Feeding the world

As of October last year there are over 7 billion people on this planet, of which around 2 billion are chronically undernourished or, at best, malnourished. The rate of population growth will exceed the rate of yield growth in the major food crops, which will only serve to exacerbate the global food crisis. The United Nations has estimated that agricultural production will need to rise by 70% by 2050 to meet the needs of the world’s growing population.

Sitting here in the well-fed UK it may seem that this is hyperbole but food shortages in other parts of the world will impact on us in due course. It was noticeable a couple of years ago that poorer harvest of food crops such as wheat caused a spike in food prices and led to civil unrest in a number of developing countries. This in turn raised security issues for the developed world, to say nothing of the moral imperative to help those in need.

Crop improvement will be key to addressing the global food challenge and will require innovative plant breeding tools. Biotechnology offers a range of innovative crop improvement tools described in the March 2012 issue of Nature Biotechnology. They include zinc-finger endonuclease genome engineering, oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis and RNA-dependent DNA methylation.

However, the impact on crop improvement is likely to be impeded by the lack of investment in agricultural R&D. For example, the combined 2012 research budgets of the US Department of Agriculture and the agriculture directorate of the European Commission is about $8 billion, which is almost paltry compared to the UD National Institutes of Health budget of over $31 billion.

Another factor that has impacted negatively on R&D is consolidation in the agroscience sector. 25 years ago I joined a start-up agbiotech company that was in a vibrant industry with lots of highly innovative companies. Now there are only six global agroscience companies and probably no more than 50 active agbiotech start-up companies. This lack of competition is in marked contrast to the biopharmaceutical industry where the highly competitive environment has fuelled a wave of significant innovations.

Another key issue impeding progress is regulation. The European Union has implemented regulations that discriminate against transgenic crops, as a result of which only two types of transgenic crop are currently authorised for cultivation in the EU: an insect-resistant maize and a potato with modified starch content for industrial use. In 2011, the maize was grown on 114,490 hectares in 6 EU countries and the potato was grown on 17 hectares in 2 countries.

In contrast, worldwide in 2011 transgenic crops were grown by around 16.7 million farmers in 29 countries. The area grown has increased steadily year-on-year, reaching about 160 million hectares in 2011. This represents an 8% increase in the number of farmers and the area grown since 2010.

The European regulations reflect the fact that the industry failed miserably in the 1990s to persuade the European public of the benefits of transgenic crops (largely, it has to be said, due to a series of PR gaffes by Monsanto, one of the leading companies in the field). This lack of public support in Europe is still impacting on the industry. BASF Plant Science recently announced that it is relocating from its European headquarters to the US prompted by the European public’s hostility to transgenic crops. It is also cancelling all R&D projects aimed solely at the European market.

The European regulations impact on other countries as the EU discriminates against imported products derived from transgenic crops, making it difficult for producers in countries where transgenic crops are grown to export to Europe without proving that their produce is ‘not contaminated’ by material from transgenic crops. It also sets a poor example to governments in developing countries that look to the West for guidance on how to implement their own regulatory frameworks.

Although Europe is sufficiently wealthy to buy its food, the indirect effects of European regulations and attitudes have had an unconscionably inhibitory effect on the introduction of biotech crops in less developed countries in most need of them, particularly on the African continent. In his book Starved for Science (http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/18226/), Robert Paarlberg explains why poor African farmers are denied access to productive technologies, particularly genetically engineered seeds with improved resistance to insects and drought. He traces this obstacle to the current opposition to farm science in prosperous countries. Having embraced agricultural science to become well-fed themselves, those in wealthy countries are now instructing Africans—on the most dubious grounds—not to do the same.