The United Nations forecasts global population to rise to more than 9 billion people by 2050. Climate change may mean that the crops we depend on now may no longer be suited to the areas where they are currently cultivated and may increasingly be threatened by droughts, floods and the spread of plant diseases due to altered weather patterns. So feeding everyone in the coming decades will be a challenge â can genetically modified crops help us achieve this?
Two groups of genetically modified crops are widely grown. The first are altered so that they are not affected by the herbicide glyphosate, which means that farmers can eliminate weeds without harming their crop. Glyphosate-resistant crops can increase farming efficiency but, while helping to get rid of weeds, herbicide resistance has no direct effect on the quantity of food produced, so their contribution to food security is likely to be limited.
Genetic modification can certainly be used in the fight to make crops more disease resistant. Many plants are vulnerable to an infection because they cannot detect the invading organism. However, the proteins that identify an infection and activate a plantâs defences can be moved between varieties or even species using genetic modification. This will enable previously vulnerable crops to turn on resistance mechanisms.
Nor is gene editing limited to improving disease resistance. Tomatoes have been tweaked to be insensitive to changes in the number of hours of sunlight in a day. This causes them to produce fruit more quickly because they arenât waiting for the right time of year to start flowering.
Fundamentally, agriculture uses photosynthesis to convert light energy, water and carbon dioxide into food â so improving this process would increase how much food we produce. An obvious target is the step that captures carbon dioxide as it sometimes mistakes oxygen for carbon dioxide in a wasteful set of reactions called photorespiration.
Less ambitious approaches may provide benefits more quickly, such as a new type of wheat in which productivity has been increased by 15% to 20% by speeding up recycling of ribulose bisphosphate which is crucial for carbon dioxide capture.
Crops are not just being genetically modified to improve their quantity but also their nutritional quality. The most prominent of these is âgolden riceâ. Vitamin A deficiency causes 250,000 deaths per year and is common in populations whose diet is heavily dependent on rice. Golden rice is golden because it produces large quantities of yellow dietary carotenoids that our bodies can convert into vitamin A.
Many people â and countries â are still sceptical about GM food. But people and animals have now been consuming GM crops for more than 20 years without apparent harm to their health. On the other hand, there is no question that starvation kills and that food insecurity is a major global threat. There are challenging times ahead. Can we afford to close the door on these powerful ways to protect our food supply?
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.