Sustainable Food for the World

URBANA - Genetically modified crops and new information technologies will be central to meeting the food demands of a rapidly growing world population sustainably, said a University of Illinois agricultural economist in a recent article in the Harvard International Review.
calendar icon 20 November 2006
clock icon 4 minute read

"Humanity has made big strides in feeding a rapidly growing population. However, it is unacceptable to have 800 million hungry people in the world," said Gerald Nelson, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics.

The complete article, "Sustainable Food for the World: Rethinking Policy, Technology and the Environment," is in the Harvard International Review online edition and can be read at ( Improvements in agricultural technology are a critical part of a positive future for world food, Nelson wrote.

"GM crops will be part of the technology improvements, but other kinds of technological change are needed as well," he said. "Applications of information technology to agriculture have the promise of encouraging more complex and environmentally friendly production practices." GM crops, particularly, corn, soybeans, and cotton, continue to gain acceptance in the market because they increase farm income, Nelson noted.

"The way they are grown is usually more environmentally friendly than the practices they replace," he said. "Second and third generation GM crops will increase the set of improved characteristics, adding drought tolerance, for example.

"There will also be those with moral or ethical objections to genetic modification, but over time, their numbers will likely decline as benefits from individual GM crops become more widespread and well known. Experts have found no food-health problems with commercial GM crops currently in use and only minor environmental issues, although the potential for pest resistance is worrying."

Nelson added that the controversies over GM crops have had a significant benefit. "Our regulatory systems have been challenged to improve and become more transparent," he said.

A combination of global positioning systems, precision agriculture, automated farm implements and vastly improved data collection and analysis may make it possible in the next 50 years for a farmer to grow 20 or 30 different crops--instead of just two or three--that mature at different times and require different applications and seasons.

"This sounds like science fiction, but the technology pieces are in place, and it is only a matter of implementation, a process that could take anywhere from 10 to 30 years, depending on the incentives provided by the marketplace and the policy environment," he said.

More environmentally friendly pesticides and management practices have reduced the food-safety benefits enjoyed by organic products in past decades. "An organic diet today doesn't provide the same food-safety benefits," he said.

Plus, he noted the USDA's decision to create an official definition of organic food and a federally sanctioned label has had "unexpected and far-reaching consequences for the organic industry."

The result, he said, has been the "Wal-martization of organic food, as that giant corporation and others have recognized a valuable market opportunity." Nelson emphasized that technology will be vital to meeting future world food demands.

"The genetics and production practice improvements that involve more knowledge-intensive inputs, including organic practices, will need to be location-specific," he said. "Citizens must demand that their governments allow the private sector to operate profitably while providing a regulatory environment that encourages sustainability, safety, and equality."

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