Friday, 12 February 2010

Farming must embrace GM technology to fight 21st-century food crisis’

Mark Henderson, Science Editor

Farming must fully embrace genetically modified (GM) crops to meet the dual challenges of population growth and global warming, according to Hillary Clinton’s chief scientist.
Nina Fedoroff, who advises the US Secretary of State on science and technology, heads a group of senior researchers who call today for a “radical rethink” of farm practice to meet 21st-century demand for food.
Writing in the journal Science, they urge world leaders to do more to promote GM technologies so that scientists can create crops that produce higher yields and that can grow in the harsh conditions of a warmer world.
“There is a critical need to get beyond popular biases against the use of agricultural biotechnology and develop forward-looking regulatory frameworks based on scientific evidence,” the scientists say. They argue that an agricultural revolution is needed to address two threats to global food security over the coming century.

The world’s population is forecast to rise from 6.8 billion today to about 9 billion by 2050, creating a vastly increased demand for food. At the same time climate change is likely to reduce the yields of much of the land currently under cultivation, creating a risk that food production will fall as demand for it rises.
The authors, who include climate experts, plant biologists and agricultural researchers, point to a little-reported effect of the 2003 European heat wave as a harbinger of things to come.
“The average temperature that summer was only about 3.5C above the average for the last century,” they say. “The 20 to 36 per cent decrease in the yields of grains and fruits that summer drew little attention. But if the climate scientists are right, summers will be that hot on average by mid-century.”
Global warming is likely to reduce yields because photosynthesis is less efficient in many crops at raised temperatures. GM technology has the potential to deliver improved crop yields from arable land and to create new varieties that can thrive in salty soil and during drought and floods, the researchers say.
The report comes amid increasing pressure from scientists for greater use of GM crops. Britain’s chief scientist, John Beddington, has backed GM as part of the solution to global food security, as has Sir Gordon Conway, a former chief scientist at the Department for International Development.