If you want to spark a heated debate at a dinner party, bring up the topic of genetically modified foods. For many people, the concept of genetically altered, high-tech crop production raises all kinds of environmental, health, safety and ethical questions. Particularly in countries with long agrarian traditions--and vocal green lobbies--the idea seems against nature.
In fact, genetically modified foods are already very much a part of our lives. A third of the corn and more than half the soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. last year were the product of biotechnology, according to the Department of Agriculture. More than 65 million acres of genetically modified crops will be planted in the U.S. this year. The genetic genie is out of the bottle.
Yet there are clearly some very real issues that need to be resolved. Like any new product entering the food chain, genetically modified foods must be subjected to rigorous testing. In wealthy countries, the debate about biotech is tempered by the fact that we have a rich array of foods to choose from--and a supply that far exceeds our needs. In developing countries desperate to feed fast-growing and underfed populations, the issue is simpler and much more urgent: Do the benefits of biotech outweigh the risks?
The statistics on population growth and hunger are disturbing. Last year the world's population reached 6 billion. And by 2050, the U.N. estimates, it will probably near 9 billion. Almost all that growth will occur in developing countries. At the same time, the world's available cultivable land per person is declining. Arable land has declined steadily since 1960 and will decrease by half over the next 50 years, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).
The U.N. estimates that nearly 800 million people around the world are undernourished. The effects are devastating. About 400 million women of childbearing age are iron deficient, which means their babies are exposed to various birth defects. As many as 100 million children suffer from vitamin A deficiency, a leading cause of blindness. Tens of millions of people suffer from other major ailments and nutritional deficiencies caused by lack of food.
How can biotech help? Biotechnologists have developed genetically modified rice that is fortified with beta-carotene--which the body converts into vitamin A--and additional iron, and they are working on other kinds of nutritionally improved crops. Biotech can also improve farming productivity in places where food shortages are caused by crop damage attributable to pests, drought, poor soil and crop viruses, bacteria or fungi.
Damage caused by pests is incredible. The European corn borer, for example, destroys 40 million tons of the world's corn crop annually, about 7% of the total. Incorporating pest-resistant genes into seeds can help restore the balance. In trials of pest-resistant cotton in Africa, yields have increased significantly. So far, fears that genetically modified, pest-resistant crops might kill good insects as well as bad appear unfounded.