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How Useful Are GMOs on a Warming Planet?

We’re exploring biotech’s biggest and greenwashiest claims in our series Are GMOs really going to save the world? This is […]

How Useful Are GMOs on a Warming Planet?

We’re exploring biotech’s biggest and greenwashiest claims in our series Are GMOs really going to save the world? This is […]

African man looking up standing in a corn field

We’re exploring biotech’s biggest and greenwashiest claims in our series Are GMOs really going to save the world? This is the second piece in the series. Don't forget to check out Part One of the series, Genetically Engineered Golden Rice: Real Hope or Misplaced Hype? and Part Three, Can a Lab-based Food System Save the World?

The changing climate is bringing more frequent and extreme weather events. It's a change that is already apparent — the average global temperatures in 2023 were warmer than any year on record. 

Climate change poses an existential threat to our species and countless others. With agriculture in the unique position of both contributing to greenhouse gas emissions (agriculture is currently responsible for just under 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions) and being directly impacted by the resulting climate changes, the biotechnology industry is leaping in with a range of "climate-smart agriculture" solutions — many of which rely on patented GMOs.

What is the biotech industry's track record on environmental stewardship? And where can we find the most effective solutions for adapting to a new reality and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions behind the current crisis?

Drought adaptation

The general trend in a changing climate is warmth and unpredictability. Heat and drought are becoming more intense and frequent while rising ocean levels displace communities and threaten soil fertility. 

However, GMOs developed for drought tolerance have shown generally underwhelming results. 

A coalition of international organizations recently critiqued the performance of several drought-tolerant GMOs in a submission to the UN. The report's primary concern was a GMO wheat variety marketed for drought tolerance that is less productive than traditional, non-GMO wheat. The group also cited GMO corn and GMO soy varieties, both marketed as drought solutions, which have come up short in real-world conditions. 

Friends of the Earth Europe has written extensively on gene editing's shortcomings in delivering climate solutions, citing the complexity of real-world conditions and gene functions as significant roadblocks. Drought hardiness is a complex trait determined by countless genes working together. Manipulating those genes through targeted interventions such as gene editing is unlikely to increase the plant's tolerance to stressors such as heat and drought.

Pest and disease resistance

While GMO crops engineered for insect or disease resistance are nothing new, climate change is driving pests into previously unaffected regions. Unfortunately, the industrialized style of agriculture favored in North America makes the problem worse. 

Heavily fertilized industrial farming destroys biodiversity and ecosystem health, weakening crops and making them more susceptible to insects or diseases. Relying on GMOs to deal with the threats drives what's known as the "pesticide treadmill." 

The pesticide treadmill describes a dysfunctional reliance on chemical interventions for weeds, insects and disease. Within a few years of adoption, the early benefits of chemical pest management are commonly overtaken by the target pest's acquiring immunity to the pesticide — this is natural selection at work, and we've seen it time and time again. Farmers on the treadmill often apply more or stronger pesticides to subdue the pest, which drives the next generation of pesticide resistance. It's an arms race with nature that can't be won. The pesticide treadmill has two consistent outcomes: Pest resistance and enormous profits for the companies that make the chemicals and GMOs. 

Even in a warming climate, the real problem is the industrial farming practices that help insects or diseases thrive.  

GHG reduction

Agriculture is responsible for about 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock farming is the greatest contributor due to deforestation, animal digestive processes, and heavily fertilized feed crops. Biotech solutions to the livestock conundrum come in several forms, such as cultured meat alternatives grown in bioreactors or gene-editing livestock to reduce methane production. 

Modifying livestock so their gut flora produces less methane will likely cause some very unhealthy animals (gut health correlates strongly to overall well-being). A transition to cultured meat products to reduce livestock farming ultimately props up industrial-style monocultures for corn and soy to make growth media, producing greenhouse gasses through fertilizer use and driving more pest infestation.

Livestock farming's status as a climate culprit is particularly notable because animals can be a net benefit to a food system. Well-managed herds and flocks are crucial to cycling nutrients, increasing soil health and reducing the need for fertilizers. However, industrialized livestock farming eliminates the benefits while maximizing the harms. 

Another area of research is using GMOs to further intensify agriculture, such as modifying common food crops to produce higher yields with less fertilizer. Proceed with caution: Intensifying agriculture with little regard for the downstream impacts is part of the thinking that got us to this point.

Climate change adaptation and greenhouse gas reduction are critical to supporting all life on Earth. However, we are deeply concerned with agricultural biotechnology's effectiveness as a climate tool. To date, GMOs have been a costly way to maintain and intensify extractive farming practices. A regenerative approach based on agroecological methods would serve us much better. In the end, biodiversity is our strongest ally in bolstering stress tolerance and climate adaptation.

Reimagining the food system is no small thing. It requires a fundamental rethinking of how food is produced, and a reevaluation of who should benefit.

Note: This post was updated to reflect the latest data on April 28, 2024. 

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