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Are GM Foods The Key To Feeding The World?

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The academy’s report referred to the “grand challenge” of feeding an additional 2.3 billion people by 2050—a statement corroborated by a report issued earlier this month by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization which stated that current food production will have to be increased by 70 percent by halfway through the century in order to feed the explosive population growth in developing countries.

Royal Society chair and Cambridge University professor David Baulcombe summed up the problem for Reuters reporters as one of balancing the need for a dramatic increase in food production without further increasing the environmental impact of farming.

“The problem is such an acute one, doing that sustainably [farming] without eroding soil, overusing fertilizers is an enormous challenge,” he explained.

“There isn’t a lot more land to use, and from the point of expense and using fossil fuels, we want to use less fertilizer.”

“The food supply problem is likely to come to a head 10, 20, 30 years from now,” he explained, highlighting the time crunch that this will put scientists in to develop robust new genetically-tweaked crops.

The solution, however, will not be found solely in the development of new super-crops but also in taking new, innovative and environmentally friendly approaches to land management.

A number of scientists report that farming directly and indirectly accounts for as much as a third of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere each year.  According to some, practices like clearing large swathes of forests for farmland may have nearly as large an impact on the atmosphere as the production of the fossil fuel-based fertilizers used to enrich the soil.

After years of food over-production in much of the western world, growing populations and changing diets in developing countries as well as increased demand for biofuels and soaring energy prices are reinvigorating interest in long-term agricultural investment.

According to a report by UN agencies released last week, an estimated billion people worldwide will suffer from malnutrition in 2009 as a result of food shortages and the global economic slump.

Not everyone, however, believes that GM crops are the solution to the hunger problem.  The environmental group Greenpeace has stated that the real solution lays in helping small-time farmers in developing countries get their products to the market, and that all the hoopla surrounding GM foods only distracts from the real issues.

“Poverty and hunger are the same thing,” said Greenpeace’s European GM policy directory, Marco Contiero.

Contiero also added the world is already producing enough crops to feed itself and the problem lies rather in the “fair” distribution of existing supplies.

According to the Royal Society’s report, some of the challenges faced by researchers in the coming years include developing strains of crops that are not only disease and pest resistant, but also able to withstand drought, heat and high levels of salinity and toxic heavy metals.

Baulcombe says that there is cause for optimism, however, as significant advances in genetic engineering have drastically improved the predictability of results for today’s genetically modified plants.

“We’re looking at a different base than 10 years ago,” he said.