Biotechnology and food security.

Author:Zilberman, David
Position:Transformative Solutions - Report

Genetically engineered (GE) foods apply new molecular technologies to agriculture. Widely adopted in the United States, Brazil, and Argentina for the production of com, soybeans, and cotton, they are practically banned in Europe and tightly regulated throughout the world. We have found that GE foods have significantly increased supplies of corn, soybean, and cotton, and lowered their prices, thus improving food security. GE foods have already contributed to a reduction in the use of pesticides and emissions of greenhouse gases. We show that expanded adoption of GE foods can further enhance food security and adaptation to climate change. Sound redesign of regulation will increase investment in GE varieties and help to allow development of new traits that will further improve human welfare.


The global human population has increased sevenfold from one billion to seven billion people since 1850. At the same time, food availability per capita has increased and the amount of land area used for farming has tripled, but farming captures a smaller share of the global workforce. (1) Gradual agricultural production intensification through increased reliance on the use of synthetic inputs like fertilizer and pesticides and the increased use of irrigation have led to these trends. (2) Yet, despite the abundance produced by modern agriculture, a large percentage of the global population remains vulnerable to food shortages. (3)

There are a variety of reasons for food shortages, ranging from effects from weather to economic and political shocks, all of which pose risks of potential malnourishment and starvation to populations. (4) The combined trends of population growth and increases in income will cause unprecedented increases in food demand that will challenge agricultural production. (6) Additionally, the transition away from non-renewable fuels and other sources of non-renewable raw materials may challenge agriculture to expand its range of production to include products such as biofuel and biochemicals as sources of fuel. (7)

In order to meet these challenges, society needs to establish the institutions and research capacity necessary to reduce reliance on petrochemicals. Such capacity can be achieved through the formation of a bioeconomy in which agricultural and renewable resource production provide fuel and fine chemicals. (8) One aspect that is emphasized here is the crucial role of agricultural biotechnology, especially in the context of food security. Through research and innovation, agriculture is undergoing processes of improved adaptation, with the aim of increasing productivity while reducing the environmental side effects of production. While the use of biotechnology is controversial, we will argue that these tools have already improved the global food situation by increasing supply and reducing prices. Furthermore, policy reforms that avoid banning these technologies, weigh the risks and benefits of regulating these new technologies, and further invest in research can contribute to expanding the food supply for global populations.

The first section of this paper will define and address the challenge of food security in the context of sustainable development. The second section will provide an overview of agricultural biotechnology and its accomplishments thus far. The third section will address some of the impacts of genetic engineering (GE) technology on resources, health, and the environment. This will be followed by a discussion of policy reforms that can improve GE utilization in the future and recommendations for next steps.


Two of the major objectives of resource policy design are to enhance food security and pursue sustainable development. The best way to look at food security is through a reduction in food insecurity, which is the probability that individuals will suffer a negative outcome due to a lack of available food. (9) Food security can be increased in two ways: by enhancing productivity and increasing access to food for individuals. (10) The enhancement of productivity leads to increased overall food supply, thus reducing food prices. Productivity is especially important in areas not well-linked to the global food supply chain. Many of these regions do not have the ability to import food commodities, and thus depend primarily on their own production. Insufficient road infrastructure tends to increase the price of imported inputs like fertilizer and reduce access to food during food supply crises. (11) Improving access to food can be achieved by building proper infrastructure, including roads and airports. It can also be achieved through institutions, e.g., by establishing insurance schemes or emergency relief programs. (12)

However, recent research suggests that a proper definition of food security has multiple dimensions: it is not only the provision of more food, but the provision of healthier food that includes vitamins and micronutrients. Biotechnology can enhance the quality of food by introducing micronutrients like vitamins and beta-carotene into food, and can increase the overall productivity, affordability, and quality of food. (13) Quality has already been enhanced to a large extent with certain commodities, but as we argue later, biotechnology has the potential to provide a means of production to vulnerable populations to facilitate an increase in food productivity under adverse conditions and poor states of nature. (14)

Biotechnology plays a large part in the pursuit of sustainable development. (15) Sustainable development aims to maximize human well-being over time, subject to environmental constraints. (16) Policies promoting sustainable development recognize the long-term environmental costs of production activities, and attempt to control and reduce them. Sustainable development addresses the vulnerability associated with dependence on non-renewable resources, while emphasizing the need for adaptation. (17) The notion of sustainable development has to be considered within a dynamic environment where evolution occurs, with organisms adapting to changes in external conditions. Human activities affect natural evolution, and creators of sustainable development policies have to recognize this coevolution in the design of those policies.

One particular source of environmental concern is climate change, which may become a major cause of food insecurity. (18) As climate change occurs, agricultural productivity in certain regions will decline, especially in regions closer to the equator, while regions closer to the poles will see productivity increase. (19) As a consequence, those regions undergoing productivity losses due to climate change may suffer from high food insecurity, which is especially troubling given that many countries in this region are already food insecure. (20)

Adaptation to climate change should include several elements: mitigation that reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, thus slowing climate change; innovation and development of new technologies; adoption and adaptation of existing technologies and crop systems in new locations; improved trade; and immigration. (21) Biotechnology plays a crucial role in the development of new technologies and local adaptation to change. The challenge in the development of a new technology is the time it takes to introduce it, but biotechnology can accelerate the development of new products, as well as the modification of crop systems. (22)


Agricultural biotechnology applies the tools of modern molecular and cellular biology to agricultural production--results of the breakthrough knowledge obtained by the discovery of the genome and DNA in the 1950s. One of the consequences has been the development of GE. For example, the new set of tools developed as a result of these discoveries has been utilized intensively in medication, with many modern medicines being GE pharmaceuticals. In addition...

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