The Ghost of Christmas Future is the most fearsome character in “The Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ beloved Christmas story, giving Scrooge a glimpse of his bleak future. Horrified, Scrooge changes his selfish lifestyle in a heartbeat.
An abundant Thanksgiving 2014 is almost upon us. But like Scrooge, we’ll need a dramatic change in our beliefs if we’re to have a plenitude of healthful food not just for us, but for all of the 9 or so billion expected at the global dinner table on Thanksgiving 2050.
The beliefs and narratives that need rethinking are those around GMOs and organic food.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are crop plants and animals improved by modern molecular techniques, rather than older, often less precise methods. GM crops, such as insect-resistant corn and cotton, have been in commercial production for almost two decades. They are now grown in 27 countries on more than 400 million acres by 18 million farmers, more than 90 percent of whom are resource-poor, small-holder farmers.
GM crops have increased farm income, reduced pesticide use, soil erosion and carbon dioxide emission, and benefited consumers by decreasing fungal toxin contamination of corn.
It’s a fact that neither people nor animals have been harmed by consuming food or feed containing GM ingredients. Even decades ago, we thought that people would be reassured as evidence grew, as it has, that GM crops are safe. But that’s not what happened. Instead, more and more people have come to believe that they are dangerous.
America’s Thanksgiving 2014 will be a plentiful feast. Farmers have gotten very good at coaxing food from the land. Over the second half of the 20th century, the number of people on Earth doubled, yet the amount of food tripled. Mechanization, plant genetics, irrigation and synthetic fertilizers all contributed to the today’s food abundance.
But the notions that organically grown food is more healthful than food produced by conventional methods, and that organic is the only sustainable agriculture, are gaining traction, as is the idea that conventional agriculture and synthetic fertilizers are somehow bad.
So what are the facts? Organically grown food is not more healthful than conventionally grown food. Plants don’t care whether their nitrogen comes from manure or a sack of fertilizer. Organic produce is more expensive because organic farming is less productive than conventional farming. Nor is it sustainable on a global scale. Indeed, if the whole world relied on organic farming, we could feed about half of today’s 7 billion people.
What’s the forecast for Thanksgiving 2050? Although they had little effect on the world’s affluent city-dwellers, food price spikes since 2008 unleashed food riots in many poor countries and brought down governments. Indeed, the Arab spring started with food riots. This means that today’s abundance has a razor-thin margin.
It’s been estimated that to meet the challenge of global food security, the world’s farmers will have to produce more food in the next 50 years than all they’ve produced in the last 10,000 years combined. Can they? There’s deep reason for concern.
Important crops are reaching their yield plateaus in major food-producing countries. Because demand continues to rise, much of the recent increase in food production has come from putting more land under crops. Yet we’re beginning to understand that our planet’s resources are finite and that its biodiversity is precious.
We need instead to slow and stop conversion of natural ecosystems to cropland.
In developing countries, particularly in Africa, farmers can still grow much, much more. Organic farming is what most African farmers do now, and most of them are devastatingly poor. They need good seeds, fertilizer, agri-chemicals, training and information to triple their yields, not organic ideology that seeks to prevent access to modern farming inputs. They also need the entire infrastructure that supports modern food systems and the training to run it.
That’s what will put them on the road out of poverty.
Our belief systems and narratives matter, perhaps more than ever in the age of electronic social media. The organic food industry supplies a mere 4 percent of our food, but amplifies its message by promulgating the myth that organic food is more healthful and environmentally sound.
As well, GMO story-telling and fear-mongering have intensified in recent years, driven by individuals and organizations that profit from persuading people they are dangerous. This is influencing politicians worldwide and impeding the development and introduction of more nutritious, hardy and environmentally friendly GM crops and animals.
Belief systems are notoriously resistant to facts, even mountains of them. And real people don’t change their minds and hearts as fast as characters in stories.
But we urgently need to change our beliefs about food to realize the benefits of investing in advanced, science-based food production systems that can address the difficult challenges of making our agriculture both more sustainable and productive even as our numbers continue to grow.
About the authors: Nina Fedoroff, Ph.D., is a plant biologist and served as science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State from 2007-10. Ken Cassman, Ph.D., is an international agronomist at the University of Nebraska. Marshall Matz was counsel to the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee specializing in nutrition and food security.