Biotechnology has Greater Potential than Organic Foods
Without Genetically Modified Foods, Millions of People Face Starvation
April 12, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
DAYTON DAILY NEWS
April 5, 2000
Genetic engineering recently produced a new medicine that will help kids with rheumatoid arthritis and new tests that warn people at risk of colon cancer.
Biotechnology is on the verge of producing many thousands of replacement human kidneys and hearts from cloned pigs that won't be rejected by the human system.
Biotech will almost certainly provide things such as better-tasting tomatoes; allergen-free wheat and nuts; more-tender lean beef; fat-free snacks; and many other consumer benefits.
Some people in Europe say such science isn't safe enough for food production. Of course, Europe already has plenty of food.
But the rest of the world doesn't have all the food it wants. Some 800 million people are still malnourished at least part of the time.
Genetically modified 'golden rice' will eliminate the vitamin A deficiencies that currently cause 8 million poor children to go blind each year and the iron deficiency that puts more than a billion women in rice cultures at increased risk of birth complications.
The world's population probably will rise by an additional 2 billion before it restabilizes. Most of the additional people will be in tropical countries, where much of the cropland is too acid for high yields.
Two Mexican researchers have created the world's first acid-soil crops, by inserting a gene for citric acid that defeats the aluminum toxicity in the soils. This breakthrough could increase tropic food production by 40 percent - without clearing any tropical forests.
Third World incomes are rising fast. Chinese meat consumption more than doubled in the last decade, and India's demand for milk and poultry meat is soaring. It takes twice as many farming resources to produce a calorie of meat instead of grain, but humanity has an urgent hunger for the amino acids, vitamins and minerals found in meat and milk.
There is even a pet challenge. America has 112 million companion cats and dogs. A comparable number for an affluent, one-child China in 2050 is 500 million cats and dogs.
The world's demand for food by 2050 will be nearly triple today's farm output. We're already farming 37 percent of the earth's land surface. Without the high-yield farming pioneered in America, the world already would have plowed an additional 15 million square miles of wildlands to get today's food supply - equal to the total land area of the United States, Europe and South America.
Gene mapping will raise yields using genes from wild relatives of our crop plants. In tomatoes, where yields have been rising at only 1 percent annually, wild-relative genes produced a 50 percent gain. In rice, where yields gains had stalled for 15 years, two wild-relative genes each produced a 17 percent yield increase in the test plots.
Biotech has also given us virus-resistant rice, sweet potatoes and bananas to help feed Africa. Our nonbiotech farming solutions - hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides - probably aren't powerful enough to even double world food production in the coming decades.
Organic farming also might need an additional 30 million square miles of land to grow the world's food for 2050. Organic yields are only about half as high.
Additionally, the world has a severe shortage of organic nitrogen; so organic farming would force us to convert millions of square miles of wild lands to grow 'green manure' crops such as clover. Mainstream farmers, in contrast, take their nitrogen from the air, which is 78 percent nitrogen.
America has the world's largest chunk of prime farmland. Our family farms should celebrate the 21st century by tripling their yields with biotech, doubling their exports to the land-short nations of Asia and preventing the plow-down of the world's wildlands.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.