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GMOs and World Hunger: Meeting Food Demand Sustainably

GMOs and world hunger

Did you know that the total land devoted to agriculture around the globe is almost 20 million square miles (48 million square km)? That’s more than five times the area of the United States. The availability of farmland is essential to agricultural production. And, yet, the availability of new land suitable for crop production is limited, partly because farmland is sometimes considered more valuable when converted into urban and suburban developments. Some estimate that we are losing agricultural land by up to 175 acres an hour. 

With an estimated world population of 9.7 billion by 2050, farmers will need to produce up to 70 percent more food than they do today to satisfy global demand.

 

How Can GMOs Help Solve Poverty and Hunger?

 

One of the key ways that genetically modified crops help to maximize resources is to minimize crop loss and optimize yields. It is estimated that between 26 and 40 percent of the world’s potential crop production is lost annually due to weeds, insects, diseases and other pests. Insect-resistant, disease-resistant, and herbicide-tolerant genetically modified crops help to reduce these crop losses. 

An analysis of over 6,000 peer-reviewed studies covering 21 years of data found that GMO corn increased yields up to 25 percent and dramatically decreased dangerous food contaminants. The study, published in Scientific Reports, analyzed field data from 1996, when the first GMO corn was planted, through 2016 in the United States, Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

The researchers’ key findings:

  • GMO corn varieties increased crop yields 5.6 to 24.5 percent relative to their non-GMO equivalents
  • GMO corn crops had lower percentages of mycotoxins (-28.8 percent), fumonisins (-30.6 percent) and thricotecens (−36.5 percent), all of which can lead to economic losses and harm human and animal health

Genetic engineering has also resulted in a dramatic increase in yields and a sharp reduction in the use of pesticides in the growing of brinjal (eggplant) in Bangladesh, according to a 2018 study in Frontiers of Bioengineering and Biotechnology

Minimized crop losses help to produce greater yields, and genetically modified crops are allowing farmers to grow more on current farmland.  Between 1996 and 2016, crop biotechnology was responsible for an additional 213.5 million tons of soybeans, 404.91 million tons of corn, 27.47 million tons of cotton lint and 11.6 million tons of canola without having to bring more land into agricultural production.

It is estimated that if GMOs had not been available in 2016, in order to maintain current production levels would have required the planting of 55.4 million additional acres of crops.  That means that without the use of genetically modified seeds, farmers would have needed to plant 26.7 million more acres of soybean, 20.3 million acres of corn, 7.2 million acres of cotton and 1.2 million acres of canola.

GMO crops are being adopted globally because of the enormous benefits to the environment, health of humans and animals, and contributions to the improvement of socio-economic conditions of farmers and the general public. Global economic gains contributed by GMO crops from 1996-2016 have amounted to $186 billion in economic benefits to more than 17 million farmers, 95% of whom come from developing countries.

GMO crops contributed to food security, sustainability, and climate change solutions by:

  • increasing crop productivity by 657.6 million tons valued at US$186.1 billion in 1996-2016; and 82.2 million tons valued at US$18.2 billion in 2016 alone;
     
  • conserving biodiversity in 1996 to 2016 by saving 183 million hectares of land, and 22.5 million hectares of land in 2016 alone; 
     
  • providing a better environment
    • by saving on 671 million kg. a.i. of pesticides in 1996-2016, and by 48.5 million kg in 2016 alone from being released into the environment;
    • by saving on pesticide use by 8.2% in 1996-2016, and by 8.1% in 2016 alone;
    • by reducing EIQ (Environmental Impact Quotient) by 18.4% in 1996-2016, and by 18.3% in 2016 alone
       
  • reducing CO2 emissions in 2016 by 27.1 billion kg, equivalent to taking 16.7 million cars off the road for one year; and
     
  • helping alleviate poverty through uplifting the economic situation of 16-17 million small farmers, and their families totaling  >65 million people, who are some of the poorest people in the world (Brookes and Barfoot, 2018). 

Thus, GMO crops can contribute to a “sustainable intensification” strategy favored by many science academies worldwide, which allows productivity and production to be increased on the current 1.5 billion hectares only of global cropland, thereby saving forests and biodiversity. GMO crops are essential but are not a panacea, and adherence to good farming practices such as rotations and resistance management, are a must for biotech crops as they are for conventional crops.1

While GMOs are not a silver bullet for solving the complex challenge of feeding a growing population, they are a proven tool for helping to increase agricultural productivity and for improving the economic and environmental sustainability of farming in the developing world.  

1. Data from ISAAA Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2018