GMO crops could help stem famine and future global conflicts

By Josh Winkler

January 11, 2018

A child harvests in a Syrian field. Photo by

When most of us think about the threats posed by climate change, events like floods, droughts, intense storms and hotter temperatures come to mind. These are all, according to the vast majority of scientists, exactly what we can expect to see more and more of. However, what is often overlooked are the sociopolitical consequences of these climatic changes. In other words, we tend to view these natural disasters in a vacuum without recognizing the myriad ways in which climate change is both directly and indirectly shaping economies, cultures and governments.

This being the case, looking back at conflicts such as those in Syria and the Sudan, it has become increasingly clear that climate change played a role in triggering the instability that led to these conflicts. Which begs the question: could these conflicts have been prevented through non-political measures that responded to changes in climate?

The answer increasingly seems to be yes. Further developments in biotechnology and a deeper understanding of what triggered the conflicts in Syria and Sudan point to novel prevention solutions grounded in modern agriculture. The arrival of genetically engineered (GE) drought-tolerant crops that can withstand longer and more intense droughts could have the potential to prevent future conflicts.

Both the conflicts in Syria and the Sudan followed intense, climate change-induced drought periods that caused mass crop failures and famine. Beginning as early as 1998 and continuing into the 21st century, Syria and the surrounding region experienced a drought that, according to research published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, was the worst the region had experienced in 900 years.

The subsequent crop failure and famine eventually forced rural populations into urban centers to seek out food and better living conditions. The unfortunate result of this mass migration of people was the failure of Syrian cities to provide basic goods and services, leading to public unrest and eventually conditions ripe for civil war.

Had these farmers been better prepared to deal with years-long drought conditions, might Syria have avoided their civil war? The answer is not clear, as the conflict in Syria is complex and it’s impossible to say whether it could have been prevented by any one action. However, learning from Syria, we can assume that in the future, reducing the impacts of drought on particularly at-risk populations through implementation of modern farming practices and the introduction of GE drought-tolerant crops could play a major role in preventing political instability.

Though there a few GE drought-tolerant crops on the market today, scientists all over the world are developing new crops in an effort to better prepare farmers for the increasingly severe droughts we expect to see.

Researchers at the University of Cape Town in South Africa are working to genetically engineer teff, an African grain important to many indigenous groups, in order to increase its ability to bounce back from water deprivation. The group intends to pull genes from a non-edible native plant, Myroflamnus flabellifolius, which has the ability to enter dormancy during intense drought, but then bounce back in the event of rain. Small scale, public projects such as these that pinpoint specific crops in specific areas will be key to combatting the effects of climate change.

Similarly, Xiaohang Yang at the Oakridge National Laboratory in Tennessee is attempting something more ambitious and wide reaching in his research on understanding how naturally drought-resistant plants use a different type of photosynthesis to endure the stressful conditions of drought. Yang’s goal is to map the genetics behind the agave plant’s method of photosynthesis, which differs from most plants, with the hope of one day introducing those genes into common crops. Not only would this allow for crops to withstand drought conditions, it would also open up new areas for farming that were once too dry.

As the genetic engineering of crops rapidly expands in the public sector, using GMOs as a tool for mitigating the effects of climate change will become a more and more potent option, offering hope for feeding a growing global population and serving as a stabilizing force in drought ridden parts of the world.

Josh Winkler is a freelance journalist who focuses on genetic engineering, the Anthropocene and the outdoors industry.