In a recent National Geographic magazine series, “The Future of Food,” Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, writes a cover article  detailing a 5-step plan to feed the burgeoning world population.
Foley says to feed two billion additional people by 2050, and minimize environmental costs, the world “needs to reduce deforestation, deliver more nutrition on less land, empower smallholder farmers, reduce water usage, rethink diets and biofuels and eliminate food waste.”
In his article, Foley acknowledges modern agriculture’s critical role in accomplishing this task. But he seems to ignore the potential impact of genetic engineering on future gains in world yield and production.
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Foley smartly sees that higher yields per acre, not putting more land into production, are keys to feeding the world responsibly. However, he suggests that we meet this goal, “by increasing yield on less productive farmlands – especially in Africa, Latin America and eastern Europe, where there are yield gaps between current production levels and those possible with improved farming practices. Using high-tech, precision farming systems, as well as approaches borrowed from organic farming, we could boost yields in these places several times over.”
I admire Foley’s enthusiasm, but to feed 9 billion people by 2050 by bumping yields on less productive land alone, and without the help of genetic engineering, would be like trying to fly a rocket ship to the moon on battery power.
Foley conspicuously ignores genetic engineering as the one factor that can achieve most of his objectives, through its capability to significantly increase yields on all farmland, no matter what the level of productivity.
For example, a 35-percent increase in corn yield on highly-productive U.S. farmland – which is easily within the realm of possibility in the coming years – would produce an additional 56 bushels of corn per acre. The increase alone is twice South Africa’s current national average corn yield of 28 bushels an acre.
That’s how you ramp up world food production and shrink agriculture’s environmental footprint.
Foley says we should explore all good ideas, “whether from organic and local farms or high-tech and conventional farms and blend the best of both.”
So why not apply the science of genetic engineering everywhere? Poor farmers on poor land could use cover crops, rotation and abundant labor to help rebuild soils, then combine these efforts with genetically-engineered enhancements and other modern methods to help them better manage insects, disease and harsh environments. Yield increases could be breathtaking, not heartbreaking.
I’m not sure what Foley’s reservations about genetic engineering are, but to not explore its possibilities, or even mention it for that matter, lessens his entire argument.