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Can GM crops promise food security?

June 19, 2024

A new "gene revolution" is being heralded as a cure-all for a growing global appetite as food systems are decimated by extreme weather.

samplings of genetically modified plants growing inside test tubes.
Genetically modified plants could help feed the world as the planet heats up, but could they exacerbate the problem? Image: CHASSENET/BSIP/picture alliance

Farmers have cross-bred fruits, grains or vegetables to create tastier or higher-yielding hybrids for millennia. But it wasn't until the 1970s that scientists first employed bioengineering to transfer genes from one organism to another to produce "transgenic" crops.

When these genetically modified organisms (GMOs) first hit shelves in the 1990s, they were dubbed Frankenstein foods. Resistance to GMO crops was based on a continuing public fear that they're harmful to human health, even if long-term studies said eating them was as safe as conventional varieties.

Now in the 2020s, a new "gene revolution," whereby DNA can be genetically "edited" without splicing in genes from a separate organism, is bolstering biotech crop industry claims that it can ensure food security for a global population expected to approach 10 billion by 2050.

The World Economic Forum (WEF), a consistent advocate of GM technology, says that research into new rice, maize, wheat, potato and cassava strains, for example, will further help these vital food staples survive extreme weather and "new climate-induced diseases" in a warming world.                                          

It points out the latest bioengineering technology that helps plants and soils better capture and store planet-heating carbon from the atmosphere.

One US-based research project is helping to optimize photosynthesis so plant staples like maize and rice can better convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into energy to improve yields — while also reducing atmospheric carbon.  

"We have the knowledge and tools to usher in the next Green Revolution, enabling farmers to produce more in this century than in the history of humankind," stated the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency website, which has received around $115 million (€107 million) in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation since 2012. 

A needle is injected into a tomato
Biotech companies are creating new crop strains that promise better yields and ways to resist and mitigate climate changeImage: Colourbox

Industrial-scale GMOs perpetuate climate change, say critics

Many scientists and environmental campaigners don't agree that GM crops can promise food security or help fight the climate change-induced extreme droughts and floods that are decimating agriculture

New GMOs will continue to perpetuate an "agro-industrial system" that "bears substantial responsibility for the climate crisis," Anneleen Kenis, lecturer in political ecology and environmental justice at Brunel University, London, told DW.

Currently, food systems generate around one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions fuelling climate change. And in the US, more than half of harvested cropland is produced with genetically modified seeds. 

Kenis' research argues that GMOs often involve "large-scale monocultures" of limited crop varieties that also require great amounts of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation.

"It's a very energy-intensive system in terms of the input it needs to function. There is nothing sustainable about further strengthening this system," said the researcher, adding that GMOs are promoted by the same "agro-industrial giants" that also control and profit from "a large part of the seed, food, pesticide and fertilizer market." 

So far, this system has also failed "to feed large parts of the population in different parts of the world," Kenis claims. At least 250 million people in nearly 60 countries endure crisis-level food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). 

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Campaigners move to ban bioengineered crops

Similar criticism of GMOs was behind a successful campaign in the Philippines to have GM golden rice and eggplant placed under a production moratorium in April. Golden rice is partly genetically modified with protein from maize to generate beta-carotene for added vitamin A and was approved for cultivation in 2021.

A court implemented the ban based on the "need to uphold the constitutional right to health and healthful ecology," explained Lea Guerrero, country director of Greenpeace Philippines, which led the campaign.

The court found that "there is no scientific consensus on the safety, or harm, of golden rice and eggplant," Guerrero told DW.

But Matin Qaim, a specialist in food economics and director of the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn in Germany, has stated that many Filipinos with vitamin A deficiencies could die without access to vitamin-enriched Golden Rice. Qauim also sits on the pro-GM Golden Rice Humanitarian Board.

Greenpeace's Guerrero maintains, however, that the ban is a victory of crop diversity and ecological resilience over GMO monoculture that tends to benefit food and agriculture companies like Bayer, Corteva, ChemChina-Syngenta and BASF, who control over 60% of the seed market worldwide.

Rice farmers in Philippines battle drought

Proponents back a GM gene revolution

Jennifer Thomson, emeritus professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town, has been developing drought-tolerant transgenic maize by adding genes from a "resurrection plant" known as xerophyta viscosa that can tolerate up to 95% dehydration. 

Having advised the World Economic Forum and United Nations on GM crops across decades, she says, "There is so much controversy, and it's ongoing."

But in the context of smallholdings in southern Africa, she sees "insect resistant" crops created through bioengineering as a "godsend to these farmers."

Australian scientists are spearheading a cowpea production project by bioengineering "built-in" insect pest protection since the legume has been a dietary staple across Africa for millennia.

"Without insect resistance, they get no crop in many cases," Jennifer Thomson said, adding that the planting of GM maize crops has doubled yields for some African farmers.

Hands hold small and unripe cobs of corn
Drought poses a significant threat to staple crops such as maize in some parts of the worldImage: DW

Are non-GM ecological crops also a food security solution?

Despite the rising potential of new GM crops, resistance to gene manipulation continues — as does skepticism, with around half of people polled globally in 2020 believing GMOs are unsafe to eat.

Greenpeace Philippines argues that local scientists struggle to develop ecological, non-GM seed, food and nutrition systems in a heating world since, according to Lea Guerrero, "most of the research is backed by giant agri-biotech companies."

Meanwhile, agricultural science researchers have noted deficiencies in the risk assessment of GM cowpea developed by the Australian researchers that was approved for cultivation in Nigeria. They were concerned that the transgenic plants produce a toxin meant to protect the plants against pests — and hence reduce the need for insecticides — but that safety risks remained due to "enhanced toxicity."  

While Thomson claims that African consumers of GM maize have never raised health concerns, Anneleen Kenis believes biotech companies too often "play the climate card," even though few GM crops currently in the pipeline are actually aimed at climate resistance.

Initiatives instead include developing fruit and vegetables that can stay fresh over long distances, one goal being to limit climate-killing food waste. But for Kenis, this benefit is offset by the high food miles and carbon footprint. 

Any sustainable, ecological crop alternative should not only aim to "produce toxic-free food," she says, but to nurture "rich biodiverse sites" that can both resist and mitigate climate change. 

Will climate change threaten food security?

Edited by: Jennifer Collins


"GMOS and Your Health," US Food and Drug Administration, July 2022," https://www.fda.gov/media/135280/download

"Green Revolution to Gene Revolution: Technological Advances in Agriculture to Feed the World," May 2022, https://www.mdpi.com/2223-7747/11/10/1297

"Explained: How engineered crops can fight climate change" https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/07/engineered-crops-can-fight-climate-change/

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.