Despite having made great advances in farming technology in the last several centuries, famine remains one of the largest global problems humanity struggles with. As of 2018, there is 820 million undernourished people worldwide. Although this is a significant improvement from the beginning of the century, humanity’s prospects for solving world hunger do not look positive due to a population boom in developing nations (which means more mouths to feed) and global warming-induced floods and droughts.
For this reason, genetically-engineered crops are a promising solution to the global food shortage crisis because they can be engineered to have increased crop yield and possibly even be resistant to adverse environmental conditions.
The Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops on the Global Food Shortage Crisis
Genetically-engineered crops have been used for about two decades to alleviate the global food shortage crisis. One way genetically-engineered crops can help humanity deal with global famine is by increasing crop yield, or the amount of crops that are produced per acre of land. One method of this is by genetically modifying crops to be herbicide-resistant, which prevents useful crops from being killed when farmers employ herbicides to kill weeds. Another method of increasing crop yield is by making crops pest-resistant. This allows the crops to be poisonous to insects that would decrease the yield of the crop. Furthermore, this prevents a need for farmers to employ pesticides that are potentially hazardous to human health. Finally, farmers can increase the yield of crops by planting genetically-engineered crops that are resistant to microbial infections that can also damage the crop. GM soybeans, maize, and cotton were associated with a 22% increase in yield, a 37% decrease in pesticide use, and a 68% increase in farmer profits, despite the higher cost of GM seeds.
This increase in yield also has a positive effect in making crops more affordable to consumers, according to economic theory, the prices of goods decrease if their supply increases- which is exactly what genetically engineering crops achieves. But beyond increasing supply, crops decrease the amount of money farmers have to spend on pesticides and fuel- thus decreasing the amount of that cost farmers pass along to consumers. An analysis of the production and price impacts of biotech crops by Graham Brookes et al., estimated that corn-based products would be priced 6 percent higher and soybean-based products would be 10 percent higher if it weren’t for GM crops.
Furthermore, crops can be genetically modified to include more nutrients. One example of this is “golden rice”, which is genetically engineered to contain more vitamin A than regular rice. This is important because millions of people in Asia and Africa do not get enough vitamin A, and a deficiency in vitamin A can result in stunted growth in children, throat and chest infections, and poor wound healing.
Challenges to Using Genetically Modified Crops to Fight the Global Food Shortage Crisis
One challenge that is faced in using genetically-engineered crops to fight the global food shortage crisis is that genetically modified crops are faring no better in being drought-resistant than crops that are selectively bred to be drought-resistant. This is because drought resistance is a complex trait that is determined by more than a few genes.
Fortunately, however, the cost of sequencing a genome is plummeting. Thus, this will make it easier to sequence various plants’ genomes and create new modifications to plant genomes. Promising applications of genetically engineering plants beyond drought resistance include flood resistance and crops that can grow in nitrogen-poor soil.
Another challenge in utilizing genetically-engineered crops to fight the global food shortage crisis is the fact that many in the public are concerned about genetically modified organisms’ (GMOs) effects on their health and on the environment. Scientists have found no evidence that GMOs are toxic to human health. Research has also found no relationship between GMOs and mutations, no possibility of GMOs being toxic to consumers’ offspring across multiple generations, and no evidence of gene transfer of the GMO to the consumer. Yet, despite the lack of scientific evidence to back up the fear of genetically-engineered crops, the fear persists with many anti-GMO activist groups working to denounce GMOs.
Unfortunately, convincing those who fear GMOs to accept them will be a harder task than finding new ways to genetically engineer crops. Among the current solutions is educating consumers and farmers that genetically engineered crops are safe for human consumption.
Luckily, however, GMOs are already pervasive in our global food supply. Almost 85% of the corn grown in the US is genetically modified. Likewise, the FDA has approved of many genetically-modified products such as genetically-modified alfalfa that is designed to be herbicide-resistant.
As the world population continues to soar, as global warming continues to increase the number of flooding and droughts, and as pesticide resistance continues to develop in insects and harmful microbes, genetically-engineering crops are a potential solution to prevent the global food shortage crisis from worsening. However, the usage of this tool is limited by a lack of understanding of benefit-inducing genes and a pervasive but unfounded fear of GMOs. Thus we should work to educate people about the safety of GMOs, to increase funding for research for new ways we can utilize genetically-engineered crops to solve the world hunger crisis, and to urge policymakers to approve of genetically-engineered crops in the market.