Technology for Life: How Biotech Will Save Billions from Starvation
Prakash, C. S., Conko, Gregory, The American Enterprise
"To deny desperate, hungry people the means to control their futures by presuming to know what is best for them is not only paternalistic but morally wrong.... We want to have the opportunity to save the lives of millions of people and change the course of history in many nations.... The harsh reality is that, without the help of agricultural biotechnology, many will not live."
--Hassan Adamu, Nigerian minister of agricultural and rural development, September 11, 2000.
Today, most people around the world have access to a greater variety of nutritious and affordable foods than ever before, thanks mainly to developments in agricultural science and technology. The average human life span--arguably the most important indicator of quality of life--has increased steadily in the past century in almost every country. Even in many less developed countries, life spans have doubled over the past few decades. Despite massive population growth, from 3 billion to more than 6 billion people since 1950, the global malnutrition rate decreased in that period from 38 percent to 18 percent. India and China, two of the world's most populous and rapidly industrializing countries, have quadrupled their grain production.
The record of agricultural progress during the past century speaks for itself. Countries that embraced superior agricultural technologies have brought unprecedented prosperity to their people, made food vastly more affordable and abundant, helped stabilize farm yields, and reduced the destruction of wild lands. The productivity gains from G.M. crops, as well as improved use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, allowed the world's farmers to double global food output during the last 50 years, on roughly the same amount of land, at a time when global population rose more than 80 percent. Without these improvements in plant and animal genetics and other scientific developments, known as the Green Revolution, we would today be farming on every square inch of arable land to produce the same amount of food, destroying hundreds of millions of acres of pristine wilderness in the process.
Many less developed countries in Latin America and Asia benefited tremendously from the Green Revolution. But due to a variety of reasons, both natural and human, agricultural technologies were not spread equally across the globe. Many people in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia continue to suffer from abject rural poverty driven by poor farm productivity. Some 740 million people go to bed daily on an empty stomach, and nearly 40,000 people--half of them children--die every day of starvation or malnutrition. Unless trends change soon, the number of undernourished could well surpass 1 billion by 2020.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) expects the world's population to grow to more than 8 billion by 2030. The FAO projects that global food production must increase by 60 percent to accommodate the estimated population growth, close nutrition gaps, and allow for dietary changes over the next three decades. Food charity alone simply cannot eradicate hunger. Increased supply--with the help of tools like bioengineering--is crucial.
Although better farm machinery and development of fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides have been extremely useful, an improved understanding of genetic principles has been the most important factor in improving food production. Every crop is a product of repeated genetic editing by humans over the past few millennia. Our ancestors chose a few once-wild plants and gradually modified them simply by selecting those with the largest, tastiest, or most robust offspring for propagation. Organisms have been altered over the millennia so greatly that traits present in existing populations of cultivated rice, wheat, corn, soy, potatoes, tomatoes and many others, have very little in common with their ancestors. Wild tomatoes and potatoes contain very potent toxins, for example. …