Biotechnology can save the world! It’s been said to be a promising solution for the problem of world hunger, which affects millions of people.
But, how can biotechnology help to feed people?
Biotechnology involves the use of biology and technology. When trying to solve the problem of people around the world going hungry, there are many avenues that biotechnology can take to provide solutions.
These include developing genetically engineered crops that are resistant to extreme weather and pests, thus providing food; and developing crops that are richer in important, life-saving nutrients. With that in mind, let’s explore how biotechnology could help to relieve world hunger.
Starving For Solutions
Globally in 2017, there were 821.6 million chronically undernourished people, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (via International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications).
In addition to the above, undernutrition, which includes vitamin A deficiencies and stunted growth, contributes to millions of children deaths every single year.
Something has to change! It’s clear that a solution is needed, which is why the world looks to biotechnology for ideas.
The Use Of GM In Food Production
Although genetically modified food remains controversial, and in many countries banned due to concerns that these foods could be harmful to human health, they have already helped farmers to ensure greater crop yields.
Since 1996, farmers have harvested over 440 million tons of more food as a direct result of biotech crops, as the ISAAA reports.
Although this sounds like it would be the perfect silver bullet to relieve hunger, it does pose some obstacles.
For example, many people who are affected by malnutrition are small farmers located in sub-Saharan Africa, as National Geographic reports, where the use of GM crops is not common. This could be as a result of lower levels of education and less access to technology.
Another big problem is that even if people all over the world were more accepting of GM crops to alleviate hunger, this still wouldn’t be good enough. As the site goes on to say, there is enough food in the world to feed everyone.
Some people don’t have access to this food because of inequity and an unequal food distribution. It’s sad but true that gaining access to the food supply is dependent on many factors, not just the actual food: these include environmental, political, and socioeconomic factors.
How Biotechnology Has Improved Farming And Modern Agriculture
Biotechnology has achieved a lot to help farmers in various ways. Let’s take a look at some of the most amazing ones to date.
Less Use Of Pesticides
Chemical pesticides are toxic to the environment and human health, but biotechnology has already made a big difference in offering farmers more natural alternatives. Since 1997, the use of pesticides on biotech plant acreage has been decreased by 790 million pounds, as Bio reports.
Biotechnology has therefore offered alternatives to specialized herbicides. These include broad-spectrum, safe compounds that also don’t have a large impact on the environment.
Hawaii is a perfect example of how creating disease-resistant crops can make a huge impact. Biotech papaya that’s resistant to disease has been cultivated in the state since 1998. It was developed as a solution to the deadly papaya ringspot virus.
This virus was deadly and threatened to eliminate papaya production. Biotechnology has therefore been useful in rescuing papaya production and this has set the stage for other disease-resistant crops to arise.
Future Biotechnology In Agriculture
There’s a lot to look forward to when it comes to biotechnology in agriculture. Here are some important developments we can (hopefully) expect in the future.
Scientists have found ways to make use of genetic engineering to increase the vitamin A content in rice. Rice already possesses genes that produce beta carotene (which the body transfers into vitamin A) in wild species, but these get switched off during the growth process.
By inserting genes into the rice, scientists can ensure that its vitamin A production continues as the rice grows.
In theory, Golden Rice sounds like the perfect way to increase nutrients in the food supply, but researchers are still facing problems with it. For example, they’ve found that the beta carotene strains are not yielding as much as non-GMO strains.
Another problem is that there is much controversy and regulation surrounding the use of GM crops. This is unfortunate as safety tests on the rice have shown that it’s safe for human consumption and provides more vitamin A to the body than spinach.
Scientists are still working on it as it could help millions of people. Golden Rice was a winner of the 2015 Patents for Humanity Awards by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, so it’s still in the pipeline.
The development of drought-resistant crops has already made big breakthroughs. An example is the creation of drought-tolerant maize that was planted in the Corn Belt in the Midwestern United States that’s known for arid conditions.
But scientists hope to bring this biotechnology to regions of the world where millions of people need maize as their staple food, like Africa. In Zimbabwe, scientists have been working hard to bring this biotechnology to help crop yields, but sadly there are obstacles to face.
One of them is that drought-resistant grain known as pearl millet is not allowed in various rural areas because traditional leaders hold the view that it brings bad luck.
The presence of salt in soil can inhibit the growth of crops. It actually reduces the quality of the soil so that in some cases nothing can grow on it. By finding ways to reduce the salt content in soil, researchers can increase crop yields in areas where nothing grows.
Scientists are finding ways to deal with dead zones – areas of land where crops don’t grow – by making use of certain perennial grasses in these places. These can help to prevent large amounts of salinity from getting in the way of crop growth.
Scientists from North Dakota State University’s Carrington Research Extension Center have identified various types of perennial grasses that decrease the levels of soil salinity, as Successful Farming reports.
Scientists have even been working on the development of salt-tolerant rice in drought conditions. The problem with droughts is that they cause increased evaporation and this removes water from the ground but leaves salt behind.
This boosts the saltiness of the soil and it causes the flow of water to reverse because the groundwater is saltier than the plants, as Research Matters reports.
Researchers in India and the U.S. are finding that modifying plant genes can prevent the death of rice plants, ensuring that they can continue to grow in spite of large quantities of salt.
What Other Transgenic Crops Can We Expect In Future?
Genetically modified crops are the future of agriculture. They make it possible for traits to be introduced to plants in the hope of making them stronger. Scientists are researching ways to make many more plants resistant to disease, such as wheat and potato plants.
While trying to develop crops that provide high yields might seem like a good idea, some researchers are turning their attention to reducing crop loss that many farmers are facing, as Scientific American reports.
That said, there are major breakthroughs that are happening when it comes to increasing crop yields.
An example is research that was published in Science journal that looked at how researchers have used genetic engineering to increase how much sunlight crop plants can channel into food production and they found that this method increased crop yield by 15 percent!
This is a highly promising method that could make its contribution to food shortages and help to relieve the global hunger problem.
Are GM crops cheaper to grow?
Although GM seeds are more expensive than traditional crop seeds, the plants cost less to grow, such as because sometimes farmers don’t need to use pesticide on them.
What’s the difference between GMO and organic?
While GMOs can contain more nutritional value and repel pests, organic food doesn’t contain any pesticides, solvents, additives, or fertilizers.
It’s clear to see that biotechnology has achieved a lot when it comes to increasing our food supply and helping farmers achieve larger yields. That said, it isn’t a magic solution for world hunger in and of itself.
As we’ve seen in this article, there are other factors at play that need to be sorted out. Looking on the bright side, there’s still a lot of research currently being developed that’s finding ways to reduce global hunger.