GM food: The best way for sustainable food production?

GM food remains controversial, particularly in Europe, but some experts say it is the best science-based method for a sustainable global food system in the face of biodiversity loss and a growing population.

Food production is terrible for the environment. According to the online scientific publication Our World in Data, agriculture is responsible for a quarter of carbon emissions to the atmosphere and most of the world’s biodiversity loss.

And as environmental degradation continues, the world’s population continues to grow. The UN predicts that the world population will reach 10 billion in 2057. This begs the question: how can we increase food production by 50% while mitigating the catastrophes of biodiversity loss and the climate crisis?

“We understand that the biggest sin in terms of climate change and biodiversity is to use more land for agriculture. That means we have to produce food on less land to protect nature,” said Matin Qaim, a food economics specialist and director of the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn in Germany.

How do we feed 10 billion people?

Qaim explained that there are broadly two different approaches on how to achieve this.

“One argument is that we need dietary changes to make consumption more sustainable. That means less waste, less meat. The other side argues that we need better technologies to create greener farming methods,” he told DW.

Qaim believes both approaches are necessary. For one thing, we need to change the way food is produced – specifically, we need to reduce human consumption of protein and nutrients from animal sources. But it’s not enough. Like many experts, he considers genetic engineering a crucial part of the strategy for a sustainable food system.

“Everyone wants to produce more food in less space and with less chemical pesticides and less fertilizer. If you can [use gene technologies to] Developing plants that are more tolerant and hardy is a good thing,” said Qaim.

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What exactly is genetically modified food?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms that have altered their DNA to change their characteristics. Genetically modified plants can improve yield, build resistance to pests, frost or drought, or add nutrients. Plants can also be modified to reduce CO2 emissions and increase the sustainability of food production. Although widespread, Genetically modified crop production uses only about 10% of the area used for the production of non-genetically modified crops.

“GM is nothing more than a breeding technique, much like the crossbreed we have been doing for thousands of years. But it’s more sophisticated, so we can make very precise changes very quickly,” said David Spencer, a phytopathologist and spokesperson for Replanet, an alliance of NGOs working to find science-based solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss. The Reboot Food campaign focuses on sustainable food production.

GMOs were first introduced in the US in 1994 in modified tomato plants that ripened more slowly to extend their shelf life. Since then, a wide range of crops such as soybeans, wheat and rice have been approved for agricultural use, along with genetically engineered bacteria grown to produce large amounts of protein.

Scientists in India have also developed sub-1 rice varieties that are much more resistant to flooding. Flooding is a major problem in the rice-growing regions of northern India and Bangladesh and is set to worsen as the climate crisis unfolds. Now 6 million farmers in the region are using Sub-1 rice to protect their crops from flooding.

Golden Rice, on the other hand, is a genetically engineered strain that has been modified to contain vitamin A and is intended to address the lack of dietary vitamin A in parts of Asia and Africa.

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Resistance to genetically modified diseases

gene editing technology has also helped protect crop production from disease. In the late 20th century, papaya ringspot virus almost wiped out papaya cultivation in Hawaii, but a local scientist developed a modified papaya that was resistant to the virus. Seeds were distributed to farmers, which saved papaya production a decade later.

David Spencer has also worked to protect soybeans from fungal diseases spreading across America.

“Currently there is no real solution other than massive fungicide applications. Nobody wants that, so we worked on adding genes or DNA changes from distantly related plants to achieve better resistance to the fungus,” Spencer told DW.
GM controversy

And yet many people find it hard to digest the idea of ​​GM food – a 2020 opinion poll found that 50% of people in 20 countries surveyed felt GM food was unsafe.

When genetically modified crops were first developed 30 years ago, there was uncertainty and concern about safety among scientists, but things are different today.

James Rhodes, a biosafety analyst at Biosafety South Africa, explained that 30 years of safety data and scientific evidence show that GM foods are just as safe as non-GM foods.

“We have 30 years of safety information proving that GM foods are perfectly safe to eat and 30 years of information proving they are not dangerous to the environment,” Rhodes said.

According to Rhodes, it is not possible for any country to start using GMOs without meeting extensive regulatory requirements.

“It has a long history of development before it is put into practice and approved commercially, especially in terms of risks,” he said.

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Monsanto has ruined the reputation of genetically modified foods

Matin Qaim believes the GMO controversy has been mixed up with a debate about corporate industrial agriculture. The specter of Monsanto still hovers over the industry.

“There are concerns from major corporate interests of companies like Monsanto promoting more pesticides and monocultures and wrong forms of farming and selling seeds to farmers at high prices,” Qaim said.

Qaim shares the concerns, but argues that the problems have more to do with the regulation of the technology than with gene editing itself.

“It’s the wrong model to let a few dominate corporate industrial agriculture. But that has nothing to do with genetic engineering. “Baning GMOs would be like banning the internet for selling bad drugs and pornography,” he said.

The genetically modified food industry is changing

Genetically modified agriculture deviates from the Monsanto corporate model. Genetically modified products are increasingly becoming the focus of social and public enterprises and the industry is looking for more local solutions that help small farmers in developing countries.

Regulation and licensing play a major role in this. Many, including Replanet, are strong advocates of open-source seeds and genetically engineered technologies.

“You can develop GMOs without patents developed by humanitarian public organizations. We must regulate intelligently and ensure competition in the market. Industrial agriculture is the wrong model,” Qaim said.

Ultimately, it’s about creating a licensing landscape that allows local farmers to adapt to the demands of sustainable agriculture fast enough to cope with increasing population numbers and climate change.

But as Rhodes said, the greater the need for new genetically engineered technologies, the more accepted they are, as in the case of the papaya virus.

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