When it came to making predictions, Carnac the Magnificent, a comedic role played by late night talk show host Johnny Carson, was on top of his game.
Too bad for us, it’s tougher predicting what the coming year may hold for food and agriculture.
Unlike me, Johnny Carson had the benefit of a gifted sense of humour, complemented by a team of skilled writers on The Tonight Show, which delivered prognostications that brought a smile to most.
Unfortunately, when it comes to food and agriculture, the future may be predictable, but it isn’t humorous. The current situation is that with the level of global food insecurity stubbornly remaining above 800 million people, changes are required this year that will contribute to reducing this level.
In the first decade of the 21st century, progress was made on reducing food insecurity, but the Food and Agriculture Organization reports that in 2017, the number of food insecure rose for the third straight year in a row, back to levels of a decade earlier.
So how can we combat a predictive increase in food insecurity?
One change that I desperately feel needs to happen is to end the over-regulation of genome edited plant varieties.
Scientific advancements in plant breeding have been occurring for decades. Society has accepted the use of untargeted chemical and radiation mutation breeding technologies to create plant varieties that aren’t regulated beyond basic agronomy safety aspects. Yet, the application of precision genome editing mutagenesis has resulted in some countries regulating these plant varieties as equivalent to plants that have been genetically modified with genes from other species (transgenic).
Present regulatory systems don’t require additional regulatory oversight for random, untargeted mutations, so it defies logic that scientific advancements would be subject to additional regulations and costs. Additional regulations for genome-edited crops, fruits and vegetables are nothing short of a barrier to innovation. If global food security is going to be significantly reduced, barriers like this need to be removed.
Unlike the humour of Carnac the Magnificent’s predictions, there is nothing funny in the prediction that politics will continue to obstruct food security improvements.
The change that could have the greatest impact on improving food security would be the removal of politics from the regulation of crops and foods.
This past fall at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), I witnessed how politics can sway regulations. For 25 years industrial countries that have science-based regulations have approved GM crops and foods as safe and equivalent to similar products. In many instances food insecure countries have regulatory frameworks that have moved away from science-based regulations to include socio-economic considerations. The problem with this is that socio-economics often have no methodologies capable of determining if potential issues are a risk or not. The result is that socio-economic assessments become barriers to innovation. This contributes to ensuring that improvements to food security will never be achieved or will be lengthily delayed.
With global food insecurity on the rise again, those interested in food and agriculture need to acknowledge that all technologies are required if meaningful solutions are going to be provided to food insecure countries. We are nearly two full decades into the 21st century and political opposition to food security belongs in the 18th.
Stuart Smyth is an assistant professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s agricultural and resource economics department and holds the university’s Industry Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation. This blog appeared on the SAIFood website.