Photo credit: KevinLallier via Flickr/Creative Commons
On the eve of the World Summit on Food Security, Reuters has an excellent two-part special report about the future of food. Specifically, it covers the intersection of two notions that are being linked with increasing frequency: Feeding the skyrocketing world population, expected to hit 9.4 billion people by 2050; and the perceived benefits (things like increased yields and drought resistance) by some of genetically modified seeds and foods.
So, will (or should) genetically modified foods be a big part of the future of food?
Is this what the future of food will look like? Everything in pastel-colored pellets? Photo credit: acme via Flickr/Creative Commons
The Future of Food
There isn't a quick or easy answer here. Food security is a huge problem in every part of the world, from Africa to India to rural and urban America. There's a lot of arable land in unexpected places, and a lot to be gained by adopting more sustainable farming techniques, but the problems that are raised by feeding so many people, in a changing climate, with unstable water supplies, make it a multi-variable equation. Toss the uncertainty -- both short-term (How will this year's crop do?) and long-term (How might GMOs affect land and water use, and what if they spread?) -- that comes with growing genetically modified seeds into the mix, and the picture becomes even less clear.
The Case for Small FarmersMeet Giuseppe Oglio. He's a third generation farmer near Milan, Italy, who favors a back-to-the-land approach rather than investing heavily in chemicals, fertilizers and lots of mechanization. He dropped out of agricultural school when too many industrial methods were being taught, deciding instead to let nature run its course while he grows legumes and grains without weeding or fertilizing his fields. "All you need to do is observe nature, listen to it, do what nature suggests and it will take care of everything," he said.
The agricultural traditions of the region help dictate how he farms; the low-lying plain has been growing local grains, like the rice used to make risotto, for generations, and he allows the patterns found in nature to replicate themselves in his fields; clover and millet grow together, and they feed each other and help build and re-build rich soil.
Cheap, low-maintenance farming can be adopted elsewhere, Oglio thinks, and, while it may not produce thousands of acres upon acres of staple crops like rice, wheat, and corn (at least in the same place), it can help feed the world's poor without reliance on and oversight by corporations. Even so, it's unlikely to scale to the numbers believed necessary to keep up with the huge expected demand.
Photo credit: Sergei Golyshev via Flickr/Creative Commons
The Case for Bio-Tech and GMOs
On the other side of the coin, Monsanto and the rest of the 'big four' believe they have an answer: Grow more food with fewer seeds, thereby providing the necessary scale to double the world's food production by 2050, which is what the United Nations predicts will be necessary.
For example, Monsanto is working on a drought-tolerant corn that would help provide yield stability in Africa, where it's a huge part of the local diet; corn and wheat account for about 40 percent of the world's food and 25 percent of calories consumed in developing countries, and millions of people get more than half of their daily calories from corn and wheat alone, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.
The seeds would be designed to stimulate greater photosynthesis, improve root structures, and enhance other characteristics so the transgenic corn can yield more kernels with less water. The catch: They (Monsanto, in this case) control and engineer the seeds, the market for them, what pesticides to use on them, and more everything about their distribution.
One thing they can't control is what happens after they go in the ground; much of the world remembers the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, where, in India, for example, water tables were dried up by yield-maximizing seeds and the soil was badly degraded by prescribed pesticides and fertilizers. Not to mention the potential "Frankenstein-ization" of plants when GMOs get caught in a breeze and float to a neighboring field or crop.
Short story long: This is a complicated problem without a quick solution. The two sides of this particular debate will continue to argue that their solution is best; neither has all the answers, and there isn't much common ground where they can come together, forget their differences, and shake hands on an amenable solution for everyone.
Everyone at the World Summit on Food Security will certainly be attempting to forge such a solution, or at least one that isn't so divisive. While it isn't likely to happen, one thing is for sure: The future of food is uncertain, and we'll need a workable solution sooner rather than later, and, unless companies producing GMOs, like Monsanto, make some very significant process to both clean up (and green up) their act, then any green solution will not include them.
More on biotechnology, GMOs, and agriculture
How Much of Your Pantry is Genetically Modified?
Why GMO Foods Have Failed at Producing Healthy Food for More People
Egypt Bans Genetically Modified Food - Can it be Done?
Saying No To Genetically Modified Foods In Japan