A couple of thoughts on biotech and food security

“What has {insert biotech here} done for food security?” This question starts at the wrong end of the problem, because food security is much larger than any biotechnology. I would suggest that governance, property rights and education are the fundamental issues for food security, followed by biotechnological options. For example, the best biotechnology is useless if one is trying to do agriculture in a war-ravaged country.

Once we have a relatively stable government and educated people can rely on property rights, the effects of different biotechnologies will be magnified and it will be possible to better assess them. I would say that matching the most appropriate technologies to the local environmental, economic and cultural conditions is a good sign of sustainable agriculture. I would also say that the broader the portfolio of biotechnology and agronomic practices the more likely a good match will be. That is, I would not a priori exclude any biotechnology from the table based on generic considerations.

Should the success of a biotechnology for food security be measured as yield? It could be one of the desired effects but it is not necessarily the most important one. For example, having less fluctuating production (that is reducing the variance rather than increasing the mean) could be more relevant. Or we could be interested in creating combinations of traits that are difficult to achieve by traditional breeding (e.g. biofortification), where yield is still the same but nutritional content differs. Or we would like to have a reduction of inputs (agrochemicals, for example) while maintaining yield. There are many potential answers and—coming back to matching practices to local requirements—using a simple average of all crops in a country (or a continent) is definitely the wrong scale of assessment. We do not want to work with an average farmer or an average consumer but to target specific needs with the best available practices. Some times this will include {insert biotech, agronomical practices here}, other times this will include {insert another biotech and set of agronomical practices here}.

And that is the way I think of improving food security.

2 thoughts on “A couple of thoughts on biotech and food security

  • 2014/02/28 at 8:50 am
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    right, but you’re still falling into the trap of using “biotechnology” and” transgenics interchangeably, which is really misleading. It’s not just that food security is much broader than biotech. It’s that biotch is much broader than transgenics.

    In a world where hundred of billions of hungry farmers plant seed saved from the previous season, worrying about transgenics is shooting at the wrong target. We need to help LDCs catch up to 20th century biotech instead of staying mired in this unending debate over whether 21st century biotech is right for them.

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    • 2014/03/01 at 4:31 pm
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      Not at all. I’m using ‘insert biotechnology here’ instead of GMO exactly because that word is broader than GMO. If you see my list of publications you’ll see that I am a breeder (mostly of trees, although I’ve done some works on crops too) and not a gene jockey. I’m working with a student on biofortification of potatoes via traditional breeding and I see biotechnology as a very broad term that encompasses breeding, GMO, propagation techniques, etc.

      One has to understand though, that there are some cases where classical breeding is painfully slow or difficult. For example, improving two negatively correlated traits could be achieved more easily by using modification or, at least, using molecular genetics to track the genes of interest. Anyway, there are plenty of problems where classical breeding will do very well.

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