Date of this Version
Published in Cereal Foods World 59:4 (July-August 2014), pp. 164-169; doi: l0.1094/CFW-59-4-0164
Most of the genetic diversity that has improved agricultural production throughout the history of farming was developed through natural mutations and selective breeding. However, since the early 1900s plant scientists have used chemical and radiation mutagenesis to increase genetic diversity (18). We know that the majority of mutations are harmful, and plant breeders work hard to select only those that are beneficial. This process has helped feed a growing human population, which is estimated to have been 300 million 2,000 years ago and is now more than 7 billion. However, methods used in the past to improve agricultural production are unlikely to keep pace with the current growth rate of the human population.
Today, agricultural and food supply systems around the world are being challenged by political and economic barriers that are slowing or blocking the introduction of commonly consumed varieties of plants and animals that have been improved by highly specific GM. This is occurring at a time when the world population continues to grow, per capita consumption of resources is growing even faster, and prime agricultural land is being converted to urban or industrial uses. In addition, growing concerns about the environmental risks associated with the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are pushing farmers to reduce inputs that have helped raise productivity over the past 100 years. Fewer people are willing or able to work as farmers, and meeting growing demands requires continued improvements in the efficiency of food production. Rising food costs associated with crop production on marginal farmland, crop failures due to changing weather patterns, high transportation costs, and energy use could be partly mitigated by the improvements in agricultural efficiencies offered by some GM crops. While there is a growing demand for and supply of organic foods, it is not clear that organic methods can meet current and future demands and supplant industrial agriculture, which has become the dominant production method. In addition, some GM varieties have been demonstrated to reduce the need for applied chemical pesticides and, thus, are environmentally beneficial.