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March 21, 2022

Improving food self-sufficiency with GM crops during geopolitical crises

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered a surge in global energy and commodity prices, in addition, the major economies of countries reliant upon Russia and Ukraine for non-genetically modified (GM) crops, oil and gas, and fertilizer will feel the greatest ramifications, as exports from the Black Sea are severely impacted and new tariffs imposed.

With consumer disposable income already under pressure from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, and previously rising energy and petrol prices, changes in food prices may lead to the acceleration of a worldwide food crisis. To mitigate the pressure of geopolitical tensions and crises such as the Ukraine-Russian conflict, countries reliant on crop imports will need to improve their food self-sufficiency. The genetic engineering and modification of crops can help in this goal and will provide further benefits such as mitigating the effects of climate change. However, alongside safety regulations, a move towards GM crops will require educational campaigns for increased public confidence and acceptance of GM products.

The repercussions of Russia’s invasion on crop yields and exports

The most notable price effects have been on energy and grains, reflecting the reliance on Ukraine and Russia for these raw materials, as markets price in the impact of near-term supply disruptions: 30% of global wheat exports originate from Black Sea ports; for corn, the share is 20%, while Black Sea sunflower oil exports represent 10% of world vegetable oil exports. Disruption in commodities exported from Ukraine and Russia has further far-reaching effects. For example, as sunflower exports are impacted, palm oil prices have climbed over 40%, since the start of February 2022. Meanwhile, Russia accounts for 23% of the global ammonia export market, 14% of urea, 21% for potash, and 10% of phosphates exports. With export freezes and uncertain natural gas markets, supplies will dwindle. Many farmers will shift towards crops that require lower fertilizer applications, as yields of corn and grains will suffer the most.

With hindered exports, the interruption of spring-time sowing schedules for crops in Ukraine and Russia, increased demand for biofuels as a result of higher crude prices, and disruption of fertilizer supply chains, the long-term impacts will be serious. Prices will remain high and will hit consumer incomes, downgrading the outlook for major economies. Alongside price hikes, the damage to crop yields both in Ukraine and Russia, and elsewhere as a result of reduced use of fertilizers, many regions may soon be exposed to an accelerated food crisis.

Crops can be genetically modified to boost annual yields

GM crops can help to boost food yield. Grown commercially since the 1990s, research into GM crops has accelerated, and crop varieties with various benefits for improving yield and reducing costs have been created: disease resistance, drought tolerance, herbicide tolerance, and improved nutrient uptake.

New varieties in the making will even show improved photosynthetic efficiency, enhancing plant productivity. The benefits of GM crops will only be enhanced as climate change worsens, the global population grows, and geopolitical tensions continue.

Cultivation of nitrogen-efficient GM crops reduces dependency on exports of fertilizers and non-GM crops

To reduce the volume of fertilizer required, and the subsequent need for imports of fertilizer and natural gases used to create fertilizer, crop genomes can be engineered to improve the nitrogen use efficiency of the plant. With export freezes from Russia ongoing, the reduced dependency on fertilizer imports will improve the self-sufficiency of countries.

However, concerns for human and environmental health and safety have led to major restrictions on the cultivation of GM crops worldwide. For example, in 2015 more than half of the members of the EU voted to ban farmers from the practice. Countries reliant on Ukraine for imports of non-GM crops will be hit harder. The removal of restrictions is a lengthy process, as demonstrated by the UK. However, legislation is perhaps the least of their worries. Tight regulations on the farming practices of GM crops and labelling practices of products, as well as educational awareness campaigns, will be required to increase public confidence.

As food prices rise, supplies dwindle, and populations rise, GM crops may be one of the only solutions to improve national food self-sufficiency, reduce the chance of worldwide food crises, and lessen the impact on major economies.