Rapid population growth and a swiftly changing climate compound the challenges of ensuring a secure global food supply. Genetically modified plants could help to solve the problem, believes a Norwegian crop researcher.
Over 90 per cent of the global food supply consists of either plants or meat from production animals raised on plant-based feeds. By 2050, 70 per cent more food will need to be produced worldwide on roughly the same area of farmland to keep up with global population growth. At the same time, major changes in climate are expected to occur.
Only 100 species
Although a quarter million plant types exist, global food production today is based on only about 100 of them. Wheat, corn and rice account for over 60% of all production.
“We depend completely on the success of these few crops. But I am convinced that the fitness of current plant varieties will not last forever. All it will take to trigger a famine is one year of badly reduced yields for just one of the three main crops,” warns Atle Bones, Professor of Biology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim.
“So far, scientists have not been able to prove the occurrence of horizontal gene transfer with GMOs,” says Atle Bones, adding that “we have been eating plants for tens of thousands of years without incorporating plant genes or becoming more plant-like.” (Photo: Heidi M. Bones)
Professor Bones and his colleagues have received funding for their research from a number of programmes at the Research Council of Norway, including the Large-scale Programme on Functional Genomics in Norway (FUGE).
Ensuring a supply of food
Professor Bones believes that in order to ensure a secure global food supply, we will have to use every existing means – including genetically modified organisms (GMO).
Genetically modified plants are created by adding, removing or modifying one or more genes in order to breed plants with desired traits. Currently, most genetically modified food is in the form of plants with traits added to make them more resistant to insects and chemical weed killers (herbicides).
Professor Bones envisions a future when plants will need extra-strong resistance to the effects of phenomena such as floods, cold spells, droughts and ultraviolet radiation.
Turning inedible plants into food
According to Professor Bones, there are thousands of plants that could be cultivated for food once they are bred to remove toxic compounds or undesirable traits.
Rapeseed is one of the world’s 15 most important crops. Professor Bones and his colleagues have figured out how to genetically instruct the rapeseed plant to remove toxins from its seeds.
“Rapeseed is currently used for producing cooking oil and animal feed, but it has certain limitations,” he explains. “Our technique could make it possible to utilise this plant to an even greater extent, and the principle could well be applied to other plant species or plant parts.”
Weighing benefits vs. risks
In Norway, the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board assesses all applications from companies seeking approval for a GMO product.
The board’s assessment guidelines are based on the precautionary principle, which postpones implementing any measure until its threat to human health or the environment has been ruled out.
For are we actually certain that genes from genetically modified food do not enter or alter human DNA, or that genetically modified organisms, once released into nature, will not negatively affect the ecosystem?
According to Professor Bones, “Opponents of GMOs see the worst case scenario as organisms turning out to be toxic or spreading into nature in undesired ways. To me, the worst case scenario would be a global food shortage because we squandered our chance to carry out research on introducing traits that enable plants to withstand the coming challenges.”
The biologist agrees that the benefits must be weighed against the risks, case by case. When it comes to GMOs, he says, there is no single truth but many.
“As of today, not a single report of GMOs having damaged health or the environment has been verified.” He stresses, however, that it is extremely difficult to prove specific effects of food, since a diet consists of many foods that have a combined effect.
Precise, quick and flexible
Conventional plant breeding, in which the best traits of a plant are selectively bred over time, is still a useful solution in many instances. But it is a method limited in its precision and speed and is restricted to certain species.
“Using gene technology,” continues Professor Bones, “we could in theory create a new product in the course of a few months, with a variety of traits added or altered, and tailored to different farming zones. Genetic modification can also be key for increasing the nutritional value of vegetable foods.”
“I don’t believe that gene technology or GMOs alone will save the world, but they will be part of the solution in certain areas,” concludes the crop researcher. “Some changes, such as climatic ones, are going to happen rapidly, so we don’t have time to wait the many years it would take with conventional selection to introduce the desired traits into our crop varieties.”
Worldwide from 1996 to 2009, the area of farmland used to cultivate genetically modified plants increased 80-fold. In all, 25 countries (including seven in Europe) grow genetically modified plants on a large scale; more than half the world’s population lives in these countries. The total land area on which genetically modified plants are cultivated is more than 3.5 times the size of Germany.
The article is published in Norwegian in the Biotek og mat (Biotechnology and food) publication from the Research Council of Norway's Functional Genomics programme (FUGE).