Anne Saab*

Can Climate-ready seeds be the answer to food insecurity in the face of climate change?

Climate change is predicted to have dramatic impacts on agricultural production in some regions of the world. Increased incidences of drought, higher average temperatures, and more precipitation are among the symptoms of climate change. As agriculture is highly dependent on climate, these changes are already having and will continue to have significant effects on crop yields. Although estimates of crop yield loss vary considerably, there is widespread consensus that crop yields will be affected to some degree, in the form of failed or diminished crop yields. The most vulnerable regions of the world will be hardest hit by these declines in food production. This is partly because regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and many parts of Asia already have a warmer climate and already suffer more from droughts and floods. Another important reason for their increased vulnerability as compared to the developed world is the lack of adaptive capacity. Unless effective adaptation strategies are developed and implemented, this decrease in crop production could result in millions of people facing food insecurity. The World Food Programme has estimated that the number of people at risk of hunger will increase by 10-20% by the year 2050 as a result of climate change. Seeds engineered to be resilient to certain climate stresses are being developed as one strategy to adapt to the consequences of climate change on agriculture and food insecurity.

For thousands of years, farmers have adapted to changes in climate through a process of seed selection. Seeds of crops that can grow with little water, for example, are saved and replanted for periods of droughts. This process of natural selection, however, is a slow process and it can take years or even decades for suitable seeds to consistently yield enough crops. Agricultural biotechnology has in recent years been used to develop crops that are resistant to herbicides and pesticides. Herbicide and pesticide resistance are introduced into crops using genetic engineering. Coincidentally, the same companies that developed herbicide and pesticide tolerant crops also developed the herbicides and pesticides. With the looming climate and food crises, agricultural biotechnology corporations have shifted their focus to so-called ‘climate-ready’ seeds. Climate-ready seeds are genetically modified seeds that are developed with traits resistant to drought, higher temperatures, and increased precipitation. The largest seed corporations in the world (including Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont Pioneer, Bayer, and BASF), are focusing their research on the development of drought-resistant seeds, as water is one of the main limiting factors in agriculture. Climate-ready seeds such as drought-tolerant maize are presented as an adaptation strategy to climate change. The use of biotechnology generally and climate-ready seeds more specifically is promoted and encouraged as a possible adaptation strategy by governments, policymakers, and civil society. These is also, however, a great deal of criticism on the promotion of climate-ready seeds as an adaptation strategy to climate change and a tool to end food insecurity.

Critical voices claim that large seed companies are abusing the climate and food crises for their own commercial gains. The ETC Group, an influential civil society organization, has called the promotion of climate-ready seeds by seed corporations ‘climate profiteering’. Criticism of climate-ready seeds takes various forms. Some scientists argue that climate-ready seeds have not been proven to work in practice. The Union for Concerned Scientists, for example, has noted that drought-resistant maize has not proven to produce more crop yields than other types of maize. Another strong criticism is that large seed companies focus their research on commercially viable crops, such as maize. Commercially viable crops are usually the crops that feed the developed world, and not the crops used by farmers in developing countries that are most in need of seeds that can adapt to climate change. Further doubts are moreover raised about the underlying idea that increasing food production will reduce hunger. It has been estimated that more than enough food is produced on a global scale to feed the entire world population and more. Therefore, food insecurity is not only a problem of production, but also of distribution and access. If rich westerners have access to more maize because of the drought-resistant traits engineered in this crop, this will still not feed the hungry people of the world. Access to climate-ready seeds is by far the most disputed issue. Seed companies have been applying for exclusive patent rights on climate-resilient crop traits they develop. These companies argue that they would not invest such large amounts of money into the research and development of these seeds, if they could not protect their creations with exclusive ownership rights. This is the same argument made by pharmaceutical companies for patenting drugs.

Climate-ready seeds hold both great promise and great controversy. The combination of urgency and uncertainty over the consequences of climate change on agriculture and food production form a convenient context for climate-ready seeds to be promoted. After all, if there is a chance that these seeds can successfully adapt to a changing climate and secure crop yields, it would seem wrong to deny this adaptation strategy. On the other hand, the doubts and criticisms of climate-ready seeds and the exclusive patent rights on them are too serious to ignore.

So the question stands: will agricultural biotechnology in the form of climate-ready seeds prove a successful adaptation strategy to climate change? Or will the climate and food crises be used as an excuse for powerful corporations to increase their profits?

*This article is based on the PhD research which the author is doing at the Department of Law, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The overall research focuses on legal aspects of climate-ready seeds.