GM crops illustrationThe last half century has seen huge advances in technology that few of us could have predicted. And it is not just the much-cherished ‘shiny’ technology that we can hold in our smart phones or the latest household gizmo; it is also the technology of biology hidden behind the many advances in medicine, vaccines and the ‘green’ revolution in agriculture.  More and more of us can expect to live longer than ever before, but despite this – or in part because of it – we face huge challenges which, if left unchecked, will affect us all.

The American writer Alfred Henry Lewis (1855-1914) is often credited with coining the phrase ‘there are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy’. Whether or not this is true, one of the biggest challenges society faces will be to make enough food available by 2050 to properly nourish 9-10 billion people without exhausting our ecosystems.

We cannot claim ignorance: many reports have highlighted the need to increase food production sustainably and reduce environmental harm by using less fresh water, energy and land. This needs to be achieved against climate change, knowing that greenhouse gas emissions from the agri-food sector alone could cancel out the reductions sought in the Paris agreement of 2015.

The challenge

The evolving global food security challenge is not simply to produce ‘more from less’.  We know that as well as ‘food, fuel and fibres’ agricultural land is needed to deliver a range of ‘ecosystem services’ and maintain, if not enhance, biodiversity.

Over the next 2-3 decades we need to transform food systems and agricultural practice globally to dramatically reduce its carbon footprint. We also need to make production sustainable, more resilient to climatic shocks and preserve ecosystem services, while also growing the right proportions of the food types needed to sustain health. We have to act, and act quickly, because if we are to feed the world and have any chance of meeting the Paris agreement then business as usual is not an option.

Significant gains can, of course, be made for global food security by applying current know-how better and more widely, alongside social and economic reform (e.g., initiatives to reduce food waste) and improving infrastructures (food production, trade and transport). But we also need to be investing in biological solutions that will deliver greater food availability without expanding land use in our lifetimes or in the long-term.

We need the next generations of crops and farmed animals to have more durable resistant to disease and pests, be more tolerant of stresses, such as heat, salinity and drought, and be inherently more efficient in using resources, e.g. water, nitrogen.  Breeding the best crops and livestock is as old as agriculture itself, but the challenge of breeding such complex multi-genic traits cannot be underestimated.

Role of genetic technologies

Genome sequencing as rapidly become a routine tool in biology but we are still in the dark ages when it comes to predicting a complex phenotype from the product of raw DNA sequences and subsequent environmental interactions (often abbreviated to phenotype = genotype x environment).  Producing the next generations of crops and livestock best suited for the challenges of future agriculture and food systems will require every tool in the toolbox: conventional breeding (crossing and hybridisation) as well as modern biotech approaches including transgenic genetic modification (GM) and genome editing (GE).

GM is, of course, not without controversy, even though GM crops have now been used in food and feed production for more than two decades and the overwhelming evidence is that they are at least as safe as their conventionally bred counterparts. It is important to view GM for what it really is, and will likely remain – one of several important tools for breeders. However, it is not a panacea; sometimes GM is the best (or only) approach to breeding particular traits; sometimes other approaches are better and more useful. It depends, ‘case by case’, on the crop, the farmed animal, and the traits desired.

Of course, there are also many non-GM technologies that will contribute to food security, such as marker-assisted breeding, e.g. in farmed fish and development of disease-resistant pearl millet. Automation in agriculture, including many types of sensing and testing, hold great promise for the farms of the future, while investments through the Agri-Tech Catalyst seek to make the UK a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability. It is clear, the application of many different technologies will be required to secure the future of our food.

There is evidence that the public are generally supportive of exploring GM as a technology for increasing food production. Public dialogue work tells us that concerns about GM are often not related to the science per se, but to the broader context for using GM, such as control and ownership, the distribution of benefits and risks across society and how much an application of  the (bio)technology is addressing a societal need.

The UK Research Councils support the principles of responsible research and innovation, which means that researchers should also consider social, economic, legal and environmental aspects of outcomes. We encourage scientists to engage with different stakeholders and ‘publics’ and act on the outcomes of this dialogue.

Time to rethink regulation

A fit-for-purpose regulatory system for new crops, farmed animals or foodstuffs is essential to give society confidence and industry a reasonable level of predictability. Regulation should have safety for human health and the environment at its heart, but also be evidence-based, proportionate, and consider both potential risks and benefits.

At present the EU regulatory system focusses on risk alone.  The pace of change created by game-changing breakthroughs in GE, such as CRISPR/Cas9, is unprecedented and is testing the limits of regulatory frameworks around the world. Here in the EU, we do not yet know whether GE will be considered a form of GM, and hence be strictly regulated, or not (a recent decision in the US has excluded a mushroom variety produced using CRISPR from GM regulations).

Other biotechnology breakthroughs will almost certainly arise that will also test the regulatory definition and societal understanding of what is ‘GM’ and what is ‘not GM’.  The time feels right to rethink the basis of the current regulatory system, moving from a narrow focus on how a novel crop or animal is produced (the technology) to instead considering the final characteristics or traits (the biology).

If we are to meet the evolving food security challenge, then we need to move away from demonising particular breeding technologies and focus more on the safety, risk and benefits of the end products.  The challenges ahead of us are so great that we need every tool in the box.


Melanie Welham is one of the event organiser for our upcoming event – From satellite to soil: connecting environmental observation to AgriTech innovations.
Please register if you would like to come along and hear about the latest in satellite technology and what it could do for farmers in the field.