One of the most important issues facing today’s agriculture is environmental stewardship.  All forms of farming have an impact on the environment.  As the human population rises from 6 to 9 billion people in the next 30 years, the environment may be further stressed by the increase in agriculture.

Two very different solutions have been put forward to answer the inevitable increase demand for food.  One proposed answer is to grow everything organically, while other people argue to embrace food biotechnology.  I would like to examine some of the logistics of these two choices.

Growing crops organically means not using synthetic fertilizers and only a select few “natural” pesticides.  There are many people who swear by this type of agriculture for their local needs.  The problem, as I see it, is a matter of scaling up.  If it were decided to grow all food organically, the demand for manure fertilizer would increase approximately 100 times (based on the fact that about 1 percent of food is grown organically today).  Where are we going to graze a hundred times as many cows?  We would have to denude the rest of the forests and fill in all the wetlands to have any hope of producing enough cattle and dung to satisfy the need.

Another problem with organic farming on a global scale is yield.  With few exceptions, organic farming results in significantly lower yields per acre than conventional farming.  It has been estimated the world food production will have to double to avoid mass starvation in the next century.  This means that an all-organic farming system would expect to (at least) triple the amount of land needed to satisfy the demand for food.

Each year approximately 25 million acres of land is lost to salt contamination of the soil. This means that in 30 years there will be 750,000,000 acres (about 10 percent of all arable land) contaminated with salt.  Traditional plant breeding has had almost no success in addressing this problem.

A similar problem exists with aluminum in the soil.  Soil containing aluminum impairs 2.6 billion acres of land (about 30 percent of all arable land).  Again, traditional plant breeding has few answers for this global problem.

Now look at the other option, food biotechnology.  This science has been developing for about 25 years.  It works in collaboration with conventional farming practices.  Chemical fertilizers have probably reached their limit in increasing yields, but the increase in fertilizer demand would not have a corresponding increase in demand for land.

Scientists have been successful in developing procedures that create “designer” crops that have the ability to address a wide variety of agricultural problems.  The so-called first generation of biotechnology crops has engineered traits like resistance to viruses, insects and herbicides.  Since one-third of the crops in the worldwide are lost to insect pests and disease each year, these traits offer a potential increase of 30 percent to the world’s food supply with no more land requirements.

A significant amount of food rots before it can be eaten.  Scientists are working on traits that will make food ripen slower and resist rot.  These traits will also help increase world food supply without any increase in land use.

Recent work by scientists has resulted in the production of several different salt-tolerant crops by taking the genes for salt tolerance from mangrove plants, which grows in saltwater.  This one engineered trait will mean those 750,000,000 acres of salty soil around the world can continue to be productive.

Similar work is resulting in aluminum-tolerant crops.  Again, it means 2.5 billion acres of land can continue to be productive.

As for the insect resistance trait, it has resulted in a reduction of hundreds of millions of pounds of insecticide being used in the six years since it became available.  Everyone should cheer this.

Most of the increase in population will occur in the developing countries.  It is in these same countries that most of the salt and aluminum and rot problems exist.  People in Europe and North America must become aware of what it means to the developing world if we deny them the products of crop biotechnology.  It is simple logistics.

Robert Wager
Malaspina University College

Originally published in The Globe and Mail Jan, 25, 2003