The Challenge of Global Food Security: Could Agricultural Biotechnology (GMOs) be the Sustainable Solution that Feeds the Future?

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Genetically Engineered crops also known as GMO’s are safe to eat and do not harm the environment according to recent analysis that made headlines by the advisory group U.S National Academies of Sciences.  The debate about this technology known as agricultural biotechnology is about the safety characteristics of these genetically modified (GM) crops, their long term health and environmental implications; so far the debate has stemmed up fear, mistrust and general confusion among the public. 

The challenge of global food security requires a solution and this new agricultural technology is one that is already moving at a fast pace as a solution that is set to feed future generations if globally accepted. With over 40 million biotech hectares in the U.S alone and more than 200 million hectares internationally, the presence of biotechnology is expanding worldwide. In the U.S 80% of what you find in your groceries and supermarket in the U.S is processed through GE. Biotechnology is a targeted and precise use of genetic information  to improve the plant to thrive more effectively in nature . Essentially changing the DNA and putting new code to make the plant, drought and insect resistance to thrive in the environment more effectively. 

The recent report about GMO’s being safe, made headlines on all major news platforms due to the fact that as much as biotechnology is a new agricultural technology that is aimed to “improve” agricultural systems, it has been highly criticized and banned from several countries such as some African and European countries making it equally a highly political matter that has many stakeholders in ransom. In addition, this is a time for international development where countries are equally trying to decide how to put regulations in place to accommodate this new technology into their agricultural economy,  in the U.S a time where regulatory bodies are currently reviewing how it further regulates biotech and when the congress is looking to make the “Global Food Security Act 2016 ” into a law, a bill that is derived from the very significant program that strongly applies biotechnology  through the Obama’s administration’s initiative- Feed the Future. Last year, Feed the Future assistance  is said to have reached nearly 19 million households, and helped nearly 7 million farmers gain access to new – and what they call climate-smart – tools or technologies such as high-yielding seeds or improved seed, water management and other technologies. This initiative is led by the USAID as the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative using it as a foundation for lasting progress against global hunger.  Most “climate-smart technologies” or what is referred to as “improved seeds” are similarly the biotech solutions this initiative is implementing. For several like countries or farmers  who are anti-GMO, the widespread of biotechnology remains very worrisome. 

The sustainable development goals of achieving zero hunger, mitigating climate change and eradicating poverty are drivers for looking into new agricultural technologies. The challenge of global food security is amplified by the convergence of several factors such as poverty issues, malnutrition, population threats, economic and political instability patterns, climate change, water scarcity and more. 

The debate of biotechnology  reflects a discussion happening across the world from the African continent to Europe and Asia about the best ways to feed 9 billion people by 2050 while also preserving the planet for future generations. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), by 2050 we face a global challenge of producing 60% more food than what we are currently producing. The challenge is most prominent today in developing countries that are food insecure due to factors such as drought from climate change like what is currently happening in Ethiopia.  How might farmers in these regions enhance their productivity and increase their resilience to climate change without compromising the health of their land? How might big biotech companies like Monsanto play a role without being blinded by immediate gains that might prohibit sustainability in the long-run?

These are questions central to conversations happening that involves many huge stakeholders paramount to deciding how the future is to be fed with biotech as a solution coming together in the name of global food security.  The strong partnerships draw on the strengths of agencies across the U.S. Government and leveraging resources and efforts with multilateral organizations, NGOs, the private sector, research institutions and other stakeholders to accelerate inclusive agricultural growth.

To delve further, I wanted to find a classic example of a successfully implemented biotech project and understand what this implies for population that are food insecure and examine what the justifications are for why biotech could be indeed a sustainable solution that can feed the future? 

In finding a good example of a classic implication of how biotech solution is being carried out, it was helpful to look into what projects are being implemented in regions that are  food insecure; it is important to note that not all countries in the African continent suffer from food insecurity but just like in Europe or Asia where flooding as a result of climate change poses as a threat to food security so does drought pose as a threat to food security in desert lands in Africa. The current drought situation affects  smallholder farmers, leaving more than 18 million relying on food handouts. 

Biotechnology as a solution to food security means that resources are being pulled by several of these partnerships in form of programs and initiatives to implement biotech internationally; Between developing and under-developed nations, but also between governments especially with the US which has technical expertise a lot of countries lack and other private sectors.

In my interview with a U.S State Department Presidential Management Fellow at the Office of Agricultural Policy, Zachary Blackburn who is also an avid advocate of agricultural biotech solution, he mentioned that a major ongoing biotech project best to look into  which has a lot of partners involved and is being funded with over 47 million by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the “Water Efficient Maize for Africa” also known as the WEMA Project. 

Five African countries have come together as partners to address the food insecurity challenge in their own nations; . Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda came together with other Public-Private Partners under a project called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA).     Dennis Kyetere,The Executive Director of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) which is coordinating as a public-private partnership the WEMA Project, said in our brief interview that the project allows for both conventional hybrids of maize as well as transgenic hybrids which has protection traits that is capable of boosting maize by 30%. The project develops these drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize using conventional breeding, marker-assisted breeding, and biotechnology, with a goal to make these varieties available royalty-free to smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa through African seed companies.  Safety  and benefits of the maize varieties is assessed by national authorities according to the regulatory requirements in the five partner countries which he says show commitment to use the technology; requesting that it will be good for more partner countries to come on board. He further explained that biotech maize is like any other maize in the market and has no health risks associated with it , he says what is important is that there is proper stewardship and good management practices when using the seed. “Drought TEGO” is the brand name WEMA uses in public varieties to differentiate it from other seeds, he says due to the benefit of this technology-Kenya is getting four and half tons of yield on average compared to one ton. He said contributing to solving the problem, the GMO option increases the choices on the market for farmers to increase yield.   

Monsanto, the famous big seed company ruling the biotech industry and has carried a negative reputation in the eyes of anti-GMO’s groups is equally involved. Rather than going by assumptions of how involved they are, I spoke with their Director for the WEMA Partnership, Mark Edge who oversees everybody involved from Monsanto’s end. He described the project as a hallmark project which brings in USDA requirements of five different countries and figures out how to bring better seeds to smallholders farmers. The goal he said is to get improved seeds in the hands of smallholder farmers in Africa; over $47 million dollars have been put into this project with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation being the biggest funder. The aim of the WEMA project he says is targeted to feed about 12-14 million people and pull women and youth out of poverty; he said 80% of smallholder farmers are women and WEMA’s biotech solution brings economic development to them because they are able to increase productivity which means food on their table and also sell their yields to have school-fees money to give their children (the youth) needed education. These are the sort of implications he said that comes from biotech as a sustainable solution. Monsanto isn’t driving the whole project he admitted but they are the partner providing the technology for this project. “Biotechnology should not been seen as the silver bullet that will solve the food security challenge in Africa but is one of the viable solutions” he said. 

The Feed the Future Initiative led by the The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is a strong reason why the USAID equally plays a role in driving the WEMA project forward. Rob Bectram whom I further interviewed to learn more about WEMA project, is the Chief Scientist in USAID’s Bureau for Food Security, where he serves as a key adviser on a range of technical and program issues to advance global food security and nutrition. In this role, he leads USAID’s evidence-based efforts to advance research, technology and implementation in support of the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative. He described this as a beautiful example of the coming of age science resulting from global research partnerships in helping these five countries adapt to change in climate where drought is already a problem saying the thing about climate change – is that there will be less assured seasonality of rainfall and things like drought will be frequent and risk for farmers will be increasing making these technologies the solution that will reduce that risk  in terms of tolerance and insect attack on the crops; so WEMA is a great example of country led partnership, African owned and African stewardship who depend on and bringing the benefits of cutting edge science to Africa an small holders who depend on maize for survival – their family incomes, family food security and overall wellbeing. 

The idea that partner countries prioritize food security as well to be sustainable establishes a sense of ownership which is critical in something like Agricultural technologies of all kinds including biotech, he said. Emphasizing that they need to own these investments and become investors themselves, take steps with the U.S to energize their own private sector trade and value chain. Mr. Bectram stated that from the USAID’s perspective, their aim is to see science of all kinds as an important tool that will improve Agricultural productivity and adaptation to climate change. Reduced risks, he said- in agric systems comes from improvements in things like crop varieties, disease and pest resistance, vaccines for livestock and much more. These are the things we take for granted in the West because we have strong public and private institutions investing but in the part of the world suffering from chronic extreme hunger and food security, these kinds of investments are not there. USAID’s partnerships are with some of the best science available from U.S Universities, private sectors, international organizations- to leverage new technological solutions like biotech will play a massive role in helping farmers increase productivity, reduce risk and as well ensure security  that will feed the future. If the Global Food Security Act 2016 bill is made into a law, Bectram says that it is an acknowledgement that what they are doing is working indicating that, that will mean more funding and resources that will sustain their efforts as well as the recognition for the approaches they are taking which is making solid progress in terms of reducing extreme poverty and reducing child stunting as a marker for chronic food insecurity. 

The benefit of yields are still in question with GMOs as research struggles to admit that long term yields are the sustainable outcomes from biotech;  major Public-Private Partnerships such as the U.S. government in its Feed the Future initiative or the WEMA Project identify biotechnology as an important tool to overcome the production challenges of global food security which they fear that traditional breeding alone cannot address. While Agricultural biotechnology is a new agric technology seen as a solution that can increase yield and at the same time save generations from hunger and poverty, can we truly embrace it and should we still be on the debate of if biotechnology is indeed needed or should we shift our focus to understanding how biotechnology can be promoted, supported and applied in more safe and sustainable ways? Could it be the solution that will feed the future or could it be the beginning of a new biodiversity problem that the future will be left to deal with?

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