Monday, 21 January 2013

GM CROPS PART 2: Why do we need to improve our crops? What's wrong with the way they are now?

Other articles in this series:
Part 1: What are GM crops?
Part 3: What have GM crops done so far?

Why do we need to improve our crops? What's wrong with the way they are now?

We need to produce more food. While it is true that the world currently produces enough food to feed everyone on Earth, this will not be the case for long if we do not improve our crops. By the year 2050, world population will have risen from its current level of around 7 billion to around 9 billion (an increase of about 30%). If our ability to produce food does not increase then we will not be able to feed these people.

Although we are currently producing enough food to feed everyone, a large chunk of the world's population is starving. This is because rich countries are producing more food than they need, while poor countries are not able to produce enough food. One solution might be for the rich countries to donate their extra food to the poor countries, but there are obvious problems with this strategy. Surely it would be better to give people in poor countries the ability to produce more food for themselves? One of the reasons that poor countries cannot produce enough food is that their farmers cannot afford the large amounts of fertilisers, weed-killers and insecticides that are currently needed to produce large amounts of food.

Hunger isn't the only problem that we face. Many of the world's poorest people suffer from what are called 'nutrient deficiencies'. This means that their diet does not contain enough of certain things (like vitamins, iron and zinc) that are needed to live a healthy life. This is often because their diet mainly consists of one crop, such as rice, and this crop does not contain all of the things that are needed to be healthy. This often means that these people do not develop properly and have weak immune systems. Many of these people live in parts of the world where they do not have access to the medicine needed to treat infections, so having a weak immune system is a serious problem. (Read more about this here).

There are other factors that mean we will need to produce more food in the future. Firstly, some poor countries are becoming less poor. This is clearly a good thing, but it does mean that people in those countries will start wanting to eat more of a mixed diet than they currently do, including more meat. Meat production requires a lot more land than growing crops (partly because the animals have to be fed and that food comes from crops). This is land that we do not have available. Also, meat production is much worse for the environment that growing crops (read more about the environmental impact of eating meat here). Another problem is global warming. Although it might seem like warmer weather should help with growing crops, the reality is that climate change will make it much harder to produce food in the future.

The way that we currently produce food causes a lot of damage to the environment. Fertilisers, weed-killers and insecticides cause serious pollution. Their use also contributes massively to our global greenhouse gas emissions. But we can't just stop using them. We absolutely rely on them for food production. If we stopped using them then a lot more people would be starving. Fortunately, there are ways of using them more effectively so that smaller amounts are needed. However, the ideal solution would be if we had plants that produced large amounts of food without any need for these inputs.

Unfortunately, food production has another impact on the environment that is worse than anything I have mentioned so far. Land that is used for farming is much, much, much worse at absorbing carbon dioxide (one of the major greenhouse gasses that cause global warming) than land that is left to grow naturally. In fact, research has shown that the increased use of fertiliser, weed-killers and insecticides in the past 40 years has actually had an overall positive effect on the environment, because it meant that we could produce more food per field, which meant that we needed less farmland than we otherwise would have.

So what can GM crops do to help with these problems? Well actually they have done quite a lot already and have the potential to do a lot more in the future. Find out more in Part III (coming soon). 

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