Food security: Should GM crops play a role?

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

UN FAO

The question of food security is one that has been considered for many decades … issues such as war, poverty, corruption, lack of infrastructure, poor distribution, food wastage and economic drivers have been some of the constraints and while sorting these issues will ensure greater food supply security, as a planet, we have unsuccessfully dealt with these problems.

The planet, especially in the far more affluent west, produces a huge amount of calories – more than enough for the entire planet. However, the issue is one of not just calories and growing more food. It’s about getting enough of the right food. In developing nations especially, one of the biggest health issues is deficiency in micronutrients such as iron, Vitamin A and iodine. Ironically, in the rapidly growing obesity of the western nations, the same issues are also becoming evident.

In the current age, the issue has become intrinsically complicated. The rising population is not just an issue of a greater mouths to feed. With greater bodies, comes a need for greater land use to house them. The global pattern in all developing nations is one of continuing urban growth and that generates an issue of ever shrinking land availability. Add to that the issues of less water, increasing costs (and in some cases availability) of fertilisers and fuel as well as the issues of altering conditions caused by the climate shifts and we have a range of factors that are likely to make things challenging – Australia included.

While many would rightly state that instead of looking at GM crops, we in the west should deal with the serious problem of wastage where we are throwing out perfectly good food every day as it is estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of what farmers produce ends up in landfill. Whilst in the developing world losses are likely to be due to pests and spoilage in storage and handling.

One part of the solution is to grow more of the right foods. To grow them more intensely. To grow them on less land and les water. To do so more efficiently.

We need re-think agriculture and every aspect of it. We need to reconsider the whole system – from the soil and nutrients, plants and animals, land and water usage, carbon and fertilisers … every aspect should be re-examined. This should also include how people access and consume food.

Thus why this topic is still an important aspect of the discussion. Whilst it may very well be a very small overall aspect of the solution, GM technologies and the subsequent crops are an important aspect.

As a grazier, for example, I am interested in grass which requires less water to grow, is resistant to high heat and is more digestible and nutritious for livestock. GM grass may not be what most people think about when we talk about crops, but such a grass would mean an improvement in the production of broad acre stock – which means less energy is used to extract the energy from the grass and more energy in the grass is available for the animal – this translates to more meat and milk with less grass. 

However, looking at standard crops, how about crops that are better adapted to abiotic stresses – such as drought and salinity? For example, imagine a GM Rice that could be grown in dry, hot, saline fields in outback Australia, central Africa or the outskirts of any number of dessert regions and the impact that could make to a global population that relies on rice as a staple.

This leads to a large range of questions:

  • Should these crops be developed?
  • To what extent can they help with food security?
  • Under what circumstances, if ever, should they be introduced?
  • What are the barriers to developing and growing these crops – technical, ethical or social?
  • What sort of agricultural or food production systems do we want to ensure food security in the next few decades?
  • What are the acceptable means by which we are prepared to achieve this?
  • What role, if any, should transgenic (Genetic Modification) technologies play?

Among the many fears and misconceptions surrounding GM crops (e.g. “my apple has a pork gene – I won’t be a vegan anymore!” or “what if the genes go into me and alter my DNA!”) is that from the farmers where a commercial entity creates a closed loop system forcing farmers to rely on a single locked down system that requires year-on-year repurchase of seed, fertiliser and weed control from the one firm places a greater strain on already tight profit margins. It is a fear shared across many across the globe and one alluded to in the UN Rome Declaration.

Food should not be used as an instrument for political and economic pressure. We reaffirm the importance of international cooperation and solidarity as well as the necessity of refraining from unilateral measures not in accordance with the international law and the Charter of the United Nations and that endanger food security.

UN “Rome Declaration”

So, for me, this raises further questions:

  • If we are to be serious about food security, should we ensure that the crops developed to achieve the goal of “an improvement to grow more of the right foods more efficiently” then should that definition also include the requirement that the crops do not have commercially motivated limitations? 
  • Should GM research be allowed to be patented and/or sold to private firms? 
  • Should they (and the resulting crops) remain within the domain of a government or independent governing body to ensure equitable management?

Which is why, with all of these questions and all of these factors, I was interested in the National Science Week event GM Food: A Dinner Discussion which is held as a public forum to be held on 10 August 2011 in Melbourne.

It promises to be a night of science facts, philosophy and great hypotheticals in the aim to explore the topic with the purpose of helping with the global food security. 

If you are in Melbourne, why not consider registering and attending?

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