GMOs: A Good but Battered Means for Sustainable Production Intensification

Document Type: Research paper


Senior Agronomist in the FAO Investment Centre, Rome, Italy


FAO promotes Sustainable Production Intensification (SPI), which consists of a technology menu for optimizing crop production per unit area, taking into consideration the range of sustainability aspects including potential and/or real social, political, economic and environmental impacts. The author suggests that Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) cropping is not only well aligned to SPI but also that this technology is a way to maximize the SPI principles. GMO crops cover about 13 percent of the world’s cropped land. More than three quarters of this area is within the three countries that also lead the production and export of the major food and feed commodities: USA, Brazil and Argentina. The remaining area is spread across about 29 countries, mostly developing countries and a few industrialised countries. Four crops account for the majority of land under GMO crops: corn, soybean, cotton, and canola. About 90 percent of the soybean and 80 percent of the corn that is traded in the world market is genetically engineered. Consequently a very large part of the world population likely eats every day food that either contains GMOs or GMO derivatives or animal products derived from GMO fed animals. It has been the fastest adopted agricultural technology, rising to its current level over only twenty years. Further increases in production will mainly occur in developing and low-income countries. In the EU, a large majority of the member states have chosen to rule against GMO cultivation. It is essentially a ‘marketing’ strategy. Nevertheless, GMOs land on European tables daily in one way or another. The developing world and its low income countries are gradually improving their policy, institutional and administrative environments towards the adoption of modern biotech rules. The technology is simple, has been thoroughly tested and through extensive scientific research and testing has been shown to be as safe as crops bred and developed by other techniques. The advantages in terms of higher crop productivity and lower production costs are substantial and widely proven. GMOs are also substantially eco-friendly but more research and development is required to improve herbicide management. Only a small fraction of the GM achievements, and opportunities, are being widely exploited. Other tested discoveries, which offer valuable strategies to address the challenges of climate change, productivity concerns and human health plagues/malnutrition that are widespread in low income countries, are yet to be adopted on a meaningful scale. There is no credible evidence that GMOs constitute a threat to human health. International rules and regulatory frameworks exist and are acknowledged. Cultural, which at times appear to be ideological, barriers more often of the developed world, are hindering rational technological advancement and food security and adequacy. In order to feed the growing world population, heading towards 9 billion or more by 2050, there is the need to increase food production by 60-70 percent, and to double it in the developing world where the highest demographic growth will occur. A safe and sustainable technology exists that can contribute substantially towards this target and humanitarian responsibility.


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