The world population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. As natural resources are limited, and in order to meet the needs of an ever-growing world population, we need to increase our food production. However, a more pressing problem is to ensure that is not done at the expense of the environment. The agricultural sector is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, both through direct activities and land changes.
European policymakers are betting on organic farming and through their “Farm to Fork” strategy. They want to reach a 25 percent organic production target. Even though organic agriculture has become interchangeable with sustainable agriculture, it might not be the most viable solution for our planet and our population. Organic farming has low yields and without the use of pesticides, farmers are bound to lose 30 to 40 percent of their crops. If we were to rely on organic farming alone, we would need to set aside more land for agricultural production which can only be achieved through deforestation.
Deforestation is already a pressing issue and one of the causes of climate change. It would make zero sense to cut down trees to free up the land for farming. In 2017, researchers at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland estimated that if the world chose to fully convert to organic agriculture, we would need between 16 and 81% more land to feed the planet. Attendees at the UN’s COP26 have already promised to end deforestation by 2030, but putting more effort into the development of organic food production would be incongruous to their pledge.
The answers to these problems, therefore, must be innovation.
The European Union is lagging behind on this front. Current GMO legislation, which was established back in 2001, strictly regulates the introduction of DNA from other species into animals and plants. Unfortunately, very promising gene-editing tools, such as CRISPR-Cas9, are not exempted from the regulations, even though the technique does not entail inserting foreign DNA, as is often mistakenly claimed.
Such outdated legislation prevents European scientists from participating in the gene revolution and European farmers from taking advantage of all benefits this innovative sector has to offer. CRISPR could produce climate-resilient crops with higher yields. It can also add or remove features that would make crops more adaptable, think of gluten-free wheat that would make gluten-free products just as affordable as the gluten-based ones (at the moment it is 183% more expensive)
Gene-editing allows for the creation of disease-resistant crops. CRISPR technology can be used to build resistance to all plant pathogens, bacteria, viruses, and fungi, eliminating the need to use pesticides and fertilizers.
The solution is right in front of us, and we should not allow perceived threats, especially those that are not backed by substantial evidence, to stop us from adopting technologies that can benefit farmers, consumers and our planet equally.