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GENETICALLY ENGINEERED CLIMATE-RESILIENT SEEDS AS A POSSIBLE RESPONSE TO CLIMATE CHANGE-INDUCED FOOD SHORTAGES Anne Saab
04/09/2015
Climate change is predicted to have dramatic impacts on agricultural production globally. Although food production in some regions of the world may benefit from increasing average temperatures, most of the world will face severe challenges in adapting agricultural systems to the predicted climatic changes. The Arab region will be among the most affected, with precipitation estimated to drop by 25 percent and evaporation to increase by 25 percent before 2100. In addition to higher average temperatures, incidences of drought and higher soil salinity will influence agriculture and food production. Agriculture is highly dependent on climate and therefore changes in climatic conditions impact crop yields for food production.
 
The latest IPCC assessment report emphasizes the severe impacts climate change is already having, and will continue to have, on food production. Food security is at risk, and methods of food production will have to adapt to the changing climate in order to maintain adequate levels of food supply. As with all other impacts of climate change, food security is most at risk in those areas of the world that are most vulnerable. Part of the reason is that these vulnerable regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia, and the Arab world, already have warmer and drier climates and already suffer from more droughts and floods than other parts of the world. Another important reason for their increased vulnerability is the regions’ lack of adaptive capacity. Unless effective adaptation strategies are developed and implemented, this decrease in crop yields and food production could result in millions more people facing food insecurity. The World Food Programme has estimated that the number of people at risk of hunger and food insecurity will increase by 10-20 percent by the year 2050 as a result of climate change.
 
Agriculture in the Arab world is particularly vulnerable to climate change. As this AFED report illustrates, Arab countries have mostly arid climates with high temperature and low precipitation levels. Moreover, adaptive capacity is currently inadequate to deal with these challenges. Lack of water is a particular problem for agriculture in the Arab world. Adaptation strategies are being devised in the international sphere that may contribute to adapting agriculture to the impacts of climate change and addressing problems of food insecurity. One of these strategies is the development and use of genetically engineered seeds that are made for resilience to certain climatic conditions.
 
For thousands of years, farmers have adapted to changes in climate through a process of seed selection. Seeds of crops that can grow with little water, for example, are saved and replanted during periods of drought. This process of natural selection and breeding, however, is a slow process and it can take years or even decades for suitable seeds to consistently yield enough crops. Agricultural biotechnology and particularly genetic engineering has in recent years directed attention to the development of climate-resilient seeds and crops. The use of genetic engineering techniques is intended to speed up this process of natural selection. It allows the transfer of specific genetic traits from one seed to another, with the objective of developing seeds with resistant traits.
 
The world's largest seed corporations (including Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, Bayer, and BASF) are focusing their efforts on the research and development of drought-resistant seeds, as water is one of the main limiting factors in agriculture. Climate-resilient seeds are presented as a possible adaptation strategy to climate change. Seeds that are genetically engineered to require less water to grow crops, for example, could be useful in maintaining adequate food production in periods of drought. For Arab countries that already have dry climates and whose agriculture suffers from the impacts of climate change, such climate-resilient seeds could prove to be a very useful adaptation tool.
 
Many governments, policymakers, corporations, and even civil society organizations are increasingly promoting the use of biotechnology, and especially genetic engineering, in agriculture. The impacts of climate change are considered unprecedented and sufficiently severe to require new and more effective adaptation measures that go beyond convention breeding techniques. Despite the promise that genetically engineered climate-resilient seeds may hold, there is also a great deal of criticism directed against these seeds as an adaptation strategy to climate change. Critical voices claim that large seed corporations are abusing the climate and food crises for their own commercial gain. The ETC Group, an influential civil society organization, has called the promotion of 'climate-ready' seeds by corporations 'climate profiteering'.
 
Critiques of climate-resilient seeds take several forms. Some scientists argue that these seeds have not proven to produce more crop yields than non-genetically engineered seeds. For instance, the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted that drought-resistant corn seeds have not proven to produce more corn than other types of corn seeds. Scientists contend that it is very difficult to develop climate-resilient traits in seeds, considering the complexity of these genetic traits. Additionally, they argue that it is almost impossible to develop resistance against climatic conditions such as drought, most fundamentally because such climatic conditions are unpredictable. Every instance of drought is different from the next instance of drought, and developing resistance against one does not guarantee resistance against another.
 
Another strong criticism is that seed corporations focus their research on commercially viable crops, such as corn. Commercially viable crops are, however, not necessarily the crops that are needed to feed the developing world. In the Arab region, rice is one of the staple crops. However, the production of rice requires a great deal of water. Instead of genetically engineering rice to be able to grow with less water, it might be more beneficial to switch to production of other crops that naturally require less water. An additional criticism is that genetically engineered climate-resilient seeds are often patented by seed corporations. As their research and development requires substantial investments, patent rights are viewed as an appropriate reward and incentive for these corporations. Patent rights, however, also block access to these seeds by the vulnerable populations, as they cannot afford to pay the fees to obtain them.
 
Perhaps the most fundamental critique of climate-resilient seeds as a strategy to adapt agriculture to climate change and prevent food insecurity is the question of whether increasing food production is enough. If climate-resilient seeds are capable of increasing food production in the face of climate change, will the people who are most food insecure and who require such seeds most urgently be able to benefit from them? Food security depends not only on adequate availability of food, but also and importantly on adequate access to food. If genetically engineered climate-resilient seeds are successfully developed, the people in the Arab world might still not benefit from this adaptation tool if farmers are not able to afford those seeds.
 
Genetically engineered climate-resilient seeds hold both great promise and great controversy. They could provide a valuable contribution to adapting the world's agriculture to the impacts of climate change and combat food insecurity. At the same time, the critiques voiced must also be taken seriously. This dilemma is common to all climate change adaptation strategies and presents policymakers with difficult challenges. Climate change impacts on society on so many different levels – environmental, social, political, economic, cultural, etc. – and potential solutions must therefore also take all these dimensions into account. The legal framework must also be considered. International law concerning climate change adaptation, patent rights, and human rights in the form of the right to food are all relevant in discussions about climate-ready seeds. In addition to international law, regional and domestic laws also apply. How these laws can best be employed to achieve the most effective adaptation outcomes is not always evident. Identifying and acknowledging the complexities may be a good place to start.
 
Dr. Anne Saab, Professor of International Climate Law, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva
 
 
 
 
 
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