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Could GMOs Increase Global Food Security in a Changing Climate?

While there are still unknowns regarding the long-term ecosystem impacts of genetically modified crops, their potential benefits merit another look before climate change takes an irreversible toll on our food system.

Thanks to our now-globalized food system, many of us in the Western world take for granted that we can stroll into a supermarket and purchase anything from asparagus to cinnamon rolls to chocolate-flavored beer — all of which seem to be available all the time.

But for this to continue to be possible, we need a stable climate — which humans have been lucky enough to have had for the last 12,000 years or so. Unfortunately, we have entered the Anthropocene — an era in which we now face the many repercussions of centuries of climate-destabilizing industrial activities.

Can science rescue our food?

Many food crops can only grow under certain climate conditions, which means too little or too much heat or rainfall can spoil entire harvests. So far in 2024, record-breaking floods and heatwaves have devastated parts of the United States, Europe, Asia and Brazil. Oddly enough, droughts are also becoming more commonplace — adding the potential for a drop in crop yields and a boost in food prices across the globe.

A possible solution is to genetically modify crops to make them more resistant to these ever-increasing climate shocks. Genetically modified foods, also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), have long been the subject of controversy as many consumers fear they may have negative effects on human health. But over 100 research studies by everyone from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization, have found that such fears are widely unfounded and that genetically modified foods are safe for consumers.

As Karen Massel, research fellow for the University of Queensland’s Centre for Crop Science, expressed in The Conversation in 2023: “There’s no reason to suggest tweaking the gene sequences [of many plants and animals we eat] will make consumption harmful. Moreover, there’s currently no evidence regulator-approved GMOs or gene-edited foods aren’t safe for human consumption.”

Genetically modified food comes from plants whose DNA has been changed by scientists with the goal of creating desired traits. This can mean adding just one gene from another plant that is closely related.

GM crops can be engineered to be more resistant to droughts in comparison to conventional crops, by making them strong enough to flourish with a fraction of the water required by non-GMO crops. They can also be made to resist pests and diseases — which could greatly reduce the need for toxic, environmentally damaging pesticides.

With regards to excess rain, an international collaboration that included researchers from Argentina’s National University of La Plata and The NetherlandsUtrecht University — funded by the National Science Foundation’s Plant Genome Research Program — found that some crops can also be genetically modified to resist the floods, which are also becoming more ubiquitous throughout the globe.

GMOs and land use

Apart from being able to flourish even under increasingly erratic climate conditions, there’s evidence to suggest genetically modified food crops could also potentially help mitigate the environmental impact of food production.

About 31 percent of all the human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are from food production, much of which is in the form of land use. Since conventional crops do not always survive until harvest, more land must be used to produce more crops — which often means more carbon-storing forests are destroyed to make room for more food crops. But some studies suggest genetically modified crops also produce higher yields — which translates to the need for less land when compared to non-genetically modified crops, potentially freeing up space for the replanting of trees that sequester carbon, provide habitats for wildlife and produce oxygen.

Potential ripple effects for biodiversity

Although it appears GM crops have several significant, potential benefits, they also have the potential to create unintended domino effects for natural ecosystems — such as stimulating the growth of herbicide-tolerant weeds — in the long term. GM crops have also been associated with a net increase in the use of herbicides in some crops in certain parts of the world.

Genetic modification has also been shown to negatively impact non-target organisms, as well as soil and water ecosystems. In one example, corn and soy genetically modified to resist herbicides in North America resulted in the destruction of wide swaths of habitat of the monarch butterfly — a critical pollinator: While the corn and soy flourished, herbicides killed off non-resistant plants between rows of GM crops — including milkweed, a plant on which monarchs exclusively rely for food and for laying their eggs — illustrating the type of unintended consequences to ecosystem health we risk with genetic modification.

A holistic, climate-stable approach to food production

However we proceed, it’s clear we must learn on the fly — as our rapidly changing climate presents an ever more pressing threat to both human health and the health of our global food supply.

Even the University of Queensland’s Karen Massel, who advocates for scaling the use of GM food crops, admits that “there are valid concerns” including “unintended consequences for ecosystems” — adding that “the development of future foods must be guided by a commitment to sustainability, social justice and scientific rigor.”

While there are still many unknowns regarding the long-term impacts of GMOs, their potential benefits merit another look before climate change takes an irreversible toll on our food system.