM technology are good and some are not.

Many plant biotechnologists assert that both cross-breeding and molecular technologies should be used, because each technology has practical and economic weaknesses or strengths in particular circumstances.

Another generalisation is that GM crops are destructive of traditional agricultural competencies. Some modern plant biotechnologies are not competency-destroying (eg. insect-resistant crops, herbicide tolerant crops, drought tolerant crops, submersion tolerant rice, golden rice, synchronously ripening crops).

The same, qualitatively-similar sowing and tillage practices can be employed, though less tillage may be required and less pesticide need be applied.

In contrast, some GM crops (such as those incorporating “terminator technology”) are competency-destroying.

What is beyond doubt is the massive (roughly 70%) reduction in application of organochlorine or organophosphorous pesticides, and the increase in cotton crop yields in India and Australia since the introduction of GM crops expressing the Bacillus thuringiensis toxins.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is a huge positive for the environment that should be embraced by those who want to reduce environmental degradation.

Doing more with less

It’s obviously imperative that we increase crop productivity and reduce pesticide use, but achieving this will be an enormous challenge. The situation of food supply will become so desperate that we won’t be in a position to turn our backs on technological innovation, wherever it comes from.

Population growth and deforestation are huge problems. Deforestation contributes more to climate change than global manufacturing or transportation, so the productivity gap will not be pluggable by clearing more land.

Despite this, research in agriculture has been dropping, and the remaining research is not in crop productivity. As we have seen recently, the lingering effects of the 2008 stockmarket collapse are still rippling through our research communities, and placing pressure on funds available for research.

Mineral and vitamin deficiencies affect a greater number of people in developing countries than protein-energy malnutrition. Trace minerals are important for both human nutrition and plant nutrition, so plant breeding can make a significant, low-cost contribution to reducing micronutrient deficiencies and could have important effects for increases in farm productivity for developing countries.

This is true whether using GM or conventional breeding techniques.

Working together

Conventional and genetic engineering approaches are complementary. Genetic engineering can accomplish things that conventional breeding cannot.

Probably the best known example is Golden rice: a GM rice which is a source of Provitamin A (absent from wild-type rice). It is a trait that could not have been introduced without the use of new technology.

The technology is in the public domain, and if it had not been produced by genetic engineering it would have been in widespread use by 2002. Because it was a GMO, the release to farmers will be delayed until 2012.

In the intervening period there have been many avoidable cases of blindness and death among the rice-dependent poor.

The second generation Golden rice easily exceeds the minimum daily allowance of vitamin A. Each year of delay has been estimated to cost approximately 40,000 lives. There is no conceivable risk to consumer health. It was not possible to develop the trait with traditional methods.

The future is grey

For reasoned debate we need to counter the black-and-white approach to technologies and issues on a case-by-case basis. New technologies that allow reduction in nitrogenous fertiliser application, reduction in tillage, drought resistance, increased micronutrient content and reduction in application of poisonous organic pesticides need to be developed with utmost urgency.

All of our technological efforts will go to waste if food storage infrastructure is not improved in emerging nations.

In India, in some seasons, there is a 50% loss of the grain harvest due to poor storage and transport infrastructure. Rodent proofing of storage facilities would be a simple method of improving productivity, irrespective of whether the grain is produced by new technology or old.

Whether the measures are simple or complex, they will require political will and appropriate direction of tax revenues; otherwise our predicament in 2050 will make the economic downturn of 2008 look like “small beans”.

With a reasoned dialogue, open to considering all possible solutions, transformation of agricultural practice and food security might just be possible.

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