2.4 Can GM crops feed the world?
The issue of global food security is at the heart of many of the ethical issues related to GM technology. United Nations population scientists estimate that the world's population will increase by 2 billion over the next 30 years, posing huge challenges for global food production. More than 842 million people are currently chronically hungry. Proponents of GM crops argue that further development of this technology is vital to meet this challenge.
However, a more equal distribution of existing supplies could solve food shortages. In 2002, the world produced enough food to supply an average 2800 kilocalories per head of the global population, exceeding the average daily requirement of 2100 kilocalories. Clearly, the problem is not that we are not producing enough food. Should this point be used to argue against supporting technological progress in food farming in developing nations?
Some people argue that the political difficulties inherent in food redistribution are so severe that other avenues have to be explored. These would include the continued intensification of agriculture, given its likely success in ensuring cheap food supplies in developing countries. GM crops are seen as one element in such intensification. The Nuffield report supports the notion that GM crops have the potential to assist in alleviating world hunger.
If the line were taken that GM crops should not become part of agricultural practice in developing countries, can you think of any alternative strategies?
Strategies that might be pursued include expansion of agricultural land, improvements in irrigation, increased fertiliser and pesticide input, and sustained use of conventional plant breeding procedures.
The Nuffield report identified problems with each of these options.
The expansion of agricultural land area has slowed over recent years, reflecting the decreased returns from the land that is available. It is estimated that if world crop yields had not increased threefold between 1960 and 1992, via the Green Revolution, 2600-3100 million hectares of additional land would need to have been cultivated. To avoid such extra land use over the next 20 years, 'we must be able to triple the yields from the world's existing farmland'.
Increased irrigation has to continue as a priority, but is now said to face 'sharply diminishing returns, increasing marginal costs and hazards'.
Increased use of fertilisers and pesticides carries obvious disadvantages, not just because of environmental and health effects, but because of their expense and the problems of lax regulatory control.
It is argued that the gains from conventional plant breeding over the past 40 years are unlikely to be replicated.
This is an area of great contention, and there is no reason to expect that you will agree with the Nuffield Council's conclusion. In the last analysis, their view is based on a belief that political factors make a fairer distribution of food unlikely.