Climate change has had notable impacts on our environment and national security, serving as a “threat multiplier,” according to the Department of Defense. The argument goes that climate change can exacerbate existing conflict by making already-scarce resources ever scarcer, such as land and water.
This can have detrimental impacts on food security, as increasing droughts and a rapidly growing population will reduce supply relative to demand. Africa has already suffered through severe droughts that has left a large part of the continent short on food. Coupled with an expected 1.3 billion increase in population and up to 50% decrease in yields due to climate change, the continent will likely experience higher food prices in the future. This will increase conflict and refugee crises, not unlike what occurred in northern Nigeria earlier this year.
Other regions will suffer as well. A recent study predicts that the Middle East will frequently experience deadly heat by 2100, which will spur migration, decrease water supplies, and reduce crop yields. This should concern those invested in regional stability, as another study has already suggested the severe 2007-2010 Syrian drought “contributed to the conflict,” while another discussed the impact of food prices on the conflict.
Policymakers can tackle these issues in a variety of ways, including improving infrastructure, investing in clean energy, stabilizing governments, and more. However, governments should also look towards other solutions as a part of a broad and comprehensive plan.
For instance, one important (albeit controversial) action can potentially drastically reduce food shortages and mitigate the impacts of climate change: cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Genetically Modified Organism: A Primer
Current methods of genetic engineering produce modified crops at a quicker, more efficient rate than traditional cross-breeding. Scientists can directly input a gene from one organism and place it into the genome of another, even between unrelated species.
Understandably, this concerns the general population. Issues of potential allergens, long-term effects on health, and environmental damage certainly warrant attention and investigation. To address the concerns listed above, GM crops should always undergo intense inspection on a per-crop basis.
Fortunately, they have been studied extensively over its almost 30-year existence. An Italian review article analyzed 1787 studies (spreadsheet here) and concluded that “the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.”
This falls in line with the general scientific consensus regarding GMOs. The AAAS, Royal Society of Medicine, AMA, European Commission, WHO, and a report prepared by the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the Mexican Academy of Sciences and the Third World Academy of Sciences have acknowledged no known negative effects of consuming genetically engineered crops. Furthermore, very little to no significant adverse environmental effects have occurred.
With minimal risk, one should embrace the potential benefits of GM crops. Increased yields, drought-resistance, improved nutrition, disease resistance, and even mitigation of greenhouse gasses can occur through the cultivation of GM crops.
This suggests that GM crops can provide better food and nutritional security while also combating climate change.
What We Should Do
Of course, the topic remains controversial in many countries. Intense lobbying efforts and politics have greatly hindered progress on GM crops and research, not unlike what has occurred with climate change.
To combat this, an international cooperative effort consisting of scientists, governments, and farmers discussing GM crops is needed. This should serve as a part of a broader discussion of food security, which would also include topics such as (digital) infrastructure, smallholders, and trade regulations. This approach will better define the role of GM crops in food and national security.
This effort should advocate the usage and research of GM crops. Better handling on technologies such as CRISPR will allow us to have better control over any potential adverse environmental effects while also maximizing benefits.
In addition, governments should also consider public education campaigns. For example, introductory biology courses could start discussing the science behind genetic engineering. Climate change has already entered classroom discussion; biotechnology could do the same.
Likewise, governments should actively remove GMO labels. Scientific American and the AAAS both oppose labeling, since “such a label can only mislead and falsely alarm customers.” Polls indicate this, as a majority of Americans view GMOs unfavorably.
These steps will greatly improve our food, climate, and national security. Such efforts have worked with climate change; they can work with biotechnology as well.