It’s a familiar refrain at this point: the planet is heating up, weather is getting weird, and the human population is growing. How can we feed billions of people at a time when food systems are being disrupted by droughts, extreme heat, bitter cold, and other unpredictable weather events?
The London School of Economics argues that genetically modified crops could be the answer. Feeding the Planet in a Warming World, a new report from the school along with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, offers a handful of solutions to bring about agricultural resilience, including more public investment in agricultural innovation. But perhaps the most controversial is a call to make crops themselves more resilient–something that can be achieved most easily with increased genetic modification efforts and loosened regulations.
From the report, a justification for GMOs:
The projected growth in human population means that in order to maintain the status quo, agriculture will have to produce more food over the next 40 years than the combined total of all food produced from the dawn of agriculture to the present day. Adding to this monumental task, climate change is increasing the severity and volatility of weather patterns and environmental constraints around the world. Increasing crop productivity isn’t enough. Building climate resilient agriculture in addition to doubling crop productivity is one of the chief social, economic, and technological challenges of our time.
How can GMOs help? The report references GMO crops currently in development that produce higher yields with less water, like a new Monsanto corn crop that can be produced with 30% less water than traditional crops. Monsanto is also working on a drought-tolerant . Better agronomic practices, like precision irrigation and pest control, are helpful, according to the report, but just to a point: They “cannot deliver enough productivity enhancement to meet the anticipated need.”
This is not as cut and dry as it seems. There is, of course, a large anti-GMO lobby that can recite a long list of reasons why GMOs aren’t the solution. They often require lots of herbicides (superweeds are popping up as a result of weedkillers used on GMO herbicide-tolerant crops), and just a handful of big companies like Monsanto and Bayer control the whole market. Any potential health risks are still up for debate.
The London School of Economics report brushes these risks aside:
A cautious research, regulatory, and policymaking approach was appropriate during the dawn of modern biotechnology. Since then, researchers, regulators, and policymakers have accrued a vast body of experience in the United States and around the world. Humans and livestock have consumed billions of meals without a single case of harm attributable to the biotechnology-derived nature of the material consumed.
As for those herbicide-resistant crops that are breeding superweeds?
Herbicides–chemicals that kill weeds–have been a huge and widely beneficial advance in agronomic practice. It has largely replaced backbreaking hand-weeding and plowing that is massively disruptive to soil microbial ecosystems. Instead, no-till methods of weed control bring numerous environmental, stewardship, and ergonomic benefits.
The report makes some fair points. In particular, regulatory hurdles are making it difficult for rapid agricultural innovation to flourish and that policymakers need to make a concerted effort to push innovations through. GMOs might just be necessary to ensure a future where everyone (or almost everyone) has enough food to eat. But we need to ensure that in our haste to fix the planet’s food problems that we don’t inadvertently create new health and environmental problems–and hand over the entire agriculture industry to a select few companies.