NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – In a review article appearing online last night in Agriculture & Food Security, former advisor to the US Secretary of State Nina Fedoroff warned that a failure to accept, adopt, and continue developing new agricultural technologies — particularly genetically modified (GM) crops — will leave us ill-equipped to deal with a quickly-expanding human population.
Fedoroff, a molecular biologist affiliated with Pennsylvania State University, served as Science and Technology Advisor to Condoleezza Rice and, most recently, to Hillary Clinton.
Based on predictions that put the human population at almost 11 billion by 2100, she argued that the type of research and innovation that have made it possible to support the exponential explosion of human populations in the past must continue into the future.
Over the course of human history, Fedoroff noted that societies have been able to grow and expand because of agricultural advances such as crop domestication, mechanization, and crop improvement techniques.
Even so, current crop yields are not expected to keep pace with the coming population boom, she explained, which could require food production increases of up to 70 percent over the coming few decades.
Meeting demands for not only grain, but also meat and fiber will require the advent of crops that can withstand changing climate conditions, grow with reduced water requirements, and produce higher yields, Fedoroff explained, noting that continued farmland expansion is not sustainable.
"[I]ncreasing the grain supply by expanding the land under cultivation cannot be sustained," she emphasized. "All the best land is already under cultivation and preserving what remains of our planet's rich biological heritage by leaving more land unplowed is a priority."
In the quest to stave off famine, malnutrition, and the resulting political and social instability, Fedoroff believes it is important to overcome misinformation and politicization regarding the safety of GM crops currently on the market — which she said are "arguably the safest new crops ever introduced into the human and animal food chains."
To that end, she pointed to evidence from past studies that have found GM crops to be nutritionally comparable to non-GM crops, while producing fewer gene expression, protein, metabolite shifts, or potentially-risky side effects than crops developed using methods such as radiation or chemical mutagenesis or even plant breeding.
In particular, Fedoroff noted that GM crops were deemed no riskier than crops bred by conventional methods in a recent European Union GMO biosafety report that reviewed more than 130 projects spanning more than two-and-a-half decades.
"[C]omparative molecular analyses show that GM techniques have less impact on the genetic and molecular constitution of crop plants than conventional plant breeding techniques," she explained. "This is because conventional breeding mixes whole genomes comprising tens of thousands of genes that have previously existed in isolation, while GM methods generally add just a gene or two to an otherwise compatible genome."
Fedoroff offered examples of GM crop successes as well as cases where such crops have fallen short of their potential due to public dissent — opposition she believes is partly due to a failure to recognize GM crops as only the latest in a long history of organisms that have been genetically modified by humans, either intentionally or unwittingly.
"[A]ll of the useful, heritable traits nurtured by people in organisms constitute 'domestication' and all are the result of genetic modifications," Fedoroff wrote.
"Humans practiced genetic modification long before chemistry entered agriculture, transforming inedible wild plants into crop plants, wild animals into domestic animals, and harnessing microbes to produce everything from cheese to wine and beer," she added.