A World Resources Institute report published July 17 said urgent changes in the global food system are needed to make sure there is enough food for an estimated 10 billion people by 2050. To reach this goal, the 564-page report said a number of adjustments have to be made, including ramping up the use of genetic modified crops.
WRI said genetic modification techniques helped save the Hawaiian Rainbow papaya from the ringspot virus. They could also help tomatoes in Florida, soybeans in Brazil and potatoes in Uganda, Bloomberg reported.
Besides taking advantage of genetic modification techniques, the report said the 56% "food gap" between the amount produced in 2010 and the amount needed by 2050 must be filled. Other challenges include a "land gap" of about 1.48 billion acres needed for agricultural expansion by 2050 and an 11-gigaton "greenhouse gas mitigation gap" between agriculture emissions in 2050 and the level needed to comply with the 2016 Paris Agreement.
The WRI report said creating a sustainable global food system in coming decades will be difficult, but the solutions the report points out have more potential to solve the challenges than a lot of people may think.
Genetic modification may be able to help accomplish these goals by developing more crop resiliency through the use of genetic engineering tools such as CRISPR, the report said. Increasing yields through better crop breeding, speeding up breeding cycles while reducing their number, and mapping crop DNA could also help, it said.
Most genetically modified crop traits have been used in only four high-value commodities — soybeans, canola, cotton and corn, according to the report. About 12% of global agricultural land is planted each year with genetically modified crops. The WRI recommended moving beyond common genetically modified crops such as corn, soy and wheat, and include crops not traded internationally, including sorghum, millet, peas and barley.
The report acknowledged the ongoing public policy controversy around genetic modification technology, but said at this time "there is no evidence that GM crops have harmed human health." It also noted that debate about traits including resistance to herbicides and insecticides, crops' relative cost, and the effect on yields should not dictate policy decisions concerning the entire technology of genetic engineering.
"The case for using this technology is compelling when the full range of potential gains and costs is taken into consideration," the report concluded.
Resistance from consumers to GMOs — even when they don't have a strong knowledge base about them — isn't likely to disappear anytime soon. According to a presentation at the IFT19 conference by Intertek, 60% of consumers in one study admitted they don't know much about GMOs. They didn't know much about genetics either — almost a third of respondents to this study thought vegetables do not have DNA, and a third also thought non-GMO tomatoes have no genes.
Many manufacturers already use GMO ingredients, and there are several that make it a centerpiece of their branding. And the companies said consumers tend to be OK with their products. Okanagan Specialty Fruits produces the Arctic apple, which is genetically modified so it doesn't brown after being cut. Company president Neal Carter told Food Dive that the company put together a solid information campaign, with a website, 800-number and scannable QR codes on the fruit stickers.
“If I remember right, basically only two people looked up the QR code to get more information,” Carter told Food Dive last year. “So everybody thinks, 'GMOs, consumers are all against that.' But at the end of the day, they're really not.”
Meal replacement beverage company Soylent has been touting its use of GMOs for global sustainability for years. A blog post on the company's website talks about how GMO ingredients can help Soylent — and other manufacturers — create more efficient, sustainable and nutritious food for everyone on the planet. CEO Bryan Crowley told Food Dive last year the company encourages consumers to get more educated on the issue.
Meanwhile, mandatory GMO labeling begins next year, which could help push consumer education. It may also confuse the issue even more, since not all products containing GMO ingredients fall under the labeling requirements. But it is likely to have an impact on consumers. A 2018 study in Agriculture and Human Values showed about two-thirds of consumers didn't notice a GMO label on a product — but more than half of the consumers who did said the label influenced them not to buy the product.
In order to make GMOs more widely accepted, it may help if more mainstream companies take Soylent's approach and talk about the science and benefits of the ingredients. If the debate could be reframed, perhaps the GMO label will become a reason consumers want to buy a product.