Climate change not only presents difficult challenges for the energy industry, but also raises serious concerns about food security as loss of topsoil and desertification reduce arable land around the world. Within this climate, genetically-modified crops (GMOs) will play a crucial role in supporting increased development and population growth.
GMOs are organisms, such as plants and animals, whose genetic characteristics are being modified artificially in order to give them a new property. Last month, Monsanto, the world’s leading seed producer, announced that it expects African countries to increase plantings of GMOs in order to boost food security and economic development in the face of climate change. Africa is the only continent where per-capita food output is falling, which also raises concerns about introducing fuel-dedicated crops. GMOs could increase yields for both food and fuel, but international and regional rules governing GMOs represent a significant barrier to increased international trade.
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is one of the first international agreements to regulate the transboundary transfer of GMOs. The Cartagena Protocol relies primarily on the precautionary principle, which reflects the recognition that scientific certainty often comes too late to design effective legal and policy responses for preventing many potential environmental threats. Questions about the downstream health risks associated with genetically-modified food have invoked this principle and led to a zero-tolerance policy in the EU.
The EU continues to regulate GMOs despite a 2006 ruling by the WTO, which held that the EU ban violates international free trade. The EU’s stance has limited trade between the US, Canada, and Argentina, which together grow 80 percent of the biotech crops sold commercially (EU’s ban contributed to Mansanto’s decision to remove their seed cereal business in Europe).
Given biomass crops’ heavy dependence on fossil fuel and water inputs, genetic modification will play an important role in shoring up the biomass industry’s future competitiveness. However, with the US and EU still sharply divided on the issue, the biomass industry must dissociate from the GMO/food nexus debate and reassure the public that genetically-modified biomass fuel crops will not endanger public health. At the same time, the industry would benefit from increased penetration of GMOs used for food, which would increase the agricultural yield of existing arable lands making way for more dedicated energy crops.
This post originally appeared in Biomass Intel