The introduction of science and technology into agriculture over the past several centuries has supported major advances in the productivity of agriculture. Synthetic fertilizers, chemicals to control diseases and pests, plant breeding and expanded area under cultivation have each played an important role. Molecular techniques for crop improvement have been developed over the past 40 years. Since their initial commercial introduction almost a decade and a half ago, crops modified by molecular techniques, generally referred to a GMOs or genetically modified organisms, have been adopted by farmers at a rapid rate in every country where they have gained official approval. However, the amount of arable land has not changed appreciably in more than half a century, while the human population has continued to expand. Moreover, competition is increasing for fresh water, even as water tables are falling worldwide. Rising temperatures are decreasing the productivity of temperate crops in some of the most populous parts of the world. Meeting the food needs of a still-growing human (and domestic animal) population with less water while preserving remaining biodiversity is, arguably, the most profound challenge of the 21st century. It is a challenge in many dimensions: scientific, technical, societal, and global. We need to expand our ability to farm on land not considered farmable because it is eroded or desertified using water not considered suitable for farming because it is wastewater or saltwater. We need to adapt current crops to higher temperatures and less water. We must also domesticate plants that have evolved to grow at high temperatures and in salty soil. We need to intensify agriculture while making better use of the nutrient flows between plants and animals and decreasing the use of toxic chemicals. The tools of modern molecular modification, available primarily in highly developed countries, must become easier to use and more widely available, as they provide the means to accomplish all of these goals. Yet perhaps the most difficult task is societal: in the face of overwhelming evidence of positive economic, agronomic and ecological impacts and the absence of detrimental impacts, people in many countries remain adamantly opposed to GMOs in agriculture. We will meet these challenges as a global society only if we choose to do so.
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