As the world population increases and extreme weather conditions become commonplace, food security has become compromised. Globally, the most impoverished and malnourished people rely most heavily on agriculture as a source of income and employment.
Studies show that high rates of malnourishment and low agricultural productivity are directly proportional. Scientists from the University of Göttingen in Germany recently published an article arguing that, with careful deployment and scientifically informed regulation, new plant breeding technologies such as genome editing could substantially contribute to global food security.
Over the past decades, planting genetically modified organisms has led to higher crop yields. Several countries, however, especially those in Africa and Asia, are hesitant to use GMOs due to the perceived risk of losing export markets to Europe.
The topic of NPBTs arose during the GMO debate. Genome editing can develop plants that better withstand pesticides, diseases, or climatic extremes; such modifications would reduce crop losses by increasing resilience against natural hazards and allowing more effective use of pesticides. In genome editing, certain DNA sequences are altered without the introduction of foreign genes — the key difference between GMOs and NPBTs.
Researchers are taking care not to repeat the mistakes that were made with GMOs. “The use of foreign DNA in transgenic [GMOs] is the main reason for their heavy regulation,” said Matin Qaim, an agricultural economist at the University of Göttingen. “The absence of transgenes in genome-edited crops could lower the costs of the regulatory procedures and thus speed up innovation, increase competition in the seed industry, and make improved seeds more affordable for farmers in developing countries.”
New plant breeding technologies are not a panacea, but they would certainly help to increase crop yield and create more resistant crops in the face of climate change. Regulations for NPBTs are still being debated. According to the scientists who released the article, “The global community should seize this opportunity by developing conducive regulatory frameworks and support mechanisms.”