One of the thornier questions we face is how to feed a global population heading towards 10 billion and beyond. Not only are rising temperatures squeezing the amount of viable farmland; industrialised farming techniques are also reaching the limits of sustainability. Pest mutations, denuded soils and a collapse in the number of bees are already taking their toll.
The solution, at least in part, lies with genetic modification. True, the technology got off to a terrible start. The rapacity of agrochemical giants – locking farmers into buying their products by designing crops linked to their own herbicides – only exacerbated underlying concerns about the perils of “Frankenfoods”. But, 20 years on, our need for high-yield, low-impact foods is sharper than ever, and GM has itself evolved.
The latest development at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire is a case in point. After 15 years of painstaking work, scientists at what is one of the world’s oldest agricultural research institutions applied this week for permission to start field trials of an enhanced strain of a flax-like oil-seed crop which they hope could ease the strain on, of all things, fish stocks. Leave aside the issue of over-fishing to feed human beings directly. Vast quantities of marine creatures are also pulled from the sea to make feed stock for the fish farms designed to alleviate the pressure. The challenge, then, is to find a non-fish source of the omega-3 oil needed to sustain farmed populations. And to solve the problem, researchers at Rothamsted have made synthetic genes from marine algae (which make omega-3) and inserted them into Camelina sativa to create a seed that is rich in the necessary nutrients but can be grown in bulk.
If successful, the Rothamsted crop offers a way out of one of the tighter bottlenecks in modern food production. Nor does the potential end there. Given that fish oils are directly beneficial to people, a successfully enhanced crop could also have a place in our own diets.
GM still has many ideological opponents. But their case is ever harder to make. The Rothamsted trials could take us a step closer to a world that can sustainably feed itself. As such, they should proceed with all possible expedition.