Food Security & Sustainable Agriculture in the 21st Century vis-à-vis Biotech Crops

Dr. Shanthu Shantharam

BIGMAP and Seed Science Centre

Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011

At UMES, February 6, 2014

Food Security & Sustainable Agriculture – vis-à-vis Biotech Crops

                  Increase in global population and shrinking land mass and water scarcity

                  Shifting and volatile climate change (global warming)

                  Conventional agricultural policies that served the green revolution are not sufficient to support new technologies based on 21st century biology

                  Need resilient agriculture devised on innovation to feed a hungry planet in a warming world

Food Security & Sustainable Agriculture
Food Security - Definition

²  Food must be widely available to all.

²  Food supply must be stable and resilient to system shocks like weather or war.

²  People must be able to afford food to ensure the quantity and  as well as quality (nutritional security) as well.

²  Available food must be safe (food safety).


Food Security & Sustainable Agriculture
Food Security, con’t

²  Today, almost 900 million people do not have food security in the world.

²  Diet shifts, crop production needs to double by 2050 to meet the projected demands from rising population, increasing biofuel consumption (Deepak Ray et al. PLOS One Vol.8; Issue 6; June 2013).

²  Increasing food production without clearing more land and less water for agriculture is the real challenge.

²  Global agricultural production must increase by 67% to 110% to provide food and nutritional  security to 900 million food insecure people.

Food Security & Sustainable Agriculture

²  An integrated system of plant and animal production practices that has location specific applications that will, over the long term:

                   satisfy human food and fiber needs;

                   enhance environmental quality and natural resources base upon which the agricultural economy depends;

                   make the most proficient use of non-renewable and on-farm resources, and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;

                   sustain the economic viability farm operations; and

                   enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole (United States Farm Bill – Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990).

Which Vision Best Meets Food Production Challenges?

²  Sustainable Intensive Agriculture or Agro-ecological Methods?

²  It is argued that intensive agriculture methods combined certain practices of agro-ecology that will best meet challenges of food and nutritional food insecurity in a sustainable way.


²  Sustainable intensive practices are technologically neutral (Drew Kershen, 2013, 6th Ann. Symp. Of Creighton Law Review), and agro-ecology is not because of its exclusions of modern science and technology.

Which Vision Best Meets Food Production Challenges?

²  Success of agricultural intensification has been demonstrated in developing countries via “Green Revolution” (GR) .

²  Modern plant breeding combined with irrigation and fertilization gave rise to improved varieties and hybrids increased rice and wheat production.

²  Millions of people were saved from starvation in Asia due to GR.

²  But, the GR completely bypassed Africa.  Even today, no more than 10% of all seeds used are hybrids.

²  GM crops are knocking on the doors of Africa, but it is still not ready to embrace modern science and technology in agriculture.

Which Vision Best Meets Food Production Challenges?

²  GR increased global production of cereals from 900 million tons in 1960 to 2500 million tons in 2009, faster than global population over the same period from 3.1 billion to 6.9 billion.

²  Global population is expected to be 10 billion in the next three to four decades.

²  Green revolution is fatigued in Asia and yields are stagnating.

²  Classical genetics is exhausted, and need to adopt new technologies.

²  The only new technology that is ready to be adopted are transgenics or the Genetically Modified (GM) crops.

GM Crops to the Rescue!!

²  Doubly GR ( “Evergreen Revolution”) is the crying need of the hour.

²  GM crops have increased global production of four major crops by 275 million tons from 1996 to 2010.

²  GM technology is scale neutral because the traits are embedded in the seed.

²  GM crops have done miracles in rich farms as well as in poor farms.

²  The performance of GM crops have been better in developing countries than in developed countries.

Creating Sustainable Agriculture

²  In order to make sustainable intensive agriculture they must satisfy five criteria:

                   Satisfy human food and fiber

                   Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base

                   Proficient use of resources and integration of natural biological cycles and controls

                   Sustain economic viability of farms

                   Enhance quality of life for farmers and the society

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
A. Satisfy Human Food and Fiber Needs


²  Extensification and Intensification.

²  Extensification is ruled out as it is neither affordable nor possible.

²  Intensification is the only option that employs all forms of modern science and technology including agro-ecology.

²  Farmers used only extensification to increase productivity primarily until the second World war.

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
A. Satisfy Human Food and Fiber Needs, cont


²  Agricultural inputs have remained steady until 1910, but have quadrupled after the second World War due to green revolution.

²  Agricultural intensification based on science and technology for the past sixty years have been the main stay of GR.

²  This can be speeded up with modern biotech crops or GM crops.

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
A. Satisfy Human Food and Fiber Needs, cont


²  GR did not affect Africa and had considerable environmental harm and resource degradation.

²  Conventional hybrids and varieties can now be subjected to Marker Aided Selection (MAS) and Molecular Breeding (MB), a far superior technology.

²  GM crops offer limitless choices for varietal improvement.

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
A. Satisfy Human Food and Fiber Needs, cont

²  Following types of GM crops that are on the anvil should be sufficient to demonstrate their hope for the future:

²  RNAi technology for controlling insect transmitted viruses.

²  Fast growing Nile Tilapia.

²  Modern hybrids out of cross between Asian and African rice's.

²  Ergot resistant pearl millet.

²  Virus resistant, bacterial resistant and insect resistant Cassava.

²  C3 (wheat and rice) to C4 (maize, sorghum and sugarcane) photosynthesis for direct yield improvement

²  Nitrogen fixation trait to non-legumes.

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
A. Satisfy Human Food and Fiber Needs, cont

²  GR agricultural production from  satisfied this criterion by increasing  it from 275 million tons in 1910 to 2500 million tons by 2010.

²  This increase is mainly due to the intervention of science and technology of GR (improved varieties and hybrids) combined with irrigation and chemical inputs.

²  GM crops alone contributed 275 million tons of just four crops four major field crops from 1996 to 2010.


Creating Sustainable Agriculture
A. Satisfy Human Food and Fiber Needs, cont

²  Reduced pesticide and herbicide usage; means less exposure and less ground water contamination benefiting environment and human health and reducing the costs of agriculture.

²  GM crops fit eminently into IPM, IWM, and IWaterM programs.

²  Latest study from South Africa (2013) shows that IR GM crop fields showed more insect biodiversity than the counter part.

²  GM IR crops showed spill over effects in neighboring fields that were not planted to GM crops.

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
B. Enhance environmental quality &
the Natural Resource Base

²  Agriculture is unnatural; causes enormous environmental damage.

²  Biotech Crops provide farmers with herbicide tolerant crops through conventional breeding and GM technology that reduce tillage or no-tillage

²  Tillage results in less soil erosion, less sedimentation and the attached chemicals, rebuilt soils, reduced carbon footprint, improved water retention and water conservation.

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
B. Enhance environmental quality &
the Natural Resource Base, con

²  Intensive agriculture has significant measurable environmental benefits for meeting the food demand and food security for the present and future populations.

²  Five important traits in the pipeline that are in the pipeline  are:

                   Drought tolerant crops.  The first GM variety started commercialization this year in the US.

                   Nitrogen use efficient crops.

                   Phosphorous efficient crops.

                   Nitrogen fixing cereals.

                   C3 to C4 plants.

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
C. Efficient Use of Resources & Integration of Natural Biological Cycles and Controls

²  Is not seeking increasing the food production by extensification with less land, fewer resources and reduced water consumption.

²  Akin to life cycle assessment, criterion  C seeks increased production per unit of input resources.

²  Measured by per unit of product, comparisons are decidedly in favor of intensive agriculture.

²  E. g: The C footprint in beef production is reduced by 16.3% and in dairy practices by 37%.

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
D. Sustain Economic Viability of Farms

²  Should alleviate poverty of subsistence farmers in the developing world.

²  Policies and programs for farmers to transit from agriculture to non-agriculture  professions.

²  As and when becomes highly knowledge based, few people are needed to work on a farm to alleviate poverty.

²  In 2010, direct global farm income from biotech crops was $ 14 billion, adding 4.3%  of global production of maize, soybean, canola and cotton.

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
D. Sustain Economic Viability of Farms, cont

²  Since 1996, GM crops have increased farm productivity by $78.4 billion.

²  In developing countries, farmers earned direct farm benefits by 54.8%.  Majority of the benefits came from GM IR cotton and GM HT soybeans.

²  Over fifteen years, developing countries derived a cumulative benefit from GM crops to the tune of $ 39.24 billion (Brooks and Barfoot , 2010).

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
D. Sustain Economic Viability of Farms, cont

²  By reviewing studies reported by Carpenter, 2010; Bennett et al. 2004; Fernandez Cornejo et al. 2005; Quaim, 2009, the Ecologic Institute in Berlin concluded the high rates adoption of GM crops is directly responsible for the increased economic performance.

²  European Commission (2012) assessed that 28% of farmers obtained direct economic benefits out of 3 billion dollars cumulatively. 

²  Developing country farmers benefited derived more benefits directly.

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
D. Sustain Economic Viability of Farms, cont

²  According to ISAAA (2014):

²  7.2 million biotech farmers are from China and India each, and 375,000 are from the Philippines.

²  90% of 17.3 million farmers are of farmers in developing countries.

²  Average net income of farmers in the Philippines was $ 513.75; India was $ 804 and China was $ 667.00

²  GM crops alone contributed 275 million tons of just four crops four major field crops from 1996 to 2010.

²  For a risk averse farmer, biotech crops deliver substantial and sustainable, socio-economic and environmental benefits.

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
D. Sustain Economic Viability of Farms, cont

²  “Resilience” is the capacity of an agricultural system to withstand and recover from stresses and shocks.

²  Subsistence farmers in the developing world are most vulnerable to stresses and shocks and cannot take the risk of playing with new technology.

²  GM crops helps in lowering variability which brings stability to the farm income.  A degree of unwritten  insurance is provided by GM crops (Edgerton et al. 2012).

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
E. Enhance the Quality of Life for Farmers and Society

²  Ipso facto when all the above four criteria are satisfied, it can be argued that criterion E is also satisfied.

²  When human and fiber needs are met, enhance environmental quality and making efficient use of non-renewable resources points towards enhancing quality of life of the society.

²  European Commission study in 2000 showed that GM HT crops gave greater flexibility in growing practices and more flexible labor requirements.

Creating Sustainable Agriculture
E. Enhance the Quality of Life for Farmers and Society, cont

²  A focus group of farmers in the Philippines clearly said that higher income is the only reason that they grow GM crops (European Commission Torres et al. 2012).

²  Following quality life factors improved by adopting GM crops

²  able to repay loans and debt;

²  able to send their children to school and college;

²  acquired materialistic home appliances;

²  peace of mind;

²  removal of farm drudgery; and,

²  time for other activities, and other livelihood activities


²  Farmers in the Philippines and India adopt GM crops for economic benefits and convenience.

Challenges for Sustainable Intensive Agriculture

²  Mindless controversy surrounding GM crops.

²  Anti-science movement.

²  Vicious and baseless propaganda on suitability, utility and safety of biotech crops.

²  Irresponsibly high degree of regulations governing the introduction of GM crops around the world.


²  Sustainable intensive agriculture embraces science and technology for agricultural development, and can be the best bet for the future.

²  Agroecology,  alone explicitly excludes modern science and technology, and thereby cannot be of much use in sustainable agriculture.

²  Sustainable intensive agriculture can alleviate some of the threats shocks and stresses for individuals and communities by providing plentiful food, fodder, fiber, fuel, bad food security.