20 June, 2024


Food Security: It Is Biotechnology That Is To Rescue Mankind From Imminent Hunger

By W.A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

Agriculture should aim at producing more with less

There is good news for vegans. The news has been revealed by scientific discoveries and validated by hardcore economics. A team of researchers from Canada, Australia, India, and the UK have authored a joint paper arguing that animal proteins are more resource using compared to plant proteins. Hence, they recommend that the latter should be promoted through continued research in biotechnology. The paper has been published online on 20 April 2021in Science Direct .

The six scientists involved in this exercise have been Sven Anders of the University of Alberta, Canada, Wallace Cowling and Aswani Pareek of the University of Western Australia, Kapuganti Jugadis Gupta and Sneh L Singla-Pareek from different research institutes in India, and Christine H Foyer of the University of Birmingham, UK.

According to the authors, there are two scientific revelations relating to agriculture. One is that agriculture contributes a significant portion to climate change in the form of the emission of greenhouse gases. The three offensive gases in the form of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide arising from agricultural activities have been responsible for about 23% of the total global emissions. The other revelation is that the two main resources used in agriculture – land and water – are in short supply threatening the global food security in the future. Therefore, there is a necessity for using these resources efficiently to achieve the highest level of productivity.

This is hardcore economics. Economics calls for the optimal allocation of scarce resources to produce the maximum level of output. Any misallocation of resources will lead to inefficiency and output loss and that must be avoided.

Animal-based foods are more resource intensive compared to plant-based crops

As between plant-based foods and animal-based foods, science has revealed that animal-based foods use more resources, both land and water, than plant-based foods. Thus, to make agriculture more environmentally friendly and use resources efficiently, it is the plant-based foods that must be promoted. To do so, an essential requirement has been the use of biotechnology, the art and science of using biological processes for use in industry, agriculture, or services. It specifically helps agriculture by genetically modifying microorganisms, plant cells, and genes relating to livestock breeding.

Land and water and impact on climate change should be deciding factors

People need proteins as a part of a balanced diet. However, in terms of the basic principles of economics, the production of proteins should be done by using the available resources efficiently, that is, getting the maximum output by employing the least quantity of resources. There are three factors that should be considered, according to authors, when assessing the efficiency of the use of resources for producing proteins. They are land, and water which are natural endowments and the minimum amount of the emission of greenhouse gases to environment which comes from conscious policymaking and a must for avoiding the disastrous climate change.

When comparing the main sources of proteins – plants and animals – the source that uses the least extent of land, and the quantity of water and causes the least emission of greenhouse gases would be ranked as the more efficient source of proteins. Since land and water are limited in supply and climate change would destroy everything which the mankind has so far gained, the global community should choose the available options carefully to ensure a sustainable food security.

Conserve water and land

At present, the animal-based foods provide about 37% of the global needs of proteins. However, they are resource-guzzlers because they use a little over 75% of agricultural land and a significant quantity of water for producing the same. Worse, they also account for about 67% of the greenhouse gases emitted through agricultural activities. Comparatively, all plant-based proteins use less land, and water and emit less greenhouse gases to environment. These comparative numbers are presented in graphical form in Figure 1 based on the data compiled by the Washington DC based World Resource Institute and reproduced by the authors in their paper under reference.

The Figure under reference has measured the resource use in terms of the extent of hectare and 1000 cubic meters of water used for producing a tonne of protein and the volume of greenhouse gases emitted during the process of production. While all the animal-based protein suppliers are ranked very poorly by all the three criteria compared to plant-based proteins, beef has been specifically very bad supplier of proteins. This is intuitively understandable because they need larger pasture lands and more water. In addition, the regurgitation process which the cattle use for digesting foods causes the discharge of a high volume of methane to atmosphere. This regurgitation process involves taking back half-digested foods from the first stomach to mouth and then chewing and swallowing into the second stomach.

Challenge of feeding the rising mouths of the globe

Given these resource limitations, assuring food security for a rising population becomes a challenging task for the global community. According to global population projections, the world’s population that stood at 7.8 billion by end 2020 is to rise to 9.7 billion by end 2050 and further to 10.9 billion by 2100. Though some selected countries would be able to feed their people through improved agricultural production, in the entire globe, it is a matter of concern to feed the rising number of mouths. Unless a system is found to produce more with less, the global community faces a high risk of starvation.

Malthusian doomsday story

The problem of ensuring food security in a background of rising populations in the world has been a matter of concern by global community from time to time. In the 18th century when there was a population explosion, the British economist Thomas Malthus, in a book titled ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ and published in 1798, predicted that the population will increase at an exponential rate overtaking the world’s capacity to produce foods. As a result, he also predicted that there will be massive starvation, leading to famine, disease, war, and calamity. But this did not happen because the population did not increase at the rate at which Malthus predicted and food production increased by leaps and bounds due to the employment of technology, improved fertilizers, and pesticides. The issue was finally resolved by the introduction of what is now known as Green Revolution in 1950s and 1960s.

Rescue of mankind from hunger through Green Revolution

The Green Revolution was initiated by American Agronomist Norman Borlaug who is considered its Father. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1970 for this service. The basic approach of the Green Revolution was to increase yields of food crops through several new methods popularised among farmers.

They included the development of High Yielding Varieties of crops, use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, better farm and water management, and the expansion of irrigation infrastructural facilities. India which was on the brink of famine and starvation in late 1950s was in the forefront of the Green Revolution. It started agricultural activities on modern lines in Punjab which was famous for its heavy involvement in agriculture. Having adopted the new semi-dwarf rice variety called IR8 developed by the International Rice Research Institute in Manila, the Philippines, and using better water management and chemical fertilizers, India was able to convert itself from a rice deficit country to a rice surplus country. IR8 was dubbed miracle rice because of its high yield when it is cultivated with the application of fertilizers.

China’s embracing Green Revolution

Like India, China too was successful in increasing its agricultural output by using improved varieties, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and better water management. Like in Sri Lanka, China’s agricultural production is mainly done by small holder farmers. Yet, it has not been an impediment for using new technologies, improved fertilizer, and pest control systems, and increasing yields. Its high yield hybrid rice technology has helped it to increase the rice yield across the nation to 7.1 tonnes per hectare. Comparatively, the global average is only 3.9 tonnes per hectare. In the case of conventional rice, the yield has been only 5 tonnes per hectare.

Need for a second Green Revolution

Since the global food availability is going to be a serious problem in the future, it is of utmost importance for the global community to launch a second green revolution soon. This green revolution, like the previous one in which wheat was genetically dwarfed to withstand the adverse climate and yield more, should be based on genetically modified or GM foods which would deliver a still higher output per hectare of food crops grown.

Dislike of GM foods

However, many people object to GM foods on the ground that they are against Nature and, therefore, hazardous to human and animal life. Many have even come with scary stories of GM foods causing cancer and other terminal diseases. Hence, GM foods and the scientists who either advocate or engage in research in genetic food production have been branded as destroyers of human race. Therefore, there had been loud public outcries against GM foods in both poor and rich countries alike. Many lobbying groups have even been able to pressurise individual governments to either ban GM foods or compulsorily tag them at sales points as a precaution to consumers.

This campaign tends to forget that all species, including human beings, which we have today, have gone through a genetic modification for thousands of years to make what or who we are.

In the GM food production, what is being done is the quickening of the genetic modification process which Nature would have taken thousands of years to accomplish. It may have certain risk factors because it is introduced too suddenly without giving ample time for the world to adjust itself, but, given the enormity of the global food problem, specifically amid high economic growth in China and India and the global population increases that have been projected, the mankind cannot think of any other survival method than accepting GM foods to feed the increasing number of mouths.

Biotechnology to the rescue

It is therefore biotechnology which is to serve as the saviour of mankind. The authors of the paper under reference have highlighted that GM production requires new generation gene sequencing technologies and gene editing technologies. Yet, society tends to reject these technologies despite the fact that they offer a clear pathway to resolve the world’s food security problems. Similarly, there has been a growing opposition to the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on health, environmental and sustainability grounds. Therefore, the authors have concluded that scientists have to overcome two challenges when it comes to using new technologies to increase production. One is the societal opposition to such new technologies which rely basically on fertilizers and pesticides to produce the optimal output. The other is to take the fear out of policymakers who have been sentimentally influenced by society’s opinion makers. Both are formidable challenges in societies in which members have been driven by all types of fears about diseases that they might get when they consume those GM foods.

Innovate agriculture

As the solution to the issue involved, the authors have made the following recommendation: “The application of plant science advances has the potential to improve the sustainability of crop yields while addressing the challenges of climate change. Farmers are first in line when it comes to the acceptance of new breeding technologies. A major barrier to realising the benefits of new breeding technologies is therefore to bridge the gap between the capacity and needs of small-scale producers, national food security strategies, and multinational breeding efforts (and companies). Without targeted investment that strengthens the innovative capacity of agriculture in developing countries, the widespread adoption of new crop innovations will continue to be limited. Innovative plant breeding can disrupt the current bottlenecks to achieve high-value crop varieties incorporating new gene technology and should lead to widespread acceptance of plant-breeding innovations”

Plant-breeding systems must be strengthened and modernised to better serve the needs of farmers and consumers. While powerful new genome-editing and next-generation sequencing technologies provide unprecedented possibilities, their potential contribution is currently constrained by widespread societal opposition, including rejection among farmers in developing regions of the world. Heightened public and policy scrutiny of agricultural innovation is deeply rooted in consumers’ natural interest in their food supply. Society’s rejection of ‘incomprehensible’ scientific innovations has become a major barrier to regulating gene-editing technology”.

In my view, the paper under reference is an eyeopener for Sri Lanka’s policymakers who plan to feed the nation sans chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 2

    The author’s statements on Genetically Modified crops are oversimplified;
    “… all species, including human beings, which we have today, have gone through a genetic modification for thousands of years to make what or who we are.”
    “In the GM food production, what is being done is the quickening of the genetic modification process which Nature would have taken thousands of years to accomplish.”

    Natural selection of an existent genetic variation is not genetic modification.
    The catalogue of genetic variations in a species can be widened by random mutations that offer either survival advantage or are benign, i.e., not detrimental to survival. Occurrence of beneficial mutations randomly and naturally is a rare event and may never occur.

    The other disparity is that the notion that GM food sources do not have added risks. They can and are thus subject to scientific evaluation and testing.
    Must take note of ‘transgenic’ Genetic Engineering, and the potential for introduction of new allergens to a food.

    Otherwise, overall, I think the author’s conclusion on the safety of GM food sources align with scientific consensus.
    The following is a balanced writing published by Michigan State University;

  • 6

    Thank you, Dr Wijewardena
    for this article, because I have the feeling that many don’t know these facts, although I am aware of most of this. Please compare this with my humble and categorical statements that I don’t understand Economics!
    Despite knowing this, I do consume almost all forms of animal protein which are available in our country, unless I know that the animal “preyed” upon by me faces extinction. My Doctors have asked me to go easy on red meats.
    I have immense respect for the principles displayed by vegans; I’m aware of the suffering inflicted on animals because of my omnivorous habits. I’m not particularly haunted by the suffering caused to animals (directly by others) because of my dietary habits, but human over-population of the planet does give me nightmares.
    This brings me to the question, Dr Wijewardena. How practical is it for Gota to suddenly stop the import of fertiliser given that our farmers appear to depend so much on it to produce even the quantity of vegetarian food that 21 million people in Sri Lanka need? Organic is healthier, but can we produce enough?

    • 4

      Dr. W writes:
      “The basic approach of the Green Revolution was to increase yields of food crops through several new methods
      They included the development of High Yielding Varieties of crops, use of chemical fertilizers and pesticide”
      Yes, Gota has banned chemical fertilizers, seemingly on the advice of that idiotic poseur Ratana Hamuduruwo, who brought the tea industry to its knees a few years ago. Now he is promoting his hare- brained schemes to an ignorant Nandasena. These people have forgotten how the Green Revolution saved us from starvation in the 60’s. Get ready with your ration book, and plant some manioc .

      • 6


        It’s time for people to cut all the BS and get straight to the heart of the matter.

        Gota/government simply doesn’t have the money to import fertilizer. ……….. with all the other pressing needs for funds …………..

        He is just trying to make a virtue out of necessity.

        All this “organic” stuff was tried and tested in China’s prehistoric days …….. Mao got over one billion to carry their “buckets” every morning and spread the “contents” over their fields.

        Hope Native’s bucket doesn’t have a hole!

        Dunno what SJ of SL Communist Party Peaking Wing has to say about all this ………. he must be jumping for joy ………..

        How did I see all this coming from miles away. :)))

        • 2

          nimal fernando

          “How did I see all this coming from miles away. :)))”

          I am still wondering.
          How did you manage it?
          I am sure you are not following Channa Jayasumana MBBS, PhD, FRCP Edin (now the glorified Vedamahathya medicine man) the State Minister of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals.

          Anything Chinese usually titillates Maoists, the Sri Lankan variety.

          Were you a Maoist in your younger days, not that you are old now?

          • 2

            “Were you a Maoist in your younger days, not that you are old now?”

            Believe it or not ……. my father was a Leftist ……… a raving Commie!

            But his faith lapsed ………. more about all that later ………..

      • 3

        old codger

        “Yes, Gota has banned chemical fertilizers, seemingly on the advice of that idiotic poseur Ratana Hamuduruwo, ..”

        What is he going to replace it with?
        nimal fernando’s bucket full of organic stuff?

        • 4

          Native, Nimal,
          Have you heard about the latest “discovery” of high Arsenic levels in imported canned fish? Things are falling into place, after the poisoned cooking oil, adulterated milk powder…..
          I wonder what imported stuff will next be revealed as poisonous? Petrol? Diesel?

    • 5

      My dear Iskolemahathya, it is the lack of basic information caused him to come with another silly public statement of that nature. Bugger should be sent to u or any other retired professionals to learn, let alone one thing right. Not respecting the basics of farming crops about any subjects but to rigorously impose such ban s on all kind of agro fertiliser can have a big impact on long term. . This is exactly what we predicted on their return., these men cant be mentioned as his excellencies for sure, since their profiles are not good enough to be gramasewakas. Take my advi6 please dont become a vegan even if that sounds to be all pure. 😎😎😎😎😎😎😎😎😎

  • 3

    The most overlooked aspect of food supply is the issue of over consumption of food in much of our growing upper middle class and the rich in SriLanka and far worse over-consumption in the developed nations.

    Many sectors of the global food industry are generally wasteful and frivolous when appraised to the primary food supply goal which is adequate, nutritious sustenance to all humans. E.g. candies and confectionery. All this garbage that we put in create a slew of physical and mental health issues. Let’s not forget the environmental impact of these industries.

    We should also take note of food sources that are consumed by non-food industries like cosmetics. I imagine there’re other non-food industries that consume food supplies.

    Yet another important aspect which occurs in often in grand scale is the hoarding of surplus (e.g. grains) to control market prices locally and internationally. Even heard of destruction of stock to this end.
    Perhaps a more informed CT commenter can educate us on this aspect.

    We can grow safe GM crops but the food supply issue is a multifaceted issue. We need to fix those other issues including the insatiable appetite of humans.

  • 1

    I do endorse the article to champion the plant protein instead of animal proteins. It’s good for the environment as well as its humane. Anyone who watches on how the animals are treated/cared for will be put off from eating animal derived proteins.
    We need to encourage vertical Farms for agriculture. Destroying forests to create land for grazing or agriculture should be banned. We need to promote growing vegetables in our house gardens.

  • 0

    What happened to the multi National company -Monsantino which tried to monopoly the seeds sales?

    • 0

      its called Bayer now. Still doing the same under new name.

  • 4

    I am no Agriculture Expert . but then I dont know of many who are on this forum.

    But I am all for organic food and such but I am not sure what GR is doing with fertilizer is viable or even possible. I remember the 70 in the Banda years and how poor the yields were for our farmers.

    I think in the later years Sri Lankan farmers have had bumper crops due to better varieties and better chemical fertilizers. I am not sure it is possible to achieve these same yields with just the better varieties and no chemical fertilizer. But then again I am no expert on the topic.

    But I am sure another 500 character article from a know it all would shed more darkness,

    I think the better approach for this topic would be to do a slower weaning of the farmers from Chemical fertilizers. while encouraging Organic growing methods. I am afraid this approach the govt is using will lead to huge drops in crop yields and lead to mass starvation. I hope I am wrong.

  • 4

    ………….This campaign TENDS TO FORGET that all species, including human beings, which we have today, have gone through a genetic modification for THOUSANDS OF YEARS, to make what or who we are………..
    Herein lies the conundrum. How much imbalance can result, and how much be maintained without deleterious effects, by the assault on our existing genes with biotech, GM foods and mRNA vaccines, all so QUICKLY ingested.
    Yes these are essential in the short term but the effects over time cannot be predicted till actual mutations take place. What risk is in that – can we reverse it ?
    The gradual mutations in our genes over thousands of years, was with a view to our being able to cope with changes in the natural environment, in a way that the mutation will not result in any adverse effects to our body as a whole. But a SUDDEN INPUT of all these new genetic material, MAY OR MAY NOT be assimilated and accommodated in our bodies to our benefit.
    So it is indeed a Hobson’s Choice.
    But the consumption of beef and production being reduced, when the graph above is seen, is indeed one recommendation that is salutary in all aspects.

  • 0

    Food shortage is just simply a myth. just like the so-called shortage of carbon fuels. Just wait till Saudi Aramco goes public. the world will know how much oil is there under the kingdom. Just like that there is absolutely no shortage of food, there is just no one there who can pay the prices for the food produced and wasted due to uneven distribution,

    Most of this is due to the advances in science but at the same time, there is a huge problem of food wastage. The problem is geopolitical, every country attempts to protect their farmers not because they produce the best but due to the political clot the farmers have, at the same time when global giants want to play by different rules like Trump with China one understands how important local production is,.

  • 2

    There are other views on the use of biotechnology in agriculture. It leads to the dominance of Western multinational companies which introduce strains into indigenous agriculture that may result in harm though initial crops show increase in production. Environmentalists have different views on the use of modified seeds. It would be good to move out of animal based foods for a variety of reasons. But to move away from it to the use of genetically modified drugs may be to jump from the frying pan straight into the fire. In Sri Lanka, they should first stop killing human beings. The Buddhist makes a fuss a about killing snakes but not about the multitudes of human beings killed in Sri Lanka over the years.

  • 0

    Agriculture – land and water – are in short supply threatening the global food security in the future.

    Water – are in short supply threatening, in this case why not initiate Rainwater harvesting promotes self-sufficiency and helps conserve water , and it is not chlorinated,
    possible technology in an urban setting. All that is necessary to take advantage of this resource is to capture the free water falling on your roof and direct it to a rainwater storage tank.

  • 1

    I too feel that to cut off the importation of chemical Fertilizers/ weed killers abruptly may result in the agricultural produce. It should be done gradually. What should happen is to stop the importation of poisonous or carcinogenic oil/fertilizers/food in to the country. These IMPORTERS should be severely punished by the GoSL even if they are supporters of SLPP. Has it been proved that the chronic Kidney failure was due to the cadmium and arsenic in the Fertilizers that were imported in the last two decades?

  • 5

    The gap between the rich and poor has been expanding rapidly, within countries as well as between countries. Now, the rich countries are richer than they used to be and vice versa for the poor ones. There is a direct correlation between waste in rich countries and shortages in poor countries, as well as land-use policies that favour the rich. For example rich countries can eat more beef and it is the worst offender that deprives cereal production for poor people’s use. Genetic modification or technologies that defy nature in radical ways will escalate the onset of pandemics like covid-19. Many papers have been published on the issue of worsening vulnerabilities in radically defying natural systems and processes. In a 100 years from now, the rich countries would be like fortresses and the poor countries will have mass deaths (somewhat lie the covid situation in India now) that decimate their populations. A simple glance at allocation of vaccines and hoarding by developed, rich countries that deprive poor countries’ people from being vaccinated is a case in point. The WHO has ample evidence on this also. Resources like water and land will be sequestered by the rich at the expense of the poor. The status quo will be maintained, as the rich continue their decadent lifestyle while hordes of poor die helpless.

    • 1

      Dr wijewardene is entitled to deep respect. There is another side. It is represented by an Indian lady, Vandana Siva, who has spoken a lot about Indian agriculture and genetic seeds. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_8owv2dtP0

  • 0

    The Isha Farming in India converting from chemical farming to natural farming,giving farmers advise,and how can be saved the rainwater etc how the mixed farming gives more profitable,how the farmers can benefit from cows and important,
    Watch on YouTube ,we can make fertilizer naturally

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