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Can genetically engineered seeds prevent a climate-driven food crisis? » Yale Climate Connections

When John Boelts sows acres of cotton seed on his farm in Yuma, Arizona, he does so knowing that the fields will be free of an invasive pest called pink bollworm. For nearly a century, the small pink striped caterpillars terrorized cotton fields in the U.S.

The adult bollworm, a gray moth, laid its eggs on cotton bolls, and the pink-striped caterpillars that emerged from those eggs began munching on the bolls, fibers, and seeds. Even with pesticides, Arizona farmers lost up to a third of their crop every year.

“When I was a much younger man with hardly any gray hair, we were planting cotton varieties, and we would spray them nine to 13 times in a season just for pink bollworm,” Boelts said. “I haven’t sprayed for pink bollworm in over a decade.” 

That’s because Boelts now grows cotton genetically engineered to repel pests. The technology has helped not just his farm but the entire U.S. to eradicate the pink bollworm. It has also reduced pesticide use. 

Now, large seed corporations are touting genetic engineering not just for fighting pests but as a way of addressing climate-change-related stressors on agriculture. But researchers are skeptical that the technology can match the pace and scale of climate change.

“It’s this silver-bullet solution that is very appealing to investors and even farmers,” said Philip Howard, a professor in the College of Agriculture at Michigan State University. “But when you actually look at what’s going on, it’s a much more brittle, and less resilient system, even if these traits are able to do what the company claims.”

Maize (corn) is becoming increasingly suitable in uphill areas previously too cold for the crop in the Mount Kenya region. (Photo credit: CIAT / CC BY-SA 2.0)

How climate change affects agriculture

Although most crops currently being cultivated have not been genetically engineered in a lab, all domesticated crops have been altered from their wild ancestors. During the 10,000-year history of agriculture, farmers gradually modified their crops by saving and planting the seeds of plants that produced the juiciest fruit or the fattest kernels. The first evidence of a modified crop, an early kind of wheat that kept its seed heads rather than scattering them before harvest, was found in present-day China and dated to about 7800 BCE. Such crops fed humanity for thousands of years during a period when Earth’s climate remained relatively stable.

But the addition of heat-trapping pollutant gases to the atmosphere is causing more erratic weather and disrupting the predictable turn of the seasons. Scorching heat, droughts, and extreme storms are stressing plants and animals people depend on for food. And farmers are finding that crop varieties carefully developed over centuries are, in some cases, no longer suitable to the local climate. 

In fact, reduced crop yields of crops such as wheat and corn are being observed in arid regions and near the equator, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  

In Kenya, farmers are facing droughts and floods that make even subsistence farming difficult. Daniel Wanjama runs Seed Savers Network Kenya, an organization that helps Kenyan farmers save, document, and share seeds. Seed Savers Network connects farmers with seed and crops that can help them adapt.

“We have seen rainfall reduction. We have seen increasing rainfall in some areas,” Wanjama said. “For us, the answer is not in developing a single variety that is able to survive the impact of climate change, but having natural varieties and having different species growing together.”

Farther north in temperate zones, some farmers are seeing increased yields as growing seasons lengthen. But this phenomenon doesn’t mean places like the U.S. are in the clear. The U.S. Midwest is expected to see some of the largest yield declines in corn and soybeans in the world, with the corn belt potentially shifting north into Canada. Howard, the Michigan State professor, says major seed companies have already abandoned development of new corn varieties suitable for the southeastern U.S.

Climate change is also likely to result in increased crop damage from pests and diseases moving into new areas.

William Tracy, an agronomy professor who directs a sweet corn breeding program at the University of Wisconsin, has already seen pests change. 

“I’ve been working at the West Madison farm for thirty-five-ish years now,” he said. “And the pests we have now are different than they were then. They come at different times. They can be more severe.”

Pros and cons of GMOs

The process of genetically engineering crops requires extracting desired DNA traits, such as insect resistance, from a plant and inserting them into another crop. In the U.S., they include genetically engineered versions of corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets, canola, papaya, alfalfa, and summer squash. The most commonly used varieties make crops resistant to common pests or herbicides.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture held a Pink Bollworm Eradication Ceremony at the Westhaven Cotton Company gin in Lemoore, CA, on November 8, 2018. GMO seeds helped make the eradication possible.

Companies have also rolled out weather-specific adaptations, such as corn varieties engineered to better withstand drought conditions. Researchers are experimenting with engineering crops to better manage higher temperatures. 

“Continuously improving seeds to grow more resilient and high-yielding crops remains one of agriculture’s strongest tools,” Susan Luke, deputy director of external communications for Bayer’s crop science division, wrote in an email.

But there are limitations to how much resilience genetically engineered seed can provide, and researchers have concerns about the cost of seed and the role of large companies in the seed marketplace. 

Seed companies consolidate market power

The Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that genetically engineered organisms are intellectual property. That judgment meant they could be patented, making seeds a potential financial bonanza for companies controlling the market. Agricultural chemical companies began purchasing small seed and genetics companies. In 2021, the vast majority of genetically engineered seed rests in the hands of just four multinational corporations.

“By buying up dozens of Midwestern corn and soybean companies, Monsanto alone was able to really reduce what was available for farmers,” Howard said. “There are some places where it’s becoming really difficult to find non-genetically engineered seeds for farmers who want that.”

Because the seeds are patented, it’s illegal for farmers to save and replant genetically engineered seed. As a result, infrastructure such as cleaning equipment and seed storage space once used to save and exchange seeds is disappearing in the U.S.

Cost of GMO seeds

Koen Deconinck, an economist who has studied seed markets at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said that outside of the Americas, genetically engineered crops are relatively uncommon because of negative public sentiment. Many people worry that engineered crops are unsafe to consume, but studies have found no evidence of toxicity. The European Union nonetheless has banned the use of most genetically engineered seed. 

But where it is sold, genetically engineered seed is expensive. In 2018, non-GMO corn cost, on average, $80 less than genetically engineered corn per bag. As climate change increases risks of crop losses for many farmers, expensive seed could price out small farmers in the U.S. and abroad.

Biotechnology companies argue that it is costly to meet strict regulatory requirements, and that those expenses are reflected in the price of the seed. But state attorneys general, industry groups, and lawmakers raised concerns that a 2018 merger of seed and chemical companies Monsanto and Bayer would allow them to set higher prices. The effect of that consolidation is still being debated. Some agricultural economists have found no connection between market power increases and prices, but other experts disagree.

William Tracy, an agronomy professor at the University of Wisconsin, has been involved in some of those regulatory conversations. He says the primary reason for the seeds’ high cost comes from biotechnology companies’ ability to set high prices because of their market power.

“I also think – pretty much know – that the companies were involved in writing the regulations,” Tracy said. “And I believe that they were written to be oppressive to actually give the companies that had lots of lawyers an advantage.”

Can powerful companies slow innovation?

Researchers worry also that consolidation has slowed innovation – particularly in development of regional varieties – because the companies are focused on producing seed they can sell to the majority of their market.

That outcome could be a major problem as the climate continues to change: “When there’s an extreme weather event or a drought,” Howard said, “there’s now less diversity to draw on to try and breed seeds that are more locally adapted.” 

Biotechnology companies counter that there has been no decline in the genetic diversity of varieties on the market, and that seed diversity actually declined most significantly prior to the introduction of genetically engineered seeds.

“Bayer agrees that the diversity of ecosystems, species, and crop varieties is inherently valuable and needs to be protected,” Luke wrote. “We are committed to conserving and restoring biodiversity within and beyond agricultural fields through our technologies and services.”

It takes a long time to create a new GMO crop

The biggest problem of all might be that it takes a long time to bring a newly modified crop to market. As farmers work to adapt to climate change, time is of the essence.

Luke said new genetically engineered crop varieties can take more than a decade to develop. The first insect-resistant cotton, like the one Boelts uses, became commercially available in 1996 after being in research and trials for about 10 years. After engineering seed, researchers conduct trials in experimental settings and then in farm settings. The seed must also go through the regulatory process, which aims to ensure that it is safe.

Postdoctoral researcher Amanda DeSouza genetically engineers cassava, adding genes to increase the yield of this staple root crop. (Photo credit: Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency / CC BY 2.0)

Rising temperatures alone will necessitate a shift in the agricultural landscape by mid-century. Maximum temperatures in the southern Midwest are projected to regularly exceed ideal conditions for most crops – 80 F for corn and 86 F for soybeans – and get “closer to the reproductive failure temperatures,” according to the National Climate Assessment, a sweeping report on the effects of climate change on the United States.

So seed development may need to speed up if farmers are to continue growing the same crops.

Increasing food security as the climate changes

Most researchers agree that increasing the diversity in varieties and in the kinds of crops that are grown is an essential part of reducing crop loss risk. 

Publicly funded research could help and could bring enormous benefit to society, some say. One study found that for every one dollar of taxpayer money invested into agricultural research and development, $10 in benefits were returned to society.

Such a move would require a turnaround: Public universities have traditionally been a major source of plant breeding research, but federal funding has fallen since the mid-20th century.

But beyond investment in developing new seeds themselves, Deconinck, the OECD economist, argues there should be more public investment in the development of technologies through which new seeds are created.

“Maybe the government doesn’t necessarily need to focus on developing the next cotton variety,” Deconinck said. “But they could think about funding research in universities for things like CRISPR and gene editing and making sure that a lot of those inventions end up in the public domain.”

New technologies may also allow for new seed varieties to be created more quickly and at a lower cost. For example, seed modified using CRISPR – a technology that allows scientists to “edit” existing DNA without introducing genetic material from another organism like in genetic engineering – doesn’t face the same regulations as genetically engineered seed. As a result, CRISPR-created seed may move into the field more quickly and affordably.

Outside of research institutions, collectives of farmers are also working to create seed-sharing arrangements. Seed Savers Network Kenya organizes farmers to contribute their own varieties to a communal seed bank and share them.

In Kenya, Wanjama said farmers “don’t see seed as a trading commodity, they see seeds as an item that needs to be shared.”

Howard said the Farmers Business Network in the U.S. helps identify seeds that are similar to those offered by the larger companies but at a lower price.

Reform of the private sector could also help. Deconinck noted that removing unnecessary barriers for smaller seed companies, while maintaining safety regulations, would promote more diversity in the marketplace of seed offerings. 

As farmers face climate change, they will need a full toolbox of strategies and flexibility to adapt. Genetically engineered seeds are one tool, but they are unlikely to save agriculture on their own. 

“We’re seeing the derechos and we’re seeing these extreme flooding events now all over the country,” Tracy said. “So this is the future. And I don’t know how you breed for that in an annual crop.”

Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010.

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