Corn, tomatoes, rice and beans are all examples of foods that have been improved through biotechnology. Instead of going through the slow process of conventional plant breeding, scientists tweak the foods’ genes to get the characteristics they want. For example, tomatoes now last longer, and they can be picked when they are ripe and juicy instead of tasteless and green. During the last few decades, experts have been applying this research to Earth’s most dire situations. Here are a few of the problems that are already being tackled by GMO foods.

Food Shortages

One of the most significant benefits of biotechnology is better crop yields. Even though traditional advances have kept up with population increases so far, the impact of agricultural technology is shrinking. The United Nations expects one billion more people to be born within the next ten years. The earth will be home to 9.6 billion people by 2050. To continue to feed everyone, farmers and scientists must find new ways to produce more food under restrictive weather and soil conditions. Some crops, such as potatoes, have already been engineered to resist cold temperatures and thereby maximize land productivity. In the United States, nearly 85 percent of soybean plants have been modified to produce bigger beans. Researchers continue to investigate ways to help crops withstand prolonged droughts and high salt levels.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Genetic modifications not only help with the amount of food being produced but also with the nutritional content of that food. With more than half the world’s population surviving on a rice diet, enhancing the vitamin content of the rice may prevent significant health problems, such as anemia and blindness. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences have successfully created a type of rice packed with beta-carotene, or vitamin A. Other scientists have been working on boosting iron content to combat nutrient deficiencies. Most of this research has been conducted through non-profit grants, with the hope of distributing free or reduced-cost provisions to most of the world.

Environmental Changes

Farming has always caused changes to the land, but genetically modified foods offer an opportunity to prevent further damage. For instance, by increasing crop yields, farmers can conserve natural resources and reduce the amount of deforestation for agriculture. By minimizing irrigation requirements, farmers can grow the same amount of food with less water. By increasing pest- and disease-resistance, farmers can decrease the amount of chemicals that they put on the land. As one example, biotech cotton has reduced U.S. pesticide usage by 170 million pounds and reduced herbicide usage by nearly 55 million pounds. Bt-corn has generated similar benefits. Overall, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology reports that transgenic crops have decreased herbicide runoff by 70 percent, decreased soil erosion by 90 percent and decreased greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent.

By tackling situations such as food shortages, nutrient deficiencies and environmental changes, farmers add new meaning to a respectable livelihood. As the science behind GMO food crops evolves, researchers can deliver new ways to keep Earth’s problems at bay.