As the world experiences the effects of an ever more extreme climate, the roles of science and technology within all forms of industry have expanded. This has been seen as a largely positive development. But the topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is one topic that has caused great debate and to this day results in strong, polarising viewpoints.
The European Parliament for years was deadlocked between advocates and opponents of permitting the crops within EU borders, before eventually permitting each member nation to make their own decision on the matter.
In this case, many of the opposition to the crops justified their argument on the grounds that there is no need to tamper with nature, when we already have more than enough food being produced. Specifically these arguments cover three key areas of our food system:
- Water shortages
- Soil degradation
Transform Deserts into Regions Where Life Can Thrive
Across the world there are many countries that exhibit critical levels of starvation. On the surface it appears that GM crops could play a decisive role in keeping people alive.
A myriad of factors could have sparked such a hunger crisis. Wars, over-population, droughts and monsoons have all wreaked havoc in various locations which has left millions often destitute, homeless and on the cusp of starvation.
Therefore, one could easily be forgiven for leaping into action, armed with crate upon crate of hardy GM seeds, ready to flourish in the face of all of these obstacles. However, to do so would not only decimate local economies as local food producers would be rendered unable to compete, but would also only tackle the symptoms, rather than the cause of the issues.
Take drought hit regions for example. Approximately 1.2 billion people suffer from a lack of clean water for even the most basic necessities, so simply handing them a box of super seeds will accomplish very little. Tough as the seeds may be, they still require some degree of sustenance to grow, which the driest parts of the world cannot supply for months if not years on end. Therefore, we would be better off putting our time, money and resources into schemes that instead can enable the transformation of desert areas into regions where life can be nurtured.
In Israel for example, great strides have been made towards water security in such a hot climate, using a method known as ‘drip irrigation’. Saving an estimated 25-75% of water when compared to traditional farming methods, it is testament to what can be achieved when you tackle the problem at its source, rather than just persist with short-term solutions.
Furthermore along this line of thought, the World Economic Forum believes that water scarcity is the greatest threat to global stability. Lack of fertile agricultural land has already played a role in fuelling conflict between North Sudan and South Sudan, and has also been accused of playing a contributing factor to the initial unrest that gripped Syria back in 2011. As once fertile land has dried up due to the effects of climate change, more and more groups are being forced together and the resultant squabble for ‘blue gold’ inevitably leads to conflict. Therefore, were we to invest in exporting technologies that can make infertile land suitable for crop growth even to a slight extent, then we could begin to discuss bringing in GM crops. The ground work has to be laid first, to ensure local communities can stay on their land and are not forced to migrate in search of more habitable land.
Improve Land Usage to Prevent Soil Degradation
In an attempt to derive as much food as they can from what fertile land is left, many communities in areas of scarcity often over-farm, eventually whittling away the nutritious soil present. Again, just handing out GM crops would just accelerate the quantity of food production, and increase soil degradation to a totally unsustainable level.
Brazil, for example, loses roughly 55 million tons of topsoil every year due to a chronic over farming of soy. Driven largely by economic factors, more and more of the Amazon rainforest is lost every year, which is not only devastating for local flora and fauna, but has also led to widespread flooding and mudslides. The loss of vegetation has reduced the quantity of trees to soak up water, which then floods unchecked across the land.
Instead of encouraging the quantity of farming, we must focus on improving the usage of the land already in use. Such an approach is known as a ‘culture of prevention’, and requires a shift in attitudes from everyone, politicians, corporations, citizens etc. The pursuit of immediate profit can no longer be the sole motivator as given time, neither commercial nor subsistence food will cope in a barren wasteland removed of all arable life.
Reduce Waste Through Improved Storage and Distribution
Ultimately, the unequal distribution of resources is once more the biggest issue that needs to be addressed. Modern farming methods when properly implemented make for incredible bounties, yet so much is either wasted or simply sits in perpetual storage.
Africa for instance is synonymous with mass starvation, yet even more than 4 years ago was estimated to be capable of producing enough food to feed the continent. In that report, restrictive trade barriers were blamed for stopping food getting where it was needed, all for the benefit of more expensive goods sourced from other parts of the world.
Closer to home though within the EU, about 88 million tonnes of food is wasted a year. This is a shocking statistic when we consider how much good this number could have done elsewhere and refers us back to the earlier point: ‘why do we need GM crops in Europe when we already are producing far more than we need’?
Time and again, the solution lies in education, instead of just handing those in need some seeds and saying get on with it.
Changes of mind-set are needed to ensure a long-term viable fix as GM crops alone are not a continuation of the same flawed philosophy that has caused such suffering. There is a role for them to play, but only in tandem with sustainable farming techniques that work with nature, rather than against it.