The future of sustainable global food supply: Is GMO an option?

by Isaac Gyamfi (ELP 2017) | Regional Director, Solidaridad, Ghana

Increasingly, the debate on how the world would provide food, feed, fibre and energy to meet its growing populations continues to take centre stage in the development space. It is estimated that global population would reach 9 billion from the estimated current figure of 7.8 billion by 2050. Countries that currently host the highest world population have no arable land bank to respond to its own growing food, feed, fibre and energy (bio-energy) demands. China has 20% of the present world’s population, yet only has 7% of the arable land available for agriculture. Africa is tipped by many to eventually become the hub of global food production, on the basis of good reforms to address its own internal challenges (e.g. demographics, infrastructure, agriculture and good governance/leadership). Africa is the only continent with the largest share of estimated arable land —64%. Given the obvious impacts of climate change and its worsening potential in the tropics, limited lands in Africa may ultimately become useable for agricultural production. Thus, future efforts to feed, clothe and provide non-fossil based energy for the world may have to be solved through a revolutionized agricultural production technologies among others that meet all sustainability criteria. One such technology that continues to gain so much momentum is genetically modified organism (GMO) crops. Can this address future food supply needs in a sustainable manner? The subject still engages the attention of environmentalist, economists, development practitioners and nutritionists.

A focus on the developments in the soy sector globally can help in analysing the sustainability litmus test of GMO as an option in meeting the enormous future agricultural production needs of the world. What weight does GM carry and what role does it play within the soy sector? What is its meaning as a strategy for making the sector more sustainable?

The statistics indicate that in 2007, 91% of soy production in the United States happened on the basis of a genetically modified herbicide tolerant soy varieties. The figure for Brazil is 63% and for Argentina it is 99%. With this, over 70% of the global production of soy is GM. That is a reality. Any discourse focussed on sustainability will have to take this reality as a starting point, whilst modelling whether conventional varieties would have been more or equally sustainable.

Sustainability has been defined from three dimensions: economic, social and ecological. Product quality is no longer only the physical quality but intrinsically has to fulfil all three sustainability dimensions. Some industry actors refer to it as total quality (TQ) – ensuring responsible labour conditions, a healthy workplace, controlled use of pesticides and equal rights and opportunities (includes fair incomes) for men and women.

The environmental agenda is about the protection of the quality of soil and water, integrated crop management, non-use of damaging pesticides, protection of high conservation value (HCV) areas, adaption and mitigation of climate change impacts. Expansion of agricultural production can only occur on the basis of proven land rights, rehabilitation, intensification and use of fallow lands with low carbon emissions.

A well-informed debate must be based on shared information and knowledge. There are scientific publications in which claims about GMO soy have been analysed. The publications are available. These pieces of research give us a more nuanced image of a number of contested issues to mention a few. Among them are: - GM soy is not the critical factor in the increasing scale of soy production. - There is no evidence that GM soy has reduced the genetic diversity of soy. - GM soy cultivation is no threat to the GM-free soy production, if precaution is taken. - The question whether GM soy facilitates monoculture remains unanswered. It is certainly not the only driver. - GM soy has contributed to increased adoption of zero-till systems that conserve soil carbon, prevent erosion and reduce fuel usage by farm machinery and increased farmer profitability. - GM soy productivity is not structurally higher than that of conventional soy. - GM soy can encourage the expansion of natural areas. - GM soy leads to a strong change in the type of herbicide used and reduced pesticide/ herbicide use.

The two recent research studies referred concludes similarly in terms of productivity, but shows a decrease of the production costs by which the income increase for the producers raises substantially (economic dimension of sustainability) by 68%. Besides, the study indicates that there is indeed a decreased use of herbicides and insecticides (ecological dimension of sustainability). The social acceptability of GMO soy globally cannot be questioned (social dimension of sustainability). For instance, China’s animal feed industry uses over 80% of the 65% of its share of global soy imports. The Netherlands annually imports 8.2 million tons of soy. Over 90% of that is GMO soy. Farmers feed their livestock with this soy. The meat is subsequently exported or consumed as well as the associated dairy products. This factual behaviour legitimates GMO. I suspect that the GMO discussion should mainly be a discussion on the level of impacts. Does a similar technique contribute to the sustainability of agricultural production: yes or no? And is this contribution substantially better than that of other improvement techniques or agricultural systems in terms of total volumes produced and not small plot level total productivity of a system?

The facts discussed shows that an ideological or ethical rejection of GMO won’t take the world very far. Steering the research agenda seems to be the most important issue. I think privately driven technological research serves private interests; societally driven technological research serves public interests. The public interest is huge. We are facing an enormous challenge: 9 billion people in 2050 have a right to a balanced food basket.

Which agricultural systems do we need? It is certain that we are near the availability limits of land and natural resources considering competing claims for food, feed, fibre, fuel and forest. For example, we are facing scarcity with water. A part of the cultivation will have to be intensified. New technologies can contribute. Within a broad scale of technological possibilities, the opportunities that modified crops afford cannot be left out of consideration. There is a possibility that modified crops might be better resistant to external stress factors such as salty soils, drought or even waterlogging or might have specific characteristics that are health improving. However the world is yet to see African governments clear policy pathways in the integration of GM crops or otherwise into agricultural development agendas. Thus agro-ecological farming systems would continue as a farming systems option. As to whether a paradigm shift to this as the sole approach through another agricultural revolution would be a good discourse to pursue. GM would continue to be an option as we face enormous climate crisis and its attendant food production challenges within the context of an exponential world population growth.

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