Feeding the world was made possible by genetic science – we can’t stop now

When the Ethiopian famine finally ended in 1985, with one million deaths, no one expected it to be the last major famine for more than three decades. In defiance of almost all predictions, mass starvation has almost entirely disappeared from the face of the earth as a cause of death, with the exception of North Korea. In the 1960s, famine killed 100 times more people, per capita, than in the past decade.

Although hunger persists among the world’s poorest, the world is better fed than ever, despite the doubling of the human population since the 1960s. Most remarkably, this has been achieved without plowing additional land. Leaving aside the growing amount of land devoted to the absurdity of growing biofuels, there is less land under cultivation today than 50 years ago.

If we tried to feed today’s nearly eight billion people with the average crop yields of 1960, when most agriculture was organic, then instead of farming less than 35% of the world’s land, we would have need to cultivate more than 85%. Cutting down the entire Amazon rainforest, draining all the swamps, deforesting Siberia, irrigating much of the Sahara – we still couldn’t do it.

Feeding the world was made possible by synthetic fertilizers and genetic science. Half of the nitrogen atoms in your body came from ammonium plants, many of them in Russia. It has been so successful that we have become complacent, thinking we can go back to older, less productive methods and turn our backs on the latest advances in genetic science.

The government’s recent agriculture bill said little about food security, while the EU’s farm-to-fork strategy was to produce less food, not more. Influenced by the mystical tweets of Vandana Shiva, the Sri Lankan government recently imposed the organic practice on all its farmers. The result is collapsing yields, financial crisis, hunger, and a political and humanitarian crisis.

The Russian blockade of Odessa and Mariupol, cutting off the abundant wheat that usually flows from Ukraine’s rich black soil, threatens the biggest food crisis in decades. When supplies run out, North Africa, heavily dependent on Ukrainian exports, will be a political powder keg. With food prices rapidly rising, the North of England may not be so different.

If we had embraced GM crops 25 years ago, European farmers today would be getting higher yields, with lower emissions, less use of chemical pesticides and greater biodiversity in their fields. We know this because it is the experience of farmers who have adopted these crops elsewhere.

The food our farmers produced would be safer, more nutritious and healthier because that’s what scientists are doing elsewhere and were about to do to the varieties we grow here before the rug got under their feet withdrawn. This technophobic swerve was based on entirely false fears. “Science has not shown any harm linked to the use of GM crops,” concludes a recent authoritative study by Spanish scientists.

The UK government is taking a welcome step to reverse this madness, allowing trials of genetically modified plants, with the power to extend this to animals in the future. This means that instead – as now – of generating random mutations in cultures with gamma rays and then hoping to find better varieties among the mutants, geneticists will be allowed to use so-called Crispr enzymes, adapted from bacteria, to alter the genetic codes of plants in precise and predictable ways.

It would then make sense to ease the way for genetically modified, or “transgenic” plants, given the abundant evidence of their safety. This would allow farmers to drastically reduce the fungicides sprayed on potatoes and reduce emissions related to plowing: being truly “organic”, in short. The public is now overwhelmingly supportive of GM crops, but politicians and officials are still wary of a few diehard activists who fought in the last war.

We are not only behind America, Argentina, Australia and China in the application of green technology, much of which was invented in Britain, but also parts of Africa. Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya are poised to adopt GM crops and are seeing great results when they do. Insect-resistant cowpea, for example, has four times the average yield of conventional varieties.

In a world facing potential mass starvation, farmers have not just an incentive but something approaching a duty to be productive. If you watch the BBC, you will probably get the impression that much of British farming is ‘organic’, meaning no synthetic fertilisers. In fact, less than three per cent of UK farmland caters to the worried wealthy in this way, but there is constant pressure on farmers to go this route. However, growing with synthetic fertilizers is not only economically sensible, it is also ecologically good. Studies by Professor Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge show that per unit of food, productive agriculture saves more land for nature, increasing biodiversity and generating fewer emissions.

The urgent need for technology and innovation to support productive agriculture is why I joined a group of politicians, scientists and environmentalists this week to set up Science for Sustainable Agriculture, which will warn against a political drift towards low-yield farming, while urging the government to put science at the heart of UK food policies.

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