For several years, the world has been producing less and less food per person -- and the reserves are dwindling. The result: hunger.
“The number of hungry people in developing countries increased by 18 million in the second half of the 1990s to some 800 million today,” reports the Washington D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute. “Worldwide, nearly 2 billion people suffer from hunger and chronic nutrient deficiencies.”
But some sceptics don’t believe it. They find it hard to imagine having a food crisis because “farmers can always bring more land into cultivation,” or so they thought.
“That assumption is unwarranted,” deplored Lester R. Brown, when he was still the head of the institute. “Food cannot be grown just anywhere; it can’t be grown in places where land is too cold, too dry, too steep, or too barren. It also can’t be grown where there is no water or where the soil has been degraded by erosion.”
Of those lands that are still free from all the constraints mentioned above, “nearly all is already in cultivation,” Brown pointed out. In addition, “some of the most erodible land is slowly losing its productivity.”
If the cropland areas are no longer expanding, some believe that by raising the output, particularly fertilizer, from the existing croplands, food production can be increased. While it was the global strategy that worked for four decades, increasing the amount of fertilizer to be used won’t help at all.
“It’s like a baker adding more and more yeast to the dough,” Brown explained. “The substitution of fertilizers for land, for formula that worked so well for farmers for nearly half a century, is now failing them.”
But developing new varieties may help. As Brown said, “Unless plant breeders can develop new varieties that can effectively use still larger quantities of fertilizer, the world’s farmers will have trouble reestablishing safety growth in food output.”
It’s not only land and fertilizer that are needed to grow crops. Water is a much needed requirement. A kilogram of rice takes about 1,000 kilograms of water to grow. A kilo of beef takes much more.
A large part of the world’s food production depends on supplementing rainfall with irrigation -- either from underground aquifers or from rivers. “Yet, both groundwater and surface water are becoming scarce,” Brown said.
Jules Verne long ago suggested that when the world reached the limits of food production on land, it could turn to the oceans. But that, too, is now reaching beyond its limit. United Nations marine biologists count 17 major oceanic fisheries, and report that all are now being fished at or beyond capacity, thirteen are in a state of decline.
“As a result of our failure to stabilize population before reaching the limits of oceanic fisheries, we now face a declining seafood catch per person -- and rising seafood prices for as far as we can see into the future,” Brown said.
Is there a possible solution to the problem? “I now say that the world has the technology – either available or well-advanced in the research pipeline – to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug pointed out. “The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology?”
Dr. Borlaug, touted to be the “Man Who Saved A Billion Lives,” was referring to biotechnology. “While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic’ methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot,” the American agronomist deplored.
Biotechnology encompasses an array of tools and applications that allow scientists to manipulate the genetic materials of plants, microbes, and animals. These methods provide ways to modify the characteristics that are passed from one generation to the next.
Ismail Serageldin, during his time as vice-president of World Bank, see biotechnology playing a crucial part of agriculture in the 21st century. “All possible tools that can help promote sustainable agriculture for food security must be marshaled,” he said, “and biotechnology, safely developed, could be a tremendous help.”
Biotechnology’s primary contribution to the agricultural sector will be to increase the actual amount of food that can be grown on the planet. The ultimate challenge now is how to produce enough food for the growing population.
From 2 billion in 1935, the world’s population doubled to 4 billion in 1975. By 2000, the world was home to 6 billion. In 2030, there will be about 8 billion people inhabiting this planet.
Plus there are the issues of climate change: rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. “Climate change is a major challenge for agriculture and food security,” said Dr. Randy A. Hautea, global coordinator and Southeast Asia Center Director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA).
The tools used in biotechnology include gene cloning, tissue culture, microbial culture, DNA-marker technology, and genetic engineering. The latter is the most controversial as it is the method used in developing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
GM/biotech or transgenic crop is a plant that has a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology, according to a fact sheet circulated by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA).
“GM technology can address problems that cannot be solved through conventional crop improvement methods,” the fact sheet informs. “It enables plant breeders to bring together in one plant useful genes from a wide range of sources, not just from within the crop species or closely related plants.
“This powerful tool allows plant breeders to attain a desired trait combination faster and address urgent concerns like the development of crops that are resistant to biotic (diseases and pests) or abiotic stresses (drought and waterlogging), and with increased yield and improved food and nutrient quality,” the fact sheet adds.
But are GM foods safe to eat? “Foods produced using genetic modification are as safe as foods produced using conventional breeding techniques,” assures the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Genetically modified foods are as safe as other foods available on the market.”
The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) declared that different GM foods go through the global food safety process called Codex Alimentarius Risk Analysis of Foods Derived from Modern Biotechnology under which these foods are not found to be risky to human health.
“GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health,” said the UN health agency in a statement.
“No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. Continuous use of risk assessments based on the Codex principles and, where appropriate, including post market monitoring, should form the basis for evaluating the safety of GM foods,” it added.