Fresh cob of ripe corn on green field at sunset

The Role of Biotech Crops to Address Food Security

Chantel Arendse
Lead: Plant Biotechnology

Feeding the world sustainably continues to be a mammoth task. The expectation is that global food production will need to rapidly accelerate to produce 70% more food (FAO) by 2050 to feed the estimated population of then 9 billion people.

To meet these pressing food security needs, producers will have to grow more food responsibly while reducing the footprint of agricultural production. With the hard-hitting reality of climate change firmly upon us, natural disasters such as droughts and floods and unpredictable weather patterns have become more common, making it even more challenging to produce more food.

While there is no single food production technology capable of feeding the world on its own, sustainable innovations in plant science – both in plant biotech and crop protection – can make a significant impact. The last 20+ years have clearly demonstrated that biotech crops have a role to play and should be part of the global strategy to improve food security. Here are just some of the ways that biotech crops are contributing to address the food security challenge by helping farmers to adapt and become more resilient at improving production efficiencies.

Producing more with less
With over 24 years of global adoption, plant biotech crops have led to the additional production of 278 million tonnes of soybeans, 498 million tonnes of maize, 32.6 million tonnes of cotton lint and 14 million tonnes of canola. This accumulated increase in crop productivity (1996-2018) has resulted in economic benefits to 18 million farmers globally, 95% of whom are smallholder farmers from developing countries (ISAAA).

Production efficiencies with the use of biotech seeds have been achieved without the need for additional land, thereby reducing deforestation and conserving biodiversity. Various studies have also documented that biotech crops provide on average a 22% yield advantage over conventional crops. This is true for biotech maize as well, providing yield advantages ranging between 5% to 25% compared to conventional maize varieties, making plant biotech an important consideration for food insecure regions or countries where maize is a staple crop. This clearly demonstrates that keeping up with global food demands will require that every hectare of cultivated land exceeds production expectations.

Mitigating the impacts of climate change
Climate change means erratic weather and natural disasters threaten to make large tracts of agricultural land unproductive, impacting the severity of food security and hunger. One of the ways in which biotech crops are helping to mitigate climate stress is through drought tolerant crops that are able to maintain crop yields with less water, as well as preserve crop productivity in times of drought.

A good example of how biotech drought tolerant varieties are making an impact on the African continent is the TELA maize project. This is a public-private partnership, led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and aimed at commercialising drought tolerant and insect resistant biotech maize varieties to farmers in several African countries that are prone to annual maize crop losses due to drought.

The benefits of drought tolerant maize is already a reality for producers in South Africa following its commercial release in 2016. In addition to drought mitigation, various biotech crops are in the pipeline to address other related abiotic stresses such as salt tolerance, cold tolerance, heat stress and nitrogen fixation.

When these biotech crop adaptation strategies become available, they will further enhance the efficiency of food production under climatic stress conditions, thereby reducing the impact on rural livelihoods and food production.

Fighting pests to reduce crop losses
Farmers worldwide have always been on the frontline to protect their crops from pests, which, if left unchecked, could lead to total decimation of harvests, reduced yields and also negatively impact the quality and safety of foods. Studies have found that the rise in temperature due to global warming could increase pest pressure as well as change their migration patterns, posing an even greater threat to global crop production.

Due to superior performance and benefits, the most widely adopted biotech traits to date continues to be insect resistance and herbicide tolerant traits. By providing effective control of weeds, herbicide tolerant traits have reduced the competition by weeds for nutrients and soil moisture, resulting in higher yielding crops. Similarly, insect resistant traits offering protection against damaging pests have reduced insect damage and crop losses with improved yield outcomes. Insect resistant and herbicide tolerant technology has also resulted in reduced use of chemical sprays and tillage practices, providing the added benefit of minimising agriculture’s environmental footprint.

With the emergence and transboundary movement of pests such as Fall armyworm and locust swarms causing major crop devastation, food security and the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers throughout the developing world are under threat. The availability of biotech seed as a pest management tool for farmers remains an integral part of integrated pest management for crops and will continue to play a role in reducing the global pest burden.

Do biotech crops have a role to play in feeding the world?
The simple answer to that question is absolutely yes, but also to caution that there is no single solution to feeding the world’s growing population. Instead, an integrated food production system is required that deploys various plant breeding and crop production technologies, as well as adherence to good agricultural practices, in order to meet the global food security challenge.

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