Genetically modified crops could well be a powerful tool for helping smallholder farmers in developing countries grapple with global challenges at the local level.
By Ivar Virgin
Feeding a rapidly growing world in the face of climate change and resource scarcity will be an immense challenge and test for human ingenuity. The effects of climate change on food production around the world are accelerating and could lead to more than 500,000 deaths by the year 2050, according to a grim new study.
Rising temperatures, more frequent droughts, and extreme weather events will result in crop productivity losses for farmers in many parts of the world.
Agricultural biotechnology is playing an increasingly important role assisting farmers all over the world. A wide-ranging and rapidly expanding toolbox of technologies, including controversial and fast-evolving techniques, such as genome editing and genetic modification, have produced crops that today are cultivated by about 18 million farmers. All in all, genetically modified crops cover about 180 million hectares or roughly 13 percent of all global cropland.
But to what extent can these technologies also help smallholder farmers – those farming less than five hectares – in developing countries foster more-sustainable and secure food systems?
The early reports on conventional agro-biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) crops are impressive. GM crops developed by "cutting and pasting" genes from one organism to another are improving livestock vaccines, disease diagnostics and using DNA marker-assisted breeding to speed up development of new crop varieties. All of these technologies have already improved crop and livestock productivity for millions of small-scale farmers around the world.
The benefits of the first generation of GM crops include better soil management, a reduction in the use of insecticides and increased farm profitability. The second generation of crops is still in the R&D pipeline and include varieties with increased drought tolerance and improved nutritional characteristics, such as bio-fortified cassava, banana and rice with improved protein, vitamin and micronutrient content. These crops are of high interest to small-scale farmers and for the food insecure.
This includes the efforts to develop drought and insect tolerant maize through conventional breeding and genetic engineering with a goal to make these varieties available to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa through African seed companies. In Bangladesh, the introduction of genetically modified, insect-tolerant Brinjal (eggplant) has been successful, decreasing the use of chemical insecticides, and improving crop productivity and profitability for many small-scale farmers.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and many agricultural experts are positive about the use of agrobiotechnology, but the use of GM technologies is continuing to cause debate in the international community.
Controversies about GM crops revolve around a combination of concerns about safety for human and environmental health, market control and proprietary issues linked to the use of technology, and to what extent GM technologies are relevant for and accessible to smallholder farmers in the global south.
Clearly, there is still a wide gap between what can be achieved with advanced biosciences and what has materialized so far. The current GM seed and biotechnology crop market is heavily concentrated among a few multinational corporations, across three major commodity crops: maize, soybeans, and cotton.
Critics argue that agro-biotechnology, and in particular genetic engineering, only provides large multinational corporations with the means to continue their dominance of the global food system, disadvantaging smallholder farmers, and ultimately – consumers. Proponents argue that agro-biotechnology, like the genome editing CRISPR-Cas9 system, should be made more accessible to smallholder farmers who will benefit from advanced breeding efforts in their own countries, using these precise tools to improve the crops of most interest to them.
The hope is that these new effective breeding tools could enable new collaboration, where researchers work hand-in-hand with farmers to develop crops and livestock more resistant to diseases and droughts, adapted to specific local needs. In South America, for example, researchers could assist potato farmers across the Andes Mountains create crops more tolerant to climate change, while at the same time protecting the region’s highly valuable agro-biodiversity.
And so the future is already here, but it’s not evenly distributed and we’re not ready.
This is why we need to step up capacity-building efforts and strengthen and broaden the innovation agenda, enabling the benefits of modern biosciences to reach smallholder farmers in the southern hemisphere.
Climate-related impacts on agriculture will hit developing countries especially hard, only amplifying the importance of getting these God-like innovations into the hands of those farmers who need it most. Given the magnitude and the urgency of the challenge, it will be crucial to include modern biology in the broad portfolio of tools supporting smallholder farmers in developing countries in their struggle to meet rising demands in a sustainable manner.
Dr. Ivar Virgin is a Senior Researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute. He is one of the main architects and initiators of the two largest bioscience innovation programs in Africa, the BIO-EARN (1999-2010) and BioInnovate (2010-ongoing) focusing on resource efficient, climate-smart and productive agricultural production and value chains in East Africa
Unless the parents are brother and sister, aren't we all "genetically modified"? The issue lies with genetic engineering and the unexpected / unanticipated / or known and ignored consequences. The US / Panama free trade agreement requires the import of GMO seed from Pioneer, (distributed by MELO).
I am sure that time will show GMO crops are just as safe as was Agent Orange. PCBs. DTD, Thalidomide and all the other kool-aid derivatives we were asked to swallow with out daring to question the self serving big corps and their convenient science...
Very true eugenie .i also heard costa rica is looking into kick backs to their ag minister who allowed GMO into the country .i think panama signed up at the same time so we can guess it might have happened here also while bagboy was president
You are spot on Eugenie ~ this article is absurd and unsubstantiated. Evidence has proven that GM actually lowers production over time.
Many Darwin Awards is absolutely correct! this is an irresponsible article and so is the technology. the same desired production results can, and are, being obtained by developing rich, healthy soils, by water conservation, by changing from dependence on water intensive crops to those that are less so, and by reverting to small farming techniques of mulching, composting, companion planting, not tilling, and crop rotation. a question not addressed is who owns these seeds? farmers are not allowed to collect, save, and replant gm seeds, but are instead required to purchase them every year from the seed developer. why else do you think they made these seeds? the author cites first year production results, but the long term results have revealed gm does not outperform organic, creates super weeds and insects, damages human health, and ultimately costs more to produce. this technology is being presented in Panama for the same reason that explains much of what's here: the developed world has rejected it and the developers need somewhere else to sell their product. it's why we have electric appliances and tools that fall apart, car parts that don't withstand wear, bras that don't fit, foods containing plastic, shoes in one size, and mislabeled medicines. Panama would be wise to simply observe the learning curve of the developed countries and see that those who have experienced gm foods, are running from them, rejecting them, labeling for them, and banning them. to not repeat the same errors, and go directly to the solution that can, and does, work, would be a sign of intelligence. instead, we get articles like this one.
BS . first who is paying for this guys research . Long term tests on lab rats show tumors the size of golf balls growing out of their bodies.and long term was 6 nonths .the biotech companies stop their tests at 3 months .in India a farmer kills himself every 20 minutes becausse of crip failure with GMO crops usuallyby drinking the weed killer he has to spray on these crops because they get super weeds after spraying so much roundup on their crops . Time forr newsroom to do some research on stories before they print them .the state of CA USA just listed glosphate as a cancer causing agent