Line 4Line 4 Copyic/close/grey600play_circle_outline - material


In your opinion, are GMO essential for worldwide food security not just the U.S.?

Submitted by: Thomas_Paine07650


Expert response from Rob Bertram

Chief Scientist in USAID’s Bureau for Food Security

Monday, 17/08/2015 17:03

This is the most asked question about the use of GMOs, or genetically engineered (GE) crops, in international development; however, it is a loaded one that cannot be answered “yes or no” without consideration of related factors. 


First off, “what” is considered a GE crop or GMO is becoming fuzzier by the year. While the last twenty years of commercialization have focused on GE crops with gene insertions that, in turn, create new proteins and give plants beneficial characteristics, new gene editing technologies are making the situation more complex. Targeted gene editing, gene silencing, or mutations more closely mimic processes that nature itself uses to “modify” plant genomes. Whether these are considered extensions of “conventional” plant breeding or another form of genetic engineering is the topic of much current debate, especially as there may be no way to discern these varieties from the “conventionally” bred varieties. Without knowing yet what future technical approaches will be used to generate new crop varieties, answering whether GE crops are essential for global food security becomes quite a challenge.


Second, the impact of first-generation GE crops (especially those with insect resistance traits) has been starkly different in places with access to high-quality chemical inputs vs. those without. In the developed world and parts of China and India, GE crops have enabled farmers to reduce the use of agrochemicals and have largely been a net cost-saving technology (balancing increased cost of seed with reduced cost of labor and other inputs). They have also enabled a revolution in terms of “no-till” systems, reducing energy usage and erosion and enhancing soil health and organic matter.  In the developing world, for example in India, the Philippines and Burkina Faso, the yield impact has generally been more significant, through productivity increases that were unavailable without reliable access to other high quality inputs by smallholders.


Third, the impacts of climate change in driving the need for technological innovation cannot be understated. Accelerating changes in precipitation, temperature, seasonality, and pest/disease pressure have compelled farmers to rapidly adapt their farming operations. While farmers may adapt by shifting production to different crops, this is often the most challenging approach to adaptation due to cultural preference and the crop specific value chains that have been developed. That leaves farmers with a need to adapt to climate change using a combination of better varieties and better agronomic management practices. On improved varieties, while conventional breeding continues to deliver incremental gains in productivity and climate resilience, GE technology gives researchers tools to make significant and more rapid “step changes” than would be otherwise possible. In some instances, they can offer solutions when no other good options are available. The emerging epidemic of cassava brown streak disease is a good example where no existing source of resistance has been identified in the cassava genepool, yet the crop is a staple in large regions of Africa and there are disease resistant GE varieties in the pipeline. 


Considering these factors, will GE crops be essential for global food security? At this time, yes, especially in major staples and to address intractable problems. Their potential contributions become even more compelling when the link between on-farm agricultural productivity gains and conservation of tropical forests and other key habitats is considered.  Sustaining and increasing crop productivity helps reduce pressures driving agricultural expansion, which unchecked can lead to loss of biodiversity, watersheds and coastal environments, as well as the environmental services they provide.  GE crops have been one of the most rapidly adopted agricultural technologies in history for a reason: there is a clear, compelling and immediate benefit to farmers that improves their bottom-line. If the 18 million farmers in the world believed they could accomplish this same goal using other approaches, we would not have seen two decades of growth in GE crop adoption, plain and simple.