Biotechnology and Food: Helping Increase Global Food Security
The world's population has grown nearly four-fold over the last century and is projected to rise from more than 6.6 billion people today to more than nine billion by 2050 (UNFAO). Feeding the growing population by 2050 will require doubling food production and improving food distribution (UNFAO). Accomplishing this will necessitate significant increases in the amount of food produced per acre, or crop yield.
Biotechnology has boosted the amount of grain produced per acre. From 1996-2009 yield gains from biotech varieties of soybeans, corn, cotton and canola totaled 229 million tons (James, 2010). This is important because farmable land is limited, yet the demand for grain for food, feed and fiber is growing dramatically.
The United States is the leading producer of biotech crops, including soybeans, corn, cotton (oil), canola, papaya, alfalfa, sugar beets and squash (James, 2010).
Biotechnology is Already Helping and Has the Potential to Do More
As of 2010, 15.4 million farmers in 29 countries are planting biotech crops. Ninety-three percent of those farmers are resource-poor farmers in developing countries (James, 2010).
In addition to yield and productivity improvements, research is well underway to use biotechnology to improve the nutritional profile or productivity of crops that are staples in many developing countries where malnourishment or food security is an issue. Here are a few examples:
- Herbicide-tolerant wheat – While biotech corn and soybeans have been widely adopted in the United States and abroad, biotech wheat varieties are not yet available. As a result, in recent years farmers have opted to plant easier to manage, higher yielding, and more profitable biotech crops over wheat, and wheat supplies have decreased. In 2010, many companies and countries decided to pursue development of several biotech traits in wheat. The first biotech wheat is expected to be commercialized in 2017 (James, 2010).
- Pest-resistant (Bt) rice and phytase maize (corn) – In 2009,China—the world’s top rice producer and second largest corn producer—completed approvals for Bt rice, and phytase maize (corn), an animal feed crop. Both crops were developed by China’s public sector, and mark a monumental change in China’s ability to produce more food for its 1.3 billion inhabitants (James, 2009).
- Vitamin-enhanced “golden” rice – Although not expected to be commercially available until 2013, researchers have enhanced rice—a staple food for billions worldwide–to provide more beta carotene, which is a precursor to the body’s production of Vitamin A (James, 2010). The World Health Organization estimates that millions of children worldwide may be suffering from Vitamin A deficiency, which can cause irreversible blindness. A lack of Vitamin A also weakens the body's ability to ward off infection and minor illness (U.N., 2004).
These are only some examples of the new and exciting developments in biotechnology that are helping the world's farmers meet demands for a safe, sustainable food supply. Biotech-enhanced plants are designed to provide benefits that include: resisting pests, using water more efficiently, controlling the growth of weeds, and providing other improvements to help farmers around the world.
The many benefits of biotech crops make them an attractive choice for small and large-scale farmers worldwide.
James, Clive. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Global Status of Commercialized Biotech /GM Crops, 2009. http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/41/executivesummary/default.asp
James, Clive. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Global Status of Commercialized Biotech /GM Crops, 2010. http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/42/executivesummary/default.asp
United Nations Children’s Fund Global Progress Report on Mineral and Vitamin Deficiencies, 2004. http://www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle/2004/issue3/0304p51.asp
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO). Feeding the world in 2050, 2009. ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/meeting/018/k6021e.pdf