Growing Pains: Are GMOs an Adaptation Solution for Growing, Hungry Populations Affected by Climate Change?

Chronic hunger plagues 805 million people worldwide. Although this is 100 million less than 10 years ago, the future of food security remains uncertain in the face of climate change. The world is growing, and so is the demand for food. The World Resources Institute projects the world will face a 69% food gap in 2050 if food production remains the same.

Adaptation efforts will be particularly challenging due to changing precipitation patterns, warming temperatures, and extreme weather events resulting from climate change. The agriculture sector accounts for 55% of total world GHG emissions; paradoxically, it must strive to reduce GHG emissions and to increase food production simultaneously. Ideally this will be done without increasing deforestation and consequently decreasing carbon storage. To face these climate change hurdles and maintain consistent crop yields, countries will likely consider using or expanding current use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

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GMOs are organisms that have been inserted with another organism’s genetic material to achieve new properties. The new properties for crops typically include herbicide tolerance, virus resistance, and water-uptake efficiency. The new genetic material can come from plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria. For example, in the US the majority of soybeans, corn, and cotton are GMOs with genetic material from soil bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis; the bacteria produces a protein toxic to certain insect larvae, but not to humans and animals.

In addition to the US, many countries have already taken stances on this divisive topic. Others remain undecided as they weigh the pros and cons. The US along with Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and India are leading producers of GMOs. Among countries limiting GMOs are: EU countries, requiring approval of all genetically modified products prior to distribution; Switzerland, banning GMO farming since 2005; Russia, banning all imported GMO products; and China, banning GMOs for human consumption but allowing them for livestock.

Monsanto, a producer of GM seeds and Roundup herbicide, advocates for using heat and drought resistant GM seeds to adapt to climate change impacts. Other proponents argue GMO crops can adapt more quickly to sudden weather changes than conventional breeding methods.  They also maintain that farmers can produce more with fewer resources, thus having less climate affecting impacts.

Opponents of GMOs champion alternatives like ecological agriculture and conventional breeding that, they say, are just as good if not better. They also site environmental hazards, unknown human health risks, biodiversity loss, and economic concerns as reasons to ban or at least label GMO crops.  Mark Spitznagel, professor of risk engineering at NYU School of Engineering, compares the “GMO experiment” to the US financial system before the 2008 crash, which many people believed to be “too big to fail.”  He differentiates the two explaining that there are no possible bailouts when the GMO enterprise fails, and that the consequences would be much more devastating. Genetic engineering is only 40 years old. Uncertain future consequences of using this new technology is troubling to many people who believe the risks outweigh the potential benefits.

As more countries submit their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) and consider adaptation methods to climate change, it will be interesting to see how the global dialogue surrounding GMOs develops. The agriculture sector is the largest contributor to global anthropogenic non-CO2 GHGs. The agriculture sector directly impacts climate change. Climate change directly impacts the agriculture sector. Deciding how to feed a growing, hungry planet and also curb temperature increases will be one controversial topic stemming from this paradoxical challenge.

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