The world’s population, growing now to a predicted number of nine billion by 2050, must have sufficient nutrition to avoid disastrous social consequences. Mass starvation is the first of these possibilities as currently. “Ten children die of starvation per minute” (Jacobsen. et al., 2013). Another easily foreseeable issue is large scale anarchy and social chaos resulting from millions of people desperate for food. These dire predictions will be exacerbated if the more disastrous effects, including more frequent heat waves, floods, storms, and drought, of rapid climate change come to pass (World Health Organization, 2002).
To ensure that these cataclysmic consequences do not arise, it is essential that a stable, sustainable food supply exists.
One part of the solution can be provided through the use of genetically modified agricultural crops. Modifying the genetic structure of plants has the potential to significantly improve both plant quality and productivity. (Eastham and Sweet, 2002). Genetic modification of crops can be applied to agricultural considerations other than productivity and increased nutrition content.
Leaving aside considerations of expected dramatic climate change, genetic modification can be explored to increase productivity in low-yielding environments negatively affected by conditions such as high saline content in the soil and periodic heat or drought (Tester and Langridge, 2010).
A logical and beneficial consequence of furthering genetic research into accommodation of weather and soil conditions is using that technology to address expected climate change which predicts increased drought, flooding, or pest and disease epidemics (Jacobsen, et al., 2013).
Considering the issue on a global level, however, focusing solely on genetically modified crops cannot solve the looming problem of providing sufficient food for so many people.
Continuing research and implementation of genetically modified crops must accompany research and implementation of other agricultural innovations including increased growing of minor crops such as jicama and quinoa, drought and pest resistant crops, improved farming techniques such as reduced soil tilling, innovative use of land now not under agricultural production, aquaculture and other methods of increase agricultural yields (Godfray, et al., 2010).
Human well-being does not just depend upon sufficient caloric intake but requires a diverse diet that provides an adequate amount of protein, essential oils and fats and nutrients (World Health Organization, 2002). Simply increasing the amount of food currently produced will not provide such a diet to the increasing number of human beings on Earth. The quality of the food produced cannot meet this goal using only traditional crop breeding techniques nor traditional agricultural methods. Genetically modified crop technology focuses not only on increasing crop yields but on creating crop variation and nutrient enhancement “beyond that which is available in naturally occurring (or even deliberately mutated) [plant] populations” (Tester and Langridge, 2010).
Genetically modified crop technology uses the most current science and technology to achieve its goals by studying and improving upon major issues of property selection and yield per acre gain. For example, many genetically modified crops need less pesticide than non-genetically modified crops (Crispeels, 2013). One new technique is marker-assisted selection that is proving to be “more reliable, more convenient, or cheaper” that other genetically modified crop technology (Tester and Langridge, 2010). Crop modification science is exploring heretofore unexplored wild crops that “provided notable successes in crop improvement” (Tester and Langridge, 2010).
Proponents of this science admit that much research is necessary to improve genetic crop modification but note also that such a goal is very reachable (Tester and Langridge, 2010). In fact, by 2013, globally genetically modified crops were cultivated in 28 countries, more than one-half non-industrialized countries (Crispeels, 2013).
There are hurdles, however, in the path of genetically modified crop technology. Industrialized farms growing only one genetically uniform crop can reduce the level of biodiversity and degrade the productivity of the soil. Research and testing of genetically modified crops is very expensive and the seeds produced for sale are far beyond the ability of most small farmers, particularly in non-industrialized countries, to purchase. In many industrialized countries, outside of the United States, there is considerable opposition by the public and by governments to the use of genetically modified crop technology.
For example, a genetically modified crop can hybridize with a wild crop relative and that crop’s growth behavior could change and produce negative, undesirable environmental consequences such as the ability to overtake the original genetically modified crop (Eastham and Sweet, 2002). Laboratory followed by field testing of genetically modified crops is time-consuming and often the resulting crops require more growth resources: water, fertilizer and pesticides which again are beyond the economic reach of small farmers especially in non-industrialized countries. Other factors increase the cost of growing genetically modified crops.
These include costs for cleaning and insurance against cross-contamination for farms growing genetically modified crops adjacent to farms growing traditional crops. Growing only a single crop, whether or not genetically modified, places its growers at more risk for catastrophic loss from crop failure, something that would exact far more severe consequences on small farmers than on large, well-financed corporate farms (Jacobsen, et al., 2013).
Other problems associated with the production of food from genetically modified crops are the decreased production of minor crops, largely due to the economies of discovery, testing and ultimate production of genetically modified crops. Many of these minor crops are naturally high in nutrient content, but they may not be grown in large quantities because they may need specialized processing before they can be consumed (Jacobsen, et al., 2013) and there is not enough potential economic gain for large, financially stable companies to invest in their growth or to invest in experimentation in possible genetic modification of these crops.
Additionally, current investment in genetically modified crops is largely measured on yield, but other factors should be considered such as sustainability over time or efficient growing methods adaptable to non-industrialized areas of the world, for example (Godfray, et al., 2010).
There are many other methods to increase nutritious food production that could be implemented on both large and small scales in addition to genetic modification of crops. Traditional crop breeding is one such method. It benefits small farmers because of its low cost, lack of cultural stigma, and ability to be adapted to local areas with particularized climates, soil content, water availability, etc. Local focus on minor crops is another.
Many of these crops have higher nutritional components than crops such as maize which is the target of much current genetically modified development. In addition, in economically powerful countries, there is an increasing demand for exotic, unusual food, making increased production of some traditionally minor crops now economically viable. Crop diversification helps reduce the negative effects on food production of major crop failure. Growing crops on a large scale is dependent upon technology over labor. However, in much of the non-industrialized parts of the world, labor is in plentiful supply making small farming in those areas more economically viable (Godfray, et al., 2010).
Crop management offers further solutions to food shortage. Mixed cropping, that is growing diverse crops within the same field or garden, can increase production. For example, meadows containing more grain varieties produced almost fifty percent more hay than fields where only one variety of grass was sowed. Mixed cropping also responds well to annual weather changes (Jacobsen, et al., 2013).
Genetically modified crop production has, thus far, resulted in an average per year increase of 32 million metric tons (Tester and Langridge, 2010). However, as discussed above, it is very expensive and time-consuming, from initial gene modification through actual field growth, to produce. These expenses include extensive research and development, and currently many company decision-makers are unwilling to risk funds on crops where they perceive little return on investment; they think it’s just too risky (Crispeels, 2013). Currently over one billion people live on less than $1.00 US per day, making it economically impossible for them to develop and grow genetically modified crops (World Health Organization, 2002).
Genetically modified crop production is not the only solution to the ever-increasing issue of feeding the Earth’s increasing human population. In many of these under-industrialized areas, food production can be enhanced by other methods such as teaching people more efficient methods of farming, increased emphasis on growing minor or local crops better adapted to unique growing environments and often more nutritious than genetically modified crops, and/or improving storage and transportation opportunities to increase the commercial viability of local or minor crops (Federoff, et al., 2010).