The use of genetic modification is currently widespread in crops such as maize, wheat, rice, and soybeans that are enhanced for high-yield or pesticide resistance. Despite helping to satisfy the caloric needs of growing populations, such varieties are not always suitable for alleviating the plights of subsistence farmers in poorer, developing countries who face more pressing agricultural challenges. In addition, simply aiming to produce more food may not satisfy the future demands of consumers in developed countries. As consumers become more health-aware, the demand for more nutritious food will grow. Furthermore, farmlands in developed countries are not impervious to the effects of climate change, as evidenced by, among other instances, the recent droughts in California.
To more extensively address the threats to future food security, we will spotlight two specific applications of genetic modification, or biofortification: enhancing the nutrient content of staple crops and rendering crops more resistant to poor growing conditions.
While hunger is pervasive, it is not sufficient to simply produce enough food to achieve recommended daily caloric levels. To ensure both the livelihood of those currently wracked by poverty as well as the health of consumers in developed countries, we need to additionally address the issue of malnutrition and nutrient deficiency, especially in children. Connected to hunger, nutrient deficiency occurs when a person does not obtain sufficient amount of micronutrients through their diet, and can result in various detriments in growth and health. Nutrient deficiency is widespread in poor and developing countries, and is as debilitating as calorie deficiency. Deficiencies in vitamin A, iron, and zinc affect over one half of the world (Nestel, P. et al., 2006). Current international attempts to combat this issue include vitamin supplements to children in those areas; however, this is not a sustainable solution and depends on the charity of UN programs.
We suggest the use of nutrient-enhanced varieties of crops that are commonly planted in respective regions. In this way, there will be a minimal change in farming methods. We focus on enhancing crops that are already a large staple in diets across the world. For example, women in the Andes highlands consume on average 800g of potato each day, thus increasing the iron intake from potato would have a real effect on their nutrition (“Pumping up potatoes for poor communities – iron biofortification”, 2015). The target regions for each enhanced crop would follow the distribution shown in Figure 1. The growing of biofortified crops is most imminently needed in regions of severe malnutrition, such as South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa (Govindan, V., 2015), but in the long run developed countries should also adopt them. A summary of biofortification projects for ten major staple crops that have been successful or are currently in development is given in Table 1.
|Maize||Beta-carotene, zinc, Vitamin B9, Vitamin C|
|Cassava||Beta-carotene (Vitamin A), protein (amino acid), iron|
|Sweet Potatoes||Iron, zinc, beta-carotene|
Table 1: Major crops by annual global production (Goldstein, E., 2011)
The effects of climate change will result in an increase in the frequency of natural disasters (see “Understanding Climate Change” ). To mitigate the damages of droughts and floods, we suggest distributing crops with increased drought and flood resistant properties in a similar fashion as the nutritionally-enhanced crops.
Increases in global temperature will exacerbate the erraticity of rainfall, resulting in unpredictable droughts that cause farmers to lose significant portions, or even the entirety of their annual harvest. A drought-tolerant variety of maize has been developed by researchers through conventional breeding methods (“Drought-tolerant crops for drylands”, 2015). We suggest that this variety be distributed to farmers in the drylands of Africa through a partnering NGO that can help them monitor growth and improve the crop by themselves over time.
An existing variety of rice known as “scuba” rice can survive submersion in water up to two weeks, a significant improvement on the typical rice flood survival time of three days (“New flood-tolerant rice offers relief for world’s poorest farmers”, 2015). This variety has seen success in South Asian countries, a success which could be spread to African countries such as Mozambique which suffers severe flooding in the lower parts of the country. Instead of distributing the same variety of rice that was used in Asia, the responsible gene (SUB1) can be transferred to local varieties of rice. Since an existing method of biofortification will be used, we can expect that the process of development and testing will be shorter than the typical timeframe for developing from scratch. We estimate a combined ten years from beginning of research to implementation in the fields, based on the timeline for the development of the original scuba rice (“Scuba rice”, 2010).
More and more farms, including small-scale farms, have successfully adopted biotech in their production; over 94% of farmers that grew GM crops were small farmers in developing countries (“Global status of commercialized biotech/GM Crops in 2014”, 2015). However, significant growth of genetically engineered crops is still limited to large countries such as the United States, Brazil, India and China (“GM crop production: countries growing GMOs”, 2007).
We suggest that national governments establish policies to actively promote the development and use of genetically modified crops by small farmers, especially in developing countries, through subsidizing initial cost of seeds, encouraging public-private partnerships, and preventing large corporations from monopolizing the sale of desirable strains of crops, as is elaborated in the article Genetically Modified Research and Development (Wright, K., 2013).
Another viable way to distribute existing improved crop varieties to small farmers in third world or developing countries is through an established farmer’s cooperatives. Each commune can purchase the seeds from companies or receive them as test trials from public institutions. Governments are encouraged to subsidize the buying of the seeds. The structure of these communes is elaborated in Farmer’s Cooperatives.
Farmers and consumers all over the world would stand to gain from more widespread and targeted development and use of the biofortified crops outlined in this article. The specific implementation of this plan will depend largely on the economic status of individual countries. It is expected that developing countries will require the monetary and technological aid of NGOs, developed countries, and/or the UN to increase the use of GM crops in their farmlands. International cooperation is absolutely necessary to reduce costs and increase efficiency.
We chose not to address the pros and cons of using GM crops in this article, since an abundance of such articles can be found elsewhere.
- GM Research and Development Policy
- Farmer’s Cooperatives
- Understanding Malnutrition
- Understanding Climate Change
“Drought-tolerant crops for drylands”. (n.d.). Retrieved November, 2015, from http://www.cgiar.org/web-archives/www-cgiar-org-impact-global-des_fact2-html/
“Global status of commercialized biotech/GM Crops in 2014”. (2015, January). Retrieved November, 2015, from http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/pocketk/16/
“GM crop production: countries growing GMOs”. (2007, January 19). Retrieved November, 2015, from http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/agri_biotechnology/gmo_planting/142.countries_growing_gmos.html
Goldstein, E. (2011, September 20). “The 10 most important crops in the world”. Retrieved November, 2015, from http://www.businessinsider.com/10-crops-that-feed-the-world-2011-9?op=1
Govindan, V. (2015, July 20). “Farmers in India embrace high-zinc wheat for its nutritional benefit”. Retrieved November, 2015, from http://www.harvestplus.org/content/farmers-india-embrace-high-zinc-wheat-its-nutritional-benefit
Nestel, P. et al. “Biofortification of staple food crops”. (2006). Journal of Nutrition, 136(4), 1064-1067.
“New flood-tolerant rice offers relief for world’s poorest farmers”. (n.d.). Retrieved November, 2015, from http://indica.ucdavis.edu/news/new-flood-tolerant-rice-offers-relief-for-worlds
“Pumping up potatoes for poor communities – iron biofortification”. (2015, November 5). Retrieved November, 2015, from http://cipotato.org/press-room/press-releases/pumping-up-potatoes-for-poor-communities-iron-biofortification/
“Scuba rice: breeding flood-tolerance into Asia’s local mega rice varieties”. (2010). Retrieved November 1, 2015, from http://r4d.dfid.gov.uk/PDF/Outputs/IRRI/DFID_impact_case_study_SUB1rice_FINAL.pdf
“Where are biofortified nutrient-rich crops being grown?” [Distribution Map]. (2014, April 3). Retrieved from http://biofortconf.ifpri.info/2014/04/03/just-where-are-the-biofortified-nutrient-rich-crops-being-grown/
Wright, K. (2013, March 6). “GMO patents squeeze small farmers”. Rogue Valley Community Press.