Not every environmentalist sees GM as Satan incarnate. Prof. Pat Heslop-Harrison of the University of Leicester says modern agrotechnology can help feed the world.
By Zafrir Rinat | Nov. 14, 2014

Supplying food to a growing population without destroying the world’s ecological systems is one of humanity’s great challenges. Israel is helping deal with this challenge by developing agricultural technologies and efficient irrigation methods.

Interest in local research and developments related to food security brought several experts from Britain here two weeks ago as part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and development program. The visit was organized by the British Embassy, and the Israel-Europe R&D Directorate.

One of those experts was Prof. Pat Heslop-Harrison of the University of Leicester, who is a member of the “optimistic” camp that believes technology and more efficient planning can substantially improve the world’s food production capabilities, and that this can be done without destroying natural systems. Not all scientists subscribe to this optimism. Many believe that without a significant drop in the population growth rate and dramatic changes in consumption habits it will be difficult to supply food while preserving renewable and stable natural resources.

The Worldwatch Institute, a U.S.-based environmental organization, recently issued its annual analysis of global economic and environmental indicators. The data illustrates the incredible achievement brought about by reforming agricultural methods over the past several decades: Between 1980 and 2011, the land area used to grow major food crops increased by 16.8 percent, while the yields grew by 93 percent. In other words, farmers succeeded in producing a much larger amount of food without significantly increasing cultivated areas.

According to Heslop-Harrison, after years in which increasing the amount of food was dependent primarily on improved agrotechnology methods, among them better cultivation of land, the timing of planting, cost-effective irrigation and the use of fertilizers, today it is equally dependent on genetic developments that improve the quality of the crops.

Genetic improvements are based on the enhancing farmers’ traditional ability to cross-breed species and to transfer characteristics of wild species to species being used in food production. For example, research is now being done on how to transfer features like virus resistance from wild wheat to cultivated wheat. This also has an environmental benefit, because today such viruses are fought off with pesticides that harm the environment. But to enable the use of wild species, there’s a need to preserve their ecosystems. Samples of genetic material must also be stored in gene banks like the one set up a few years ago at the Volcani Institute in Beit Dagan.

Advances in food production, however, are liable to extract a heavy environmental price. A prime example is Ethiopia, which the world had to rescue from famine 30 years ago. Since then the country has increased its food production capacity, and although it is still a poor country whose population continues to grow, no one is starving.

While Ethiopia increased the variety of crops and improved their agronomic methods, said Heslop-Harrison, it cost them in the loss of forests and natural areas. He said that yield increases must be planned while maintaining soil quality and replacing crops as necessary, to reduce the expansion of agricultural lands into natural areas.

Contrary to many environmentalists, Heslop-Harrison does not reject the use of genetically modified crops, so long as an assessment is made of the possible risks. He decries the resistance to using crops like GM rice, because their use would give poor populations in different regions of the world access to the essential vitamins this rice could provide.

Heslop-Harrison argues that there’s a need to exploit the potential of food-processing firms, which are generally thought to encourage the consumption of less healthful foods. He says their advantage is their ability to utilize all plant parts, including the skins and peels. They can also reuse water in their production processes. He supports reducing meat consumption, which could free up land for food crops for humans, but says this must be done parallel to developing high-quality vegetable crops using genetic knowledge.

Another avenue for changing the way crops are grown is a better scientific understanding of the land itself. The soil’s subsurface has diverse populations of fungi, worms and bacteria that affect soil structure and the root systems of plants. A better understanding of this biological world could help scientists better gauge what plants need, how to maintain soil fertility and prevent disease. All this would, of course, influence the quality and quantity of food.

Heslop-Harrison notes that researchers don’t have solid answers on what’s going on down there, and that only now are they beginning to scientifically scratch the surface.