Genetically modified food has a role to play in addressing the impending climate-related food crisis

The food riots that hit Indonesia last month and drew 10,000 angry protestors onto the streets of Jakarta offer a flavour of the trouble in store for governments and companies over the coming years.

Indonesians have been outraged at soaring soya bean prices, which have risen almost 90 per cent over the past year. The rises have occurred in part because of shortages in global soya markets as farmers in the US and Latin America shift production into crops for biofuels.

Concerns about biofuels eating up valuable agricultural land are by now well known. But as a longer-term pressure, climate change could have an even more devastating impact on food supply. It is one that could lead to further riots in Indonesia, and beyond.

Climate change will cause a net drop in food production. Yes, there may be grapes in Greenland, but farmers in vast swathes of the global south will face tougher conditions. Food growing capacity in India is set to drop by almost 40 per cent by 2080 compared with current levels; and developing countries as a whole will experience a net loss in food production of more than 20 per cent, according to a 2007 study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics in the US.

Faced with the emerging food crisis, made worse by a rising global population, policymakers have a duty to look at all possible options. That includes an unlikely and often vilified candidate – genetically modified crops.

How green is GM?

Biotechnology companies can help answer the climate-related food crisis in three ways: reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with farming; developing crops better able to withstand extreme weather brought about by global warming; and making biofuels production more efficient.

Agriculture already accounts for 17 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. GM crops can offer some modest cuts to farming’s carbon footprint with non-till varieties of food and feed that do not require ploughing, meaning that more carbon is kept – or sequestered – in the soil.

And there is potential for engineering new crops that require less fertiliser. Swiss biotech firm Arcadia Biosciences is developing a strain of rice that grows with less nitrogen fertiliser – which is made from natural gas and releases nitrous oxide, a gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Arcadia wants Chinese farmers to be able to earn carbon credits for the reduced-fertiliser crop, which it hopes to launch by 2012.

Another area where GM technology can help is developing crops with traits to resist extreme weather that will become more frequent because of a changing climate. GM crops cannot make rain fall, but drought-resistant crops could play a vital role in helping farmers in water-stressed areas, according to the World Bank-funded Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR).

A third way that GM crops can address climate change is through their use as biofuels. Biotech firms are cashing in on the biofuels boom, aided by US government subsidies and European Union targets to increase the use of biofuels in transport. The industry claims it can boost yields for these crops, helping to avoid an “acreage battle” between land for food and land for fuel. But like so much about GM, this claim remains hotly contested.

And here is the real problem. No conclusive evidence that GM crops are unsafe or bad for the environment exists. Critics argue GM “techno-fixes” are an overly expensive way of addressing food shortages. They point to studies showing that GM crops have disastrous environmental impacts, such as biodiversity loss and more, not less, use of herbicides. But every one of their claims is disputed by the industry.

What is desperately needed is clear-eyed, objective research on where GM crops can be most effective in making sure food supply is not just plentiful, but sustainable. To this end, inventions such as low fertiliser rice or drought-resistant crops are exciting developments. These experiments should be encouraged.

Here the CGIAR can offer a guide. The network announced in December that it would double its annual climate change research budget from $70 million to $140 million. Part of this work, it says, will cover “breeding seeds for stress tolerance”. CGIAR’s gene bank holds samples of 530,000 seeds in public trust. Three per cent of its research is currently devoted to GM technology.

That may not sound much. Certainly, it is not as high a percentage as Monsanto and its peers would like. But it also suggests a reasonable tolerance of biotechnology from scientists that goes way beyond that of many anti-GM campaigners. Clearly, GM alone cannot solve the world’s emerging food crisis. But there could be areas where GM crops can step in where conventional breeding techniques have so far failed.

Biotech firms too should start producing their own, independently assessed climate change reports. The potential benefits of GM in combating global warming, if verified, could mark the start of its rehabilitation in the eyes of the general public. Climate change concerns have already made the UK government rethink its policy on nuclear power. In time, it and other European lawmakers may have to reconsider their stance on GM.

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