... Nearly a billion people go hungry because they cannot grow or buy enough food. And there are problems with the food we do eat. An estimated 2 billion people suffer from a lack of iron, causing everything from tiredness to premature death. Around 250 million preschool children are short of vitamin A, leading to blindness in the worst cases.
The outlook is grimmer still. There will be ever more mouths to feed, and ever more challenges facing farmers. Fuel and fertilisers are becoming more costly, soils are eroding or becoming saline, pests and diseases are evolving to outwit our defences. To add to our woes, the climate is changing and the weather becoming more extreme. In fact, farming is a massive part of this problem - it contributes more to global warming than all the world's cars, trains, ships and planes put together. Rising food prices not only cause suffering, but also threaten political stability.
So the world desperately needs better crops. The good news is that they can be improved dramatically. We know it's possible to boost yields by improving the efficiency of photosynthesis, for instance, because some plants have already evolved this improvement. Similarly, there's no doubt we could create crops that need less water, grow in salt water or make their own nitrogen fertiliser, for instance. As for making grains and fruits richer in iron or vitamin A, it's already been done.
So why aren't people in poor countries already eating healthier food, richer in iron and vitamin A? Partly they can't afford to pay for it, so commercial companies have little incentive to develop such crops. Instead, such work has to be funded by public money or philanthropists such as Bill Gates. A big part of the problem, of course, is the vociferous objection to GM foods... The opposition to GM crops is making it much harder to get funding to carry out the necessary research and to get over all the regulatory hurdles...
The Monsantos of this world have the economic muscle needed to get crops approved despite protests, but for cash-strapped universities, it's a different story. Their development of the crops we so desperately need is being impeded by anti-GM protesters.
How can this opposition be overcome? Not by rational argument, that's for sure. Even for those who understand that nature is the ultimate mad scientist, and that plants are riddled with all kinds of genetic modifications, from mistakes made during DNA replication to insertions of viral DNA, it doesn't make existing GM crops any more appealing. Rather, we need to win people's hearts as well as their minds.
... we need a new generation of GM crops that offers clear benefits to consumers, from looking better to tasting better to being better for us. Scare stories about cellphones causing cancer didn't stop them taking off because they are so useful. Similarly, scare stories about GM foods will lose their power if GM products that help prevent cancer or heart disease can be bought in supermarkets...