Producing enough food to meet the needs of a growing global population, while limiting our impact on the environment is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges of our time. Reducing food loss and waste is and will continue to be a critical part of the solution.
Today, we produce more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet, but nearly 800 million people around the world still suffer from hunger. Why? One of the reasons, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is that one third of food produced for human consumption globally – approximately 2.9 trillion pounds per year – is lost or wasted.
Food waste also has serious environmental implications beyond just the enormous waste of water, energy, land and other resources that go into producing it. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that in the United States, food is the single biggest category of waste in landfills, where it rots and produces methane, a greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. To put it in perspective, approximately 31%, or 133 billion pounds, of the U.S. food supply is wasted annually, contributing to 18% of the total methane emissions that comes from landfills.
The scope of the problem is enormous, but what many people may not realize is that GM crops can help tip the scales by reducing unnecessary food waste and helping farmers minimize crop loss while conserving resources by allowing them to grow more food using less land. To understand the role that GMOs can play a role in improving food security and sustainability in our global food system, it’s worth taking a closer look at some of the key culprits behind food waste and loss.
The Aesthetic Dilemma
Unfortunately, the unrealistic standards of beauty and cosmetic perfection that has become pervasive in many aspects of our culture also extends to our relationship with food. We have come to expect and accept only perfect looking fruits and vegetables, and as a result, enormous quantities of fresh produce go to waste each year. According to the FAO, almost half of all the fruit and vegetables produced are wasted. GMOs have enabled farmers to grow crops that are resistant to some of the minor cosmetic issues that cause consumers and retailers to discard billions of pounds of healthful food each year.
Using biotechnology, we now have GM apples that have been approved for consumption that are non-browning and non-bruising, eliminating the cosmetic issues that often cause people to throw them away. There are also GM potatoes that are also less prone to browning, bruising and black spots, meaning fewer will end up in landfills.
In the U.S. an estimated 20 to 25% of all crops are lost due to weeds, pests, crop diseases and other causes of post-harvest losses. In the developing world, it’s even worse with 40 to 50% of all crops lost. GMOs help farmers increase yields by protecting crops that would otherwise be lost due to these issues, as well as extreme weather conditions, such as droughts.
In developing countries, where resources to effectively control weeds and insects are often limited, GM traits, such as insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, have increased yield substantially. A recent study published by PG Economics showed that from 1996 to 2014, crop biotechnology was responsible for increasing global production of soybeans by almost 175 million tons, corn by almost 355 million tons, cotton by 27 million tons and canola by 10 million tons.
GM traits can also help farmers produce crops that are more resistant to extreme weather conditions. In recent years, several extreme weather disasters around the world have significantly damaged regional crop production. A recent study, published in the journal Nature, found that drought and extreme heat reduced crop yields by as much as 10% between 1964 and 2007. They also observed approximately 7% greater production damage from more recent droughts and up to 11% more damage in developed countries than in developing ones. Today, through advances in crop biotechnology, GMOs like drought tolerant corn can help farmers minimize losses associated with extreme weather events.
Food waste and loss is a serious challenge, one that will require collaboration, coordination and commitment of many global stakeholders to improve our food security and reduce the environmental harms associated with food waste. GMOs can do a lot to help, but as we continue to work towards a solutions, it’s important to remember that we all have a role to play in reducing waste and conserving our natural resources.