GM crops hold the key to feeding world's fast growing population

 Using GM crops, we can achieve successful land rotation, and degraded land can be taken out of production. [Courtesy]

If we are to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050, we must act quickly. Genetically modified crops may offer a solution.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, the human population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Most of this growth is expected to happen in developing countries, with the fastest population increase in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

To feed this population, we need to increase food production by 70 per cent between 2007 and 2050. This means food production in developing countries may have to double — or even triple. 

About 90 per cent of global crop production growth is expected to come from increased yields and 10 per cent from land expansion. Feeding 9.7 billion people would require land expansion by 120 million hectares in developing countries. Keep in mind that this would only solve 10 per cent of the problem.

Many developing countries have a growing rural and urban population, making land very scarce. As it stands now, the world has lost 33 per cent of its high-quality arable land due to soil erosion or degradation caused by persistent cultivation of fields and heavy use of agrochemicals. 

Agriculture has negatively impacted climate change and the environment. Increasing the area of land for farming is not a worthwhile option. The solution lies in making production more efficient.

Potato is the second most frequently consumed crop in East Africa after maize. By 2015, Kenya had about 800,000 smallholder farmers and 3.3 million people employed by the potato industry. Potato contributes to food security in SSA countries since it is available throughout the year, and provides good nutritional benefits with low fat and few calories. 

Potato is the second most frequently consumed crop in East Africa after maize. [Courtesy]

However, the crop has a problem: Late blight disease. When it hits, farmers lose 60–100 per cent of their yield. To control it, farmers must spray fungicides twice a week. But even then, they still incur losses because the fungicides do not give total protection.

Using genetic modification technologies, scientists at the National Agricultural Research Organisation in Uganda and International Potato Center have developed a late blight-resistant potato variety known as 3R potato.

They successfully transferred three genes from a wild potato variety into the Victoria variety. In Kenya, scientists have transferred the same genes into two popular Kenyan varieties: Shangi and Tigoni. These GM potatoes are entirely resistant to late blight disease, which means farmers will not incur any yield losses due to the disease. Additionally, these potatoes eliminate the use of harmful fungicides, increase profit margins and conserve the environment and human health. 

Late blight-resistant potato is just one example of genetic modification in agriculture but there are several others. They include GM eucalyptus, modified to increase yield, and golden rice, which was modified to improve nutrition. 

Between 1996 and 2015, GM crops increased global production of corn, soybean and cotton by 357.7 million tonnes, 180.3 million tonnes, and 25.2 million tonnes, respectively. Due to the high productivity, 20 million hectares of wildland were prevented from being converted to agricultural use in 2015 alone. This increased productivity greatly benefited the environment. Using GM crops, we can achieve successful land rotation, and degraded land can be taken out of production to allow for soil restoration. 

In 2015, FAO estimated that 795 million people suffered from severe hunger and malnutrition. This number is bound to rise with the increasing population unless there is swift intervention. However, in most African countries, public policies are still harsh on GM crops. The next big hurdle is changing the perception of the public to an informed point of view.