I just experienced an epiphany. I heard a speech outlining what is in store for global agriculture during the next ten years. We hope that the global agriculture industry will be able to feed the growing global population. However, and this is the part that threw me for a loop, in order to do that we either have to increase area or increase yields. Ok- that makes sense. But if you look at this sentence, either we need more land to grow food (which is against the conservationist in me) or we need new ways to get more food from one acre of land (and bio-technology makes me squirm). So, suddenly I was asked to pick one of three options:
- Not feed a growing human population, which from the beginning of this blog, I have said will not ever happen. We will not leave land wild to save elephants if it means humans, especially children will starve.
- We can increase land for agriculture
- We can improve farming practices to increase yields
You might think that increases in yields do not have to come in the forms of bio-technology, which is GMOs. Throughout most of history you would be correct; most of our advances came in the form of improved farming practices, including irrigation, plow and pesticides. However, these improvements have taken us as far as they can. Yes, there might be improvements left, but most of them will be minor and not worth the investment to discover. Therefore, the big improves to come will come in the form of GMOs and other bio-technology.
Many foodies and environmentalists have very strong feelings about both of these options and express a lot of resistance, but it is unrealistic to think that one if not both of these will continue to happen. Knowing this people need to understand their options and the impact of their choices. If you are saying that we should not use any GMO crops then you are also saying that to feed the world we need to bring new lands into production. Or the converse if you don’t think we should bring new lands into production then you are saying that we must find ways to increase yields on the lands we already use.
Once conservation and bio-technology were placed at odds with each other it forced me to think, where do I fall? As you know I think we should take the action with the smallest impact on the natural world because as much as we try, we have no idea what the long-term consequences of our actions are.
Scientists generally believe that GMOs are safe for human consumption and do not harm the environment. My concern with GMOs is that we don’t have enough empirical evidence to know for certain what impact they have on humans or the environment. I think it is likely that in 50 years we will find negative consequences associated with GMOs.
However, the other choice is to bring more land into production.
I think there are two reasons that I side with the conservation and not the anti-bio tech people on this issue:
- The name of this blog is “Making the most of our limited lands” that has always been my concern. The name itself implies that it is important to increase yields to prevent more land from being taken from its wild state.
- GMOs are ubiquitous. If they are unsafe for humans and will damage the environment we already have a disaster on our hands. So I think we should be researching and asking more questions to make sure they are safe. But as for right now, we use them and there is no going back.
So I think we should look to increase yields over increase area.