Perhaps you’re wondering what American biofuels have to do with the price of tea in China.
To hear some pundits talk, you’d think that ethanol is the culprit behind the world’s skyrocketing food prices–as opposed to a complex brew of factors that include a weak U.S. dollar, expensive oil, droughts, growing food consumption, financial speculation, and political corruption.
The truth is that biofuels play a role in what’s happening, but it’s a small one. It may even represent a price worth paying if we’re sincere in the belief that we must find alternatives to fossil fuels.
As for the cost of food, the real challenge involves yield. If we’re going to continue to feed six-and-a-half billion people in an environmentally sustainable way, then we need to produce more food on the land we already cultivate. Rather than complaining about scarcity, we should concentrate on abundance.
The good news is that we’ve done this before. Faced with a similar dilemma a generation ago, farmers and scientists launched a Green Revolution that enhanced the quality of seeds, irrigation, fertilization, herbicides, and pesticides. As a result, farmers everywhere improved their yields dramatically.
Today, we must continue to make strides in the 21st-century version of the Green Revolution, which is biotechnology’s Gene Revolution. It has managed to produce bumper crops everywhere farmers have implemented it. What’s more, it promises even greater achievements in the future. By some estimates, genetic modification will allow us to boost our corn yields from about 150 bushels per acre today to roughly twice that in 2030.
Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that we’ll take complete advantage of the Gene Revolution. We need not only lab-jacketed researchers who can make the most of what biotechnology has to offer, but also level-headed policy makers who aren’t frightened of innovation.
We probably have enough of the former, but we certainly don’t have an excess of the latter–especially in Europe. Although new and improved versions of GM crops are common in the United States and Canada, a decade has passed since the European Union has approved a new GM crop for planting.
European regulators are about to gather once again to discuss three languishing applications for varieties of corn that haven’t caused a flicker of controversy in North America. Maybe they’ll finally get around to permitting them, but their past reluctance argues against optimism.
To a certain extent, this is Europe’s problem: Its farmers aren’t allowed to exploit the latest innovations in agriculture and so its consumers pay a price for this inefficiency. Yet Europe’s problem is actually the world’s problem because its irrational fear of biotechnology has influenced developing nations that look to the EU as an export market. If Europe won’t buy GM foods, then African farmers won’t grow them.
One of the world’s most underutilized resources is farmland in poor countries. In the United States, we take the Gene Revolution for granted. If farmers elsewhere were able to do the same, and enjoy levels of productivity that approach those of farmers in advanced nations, much of our food-supply problem would vanish.
Biotechnology can’t solve this problem on its own, but increasing its acceptance and adoption would make a big difference. In Australia, wheat growers who often produce huge crops that feed foreign markets are suffering from a terrible drought. That’s one of the root causes behind the rising cost of wheat.
Imagine if they could grow drought-tolerant wheat. It wouldn’t solve all of their problems, but it would improve a bad situation that directly affects Australian growers and indirectly raises prices for consumers just about everywhere.
As it happens, we are very close to breeding drought-tolerant wheat. But it hasn’t been commercialized because there’s concern that political leaders in foreign markets will reject it, leading to a kind of crop failure that has nothing to do with lousy weather and everything to do with backward thinking.
There isn’t much we can do about the weather. But we can try to correct ignorance about biotechnology, which is one of the real culprits behind our current food crisis.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology.