Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Climate Change, GM Crops and Food Security

"Our partners in Europe have blocked all new bio-crops because of unfounded, unscientific fear" -- George Bush, 2003

Genetically modified foods (GM foods, or biotech foods) are foods that have specific changes introduced into their DNA by genetic engineering techniques. Generally, the aim of genetically modifying food is simple, either to make the food more marketable or make it easier to produce. So far America seems to be leading in the cultivation of GM crops as they are reported to have grown some 66.8m hectares of GM crops, even in 2010. GM technology has been enthusiastically embraced in the Americas and in many Asian countries. Same cannot be said of Europe, though, where many countries are subject to severe restrictions on growing GM crops. Developing countries are also moving quite fast with the cultivation of GM crops. Brazil, Argentina are embracing GM crops. In Africa, Burkina Faso and South Africa are the leaders in cultivation of GM crops. I am not writing to support or fight against the adoption of GM crops but I would like to provoke more thinking along climate change, GM foods and Food Security, especially in Africa. Should the continent just say “NO” to it or we need to look a little more closely?

African countries are particularly vulnerable to climate change because of their dependence on rainfed agriculture, high levels of poverty, low levels of human and physical capital, and poor infrastructure. The negative effects of climate change on crop/food production in Africa are well researched and documented. In Africa, agriculture sector accounts for a large share of GDP, export earnings, and employment. Many studies point to decline in yields of crops such as rice, wheat, and maize. Irrigation water supply reliability is expected to worsen in Sub-Saharan Africa due to climate change. Increasing temperature, low rainfall, altered rainfall patterns and even droughts, flooding, pests and diseases is likely to worsen Africa’s food security and the likelihood of having and an increase in the number of malnourished children on the continent. So, what is commonly heard on the lips of many African climate scientists is how to adapt to these changes. How can we continue to grow crops that can tolerate the changing climatic conditions, withstand pests and diseases and increases yield? If there are issues that should consider any African leader, these are!

When a continent is faced with such difficult future, one is likely to grasp at any offer that seems to address these big challenges of food security. One of such offers is Genetically Modified Crops. Two forms of stress resistance especially relevant to climate change are to drought and temperature and there are a number of studies which shows that genetic modifications to major crops such as corn and soybeans have increased their water-deficit tolerance. Enhanced resistance to pests and diseases, salinity and waterlogging, change in flowering times or enhanced responses to elevated carbon dioxide levels have all been demonstrated with GM crops.

There has been so many articles and debates on the advantages and disadvantages of GM crops or foods. When it comes to climate change, some of the argument in in support of GM crops are that through the use of low- and no-till farming methods, fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions can be decreased thanks to less tillage. In effect, GM crops can help farmers fight climate change in the following ways:

•Less fuel consumption on farms due to a reduced need to spray crops.

•Better carbon sequestration. With less tillage or ploughing, over time soil quality is enhanced and becomes carbon-enriched since more crop residue can be left on the fields. In addition, since the soil is not inverted by ploughing, less carbon in the soil will be released into the atmosphere.

•Reduced fertilizer use and N2O emissions. Nitrous oxide has a global warming potential 296 times greater than carbon dioxide. And it stays in the atmosphere for more than 100 years. These emissions can be limited by reduced fertilizer use, which will also mean less water pollution.

•For some crops, it is not cost-effective to remove weeds by physical means such as tilling, so farmers will often spray large quantities of different herbicides (weed-killer) to destroy weeds, a time-consuming and expensive process, that requires care so that the herbicide doesn't harm the crop plant or the environment. Crop plants genetically-engineered to be resistant to one very powerful herbicide could help prevent environmental damage by reducing the amount of herbicides needed.

•There are many viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant diseases. Plant biologists are working to create plants with genetically-engineered resistance to these diseases

In a report titled, GM crops: global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996–2010, UK-based PG Economics concluded, ‘crop biotechnology has contributed to significantly reducing the release of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices. This results from less fuel use and additional soil carbon storage from reduced tillage with GM crops. In 2010, this was equivalent to removing 19.4 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or equal to removing 8.6 million cars from the road for one year.’

But there are arguments against the adoption of GM crops too. Here are some of them:

•Changing plants may have lasting effects on other organisms in the ecosystem. The change in a plant may cause it to be toxic to an insect or animal that uses it as its main food source.

•Due to the widespread use of insect resistant genes in crops the insects may become resistant to the genetic modifications. This would cause a widespread loss of crops and plants that have the natural immunity leading to a loss in biodiversity.

•Breeding and cross pollination across unintended species could occur resulting in things such as insect resistant weeds.

•Genetic modification could cause allergies in humans due to gene modification of plants.

•Some studies have shown that it may affect the human digestive system in a number of ways. The incorporation of substances that may interact badly with one another in food or in fact be poisonous to people may happen. The modification of certain genes may make some plant substances difficult to digest at all.

•A major economical concern is that the control of world food sources may be limited to large companies because they own the GM seeds and have the money to start and finish the accreditation process.

•Genetic modification can also make it difficult to know what you are eating, as a plant could contain animals products via genetic engineering. This could cause issues for those with dietary restrictions and religious commitments.

These are samples of the arguments as I have presented them here. But where should Africa go? Technology is good for climate change adaptation. Why shouldn’t we go for it? If we go for it, are we ready for the negative consequences if they are true?

I believe the continent must tread carefully. Our leaders should commit resources into research that can be independently conducted to inform our position on whether to accept or not to accept GM foods and GM crops production.

"Let those with the luxury to choose whether to have red meat, white meat or whatever other colour meat not stand in the way of those who are simply asking to have a meal" -- Hon William Ruto, 2010


  1. Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular post!
    It is the little changes that produce the greatest changes.
    Many thanks for sharing!

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  2. Very good article. I will be facing a few of these issues as well.


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  3. Thanks for the comments
    - The author

  4. Very good write up.
    One of my major concerns is that in Ghana, most farmers are not able to buy farm inputs. If even they are able to buy them, they do not apply the right amount.
    Lucky, they save seeds year after year so seeds for planting are usually not a problem.
    Will farmers be able to buy seeds year after year since most GM seeds are terminating? Will the seeds be affordable and easily accessible?
    The debate continues

  5. Thought provoking article. Our own CSIR, agricultural extension workers and farmers have been researching on and undertaking genetic modification of crops and animals for ages (for example through cross breeding). However, when arguments on GM are made in Africa, there is usually reference to it as an imported concept.




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