Human beings have been genetically modifying crops for thousands of years. The result has been to transform what was once inedible grasses and toxic seeds into food that is a staple of many millions of people.
Nina Fedoroff is the Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State and to the Administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development. Speaking to an assembly of scientists, policy makers, and government officials in Washington, D.C. on October 17th, Ms. Fedoroff noted that, "genetically modified crop acreage has increased rapidly world-wide, driven primarily by cotton, corn and soybeans."
The 2007 global acreage planted in genetically modified crops, she says, was 144.3 million hectares. These crops have proven to be better able to resist disease and may be helpful in deterring insect damage to other crops grown in the vicinity.
Farmers who have switched to genetically modified crops are finding their crop yields increased 5 to 25 percent and their costs have been cut significantly – in some cases by as much as 50 percent. The estimated cumulative increase in farmer income over the 12 years that genetically modified crops began to be used is estimated to be about 35 billion dollars.
There are environmental benefits also, in growing genetically modified crops. Controlling pests through genetically modified pest resistant crops means less dependence on pesticides. These crops also require less cultivation and accordingly reduce soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite the proven success of genetically modified crops, there is still resistance in some parts of the world to their use – resistance born of a lack of information and misplaced fear.
Ms. Fedoroff said, "strikingly among the 23 countries growing genetically modified crops, half are less developed countries." Although some European countries, particularly Spain, are growing genetically modified crops, much of Europe, Japan, and most of Africa remain adamantly opposed to using improved molecular techniques.
This is a worrying trend for world food security. With energy costs rising, environmental threats growing, and world population expanding rapidly, it is imperative that more food be produced at less cost with less potential harm to the environment. Genetically modified crops are playing and will continue to play an important role in meeting this challenge.