Human society is supported by its ability to produce sufficient food for the total population while at the same time not using up or degrading the capacity to continue to produce that amount of food in the future. This requires us to “sustainably intensify” our agricultural methods to increase the yields on currently farmed land and minimize the expansion of agriculture onto additional wild lands and forests. Expanding agriculture increases production but has negative impacts on biodiversity, carbon release to the atmosphere, soil erosion and nutrient losses. Instead, obtaining more food value from the same amount of land requires more efficient crop plants, such as crops that make better use of fertilizers and water, have stronger resistance to pests and disease, and store more reserves and nutrients in the crop components (e.g., seeds, fruits) harvested for food.
Genetic engineering can contribute to all of these goals. Research has already demonstrated the potential to develop crops with increased nutrient-use efficiency, greater drought and flooding resistance, stronger disease and insect resistance and higher nutritional content and yield. Why should human society not use this ability to improve crops in order to feed all of our still-growing population while striving to minimize the impact of food production on the global environment? The current crops and practices are not adequate to meet the challenges of the future, and going back to methods of the past that were unable to feed even half of the current human population is not the answer. What technologies that were controversial when first introduced would we be willing to give up now: vaccines, antibiotics, vitamins, organ transplants, water treatment, sanitation, telephones, Internet, etc.? These scientific discoveries and technological advances have all contributed to the improved health and well-being of human society, but there is nothing more fundamental to the future of humanity than adequate and nutritious food. Given the challenges we are facing in this century, both socially and environmentally, we urgently need to apply our best science and technology to the most important thing that every human must do every day: eat.
Society has the responsibility of using science, rather than hype, to inform regulation, policy and scientific strategies to develop crops that can continue providing us with safe foods. In 2013, the World Food Prize was awarded to the pioneering scientists who developed modern agricultural biotechnology. Biotechnology crops have provided significant economic benefit to millions of consumers, reduced agriculturally related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, reduced soil erosion and substantially decreased the use of many toxic agricultural chemicals. Unfortunately, this polarized debate is not conducive to developing integrated approaches, which may include precision farming, organic practices and biotechnologies, to continue feeding the growing population in a sustainable manner.