UN Summit offers chance to influence global food system

By Joan Conrow

September 17, 2021

Though the United Nations billed its Sept. 23 Food Systems Summit as an opportunity for “everyone …. to carve a path to a world where good food for all is a reality,” it appears that public participation will be less robust than initially anticipated due to the forum’s virtual format.

Still, many are looking to the event as the best opportunity in years to influence the structure of the world’s food system as it struggles to address hunger, malnutrition and food waste in the face of climate change, a global pandemic and a steadily growing population.

“As a people’s summit and a solutions summit, it has recognized that everyone, everywhere must take action and work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes, and thinks about food,” states the Summit website.

The Alliance for Science and others are pushing to ensure that genome editing and other innovative plant breeding technologies are included among the tools that deliver solutions to agriculture’s most pressing problems, especially in Africa.

“I think the Food Systems Summit is an opportunity for us all to get a voice in there that gene editing has a lot of benefits for the world and Africa in particular,” said Nigerian farmer and AfS Advisory Board Member Patience Koku.

“Genome editing is one of the newest technologies that has come to revolutionize agriculture and boost nutrition because it allows the addition of nutritional components within the plants without adding anything new to them,” noted Peter Gichuki, a biotechnology student at the University of Nairobi’s Centre of Biotechnology and Bioinformatics.

“Genome editing only improves the plant itself from the basic structures of the plant,” he explained. “And in that way, we can achieve something that is safe and good for the farmers, without the use of chemical additions. What you get is an organic product.”

Linet Kerubo, a young scientist studying biotechnology at Kenya’s Egerton University, said that genome editing allows researchers to extend the shelf life of perishable staple food crops like cassava, helping farmers tame post-harvest losses.

“With increased use of genome editing tools, I see a future where important crops will be fortified with vital vitamins to fight malnutrition by increasing the nutrition value of important crops,” Kerubo observed.

Prof. Valentine Ntui of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) noted that genome editing is helping to breed bananas that are resistant to black sigatoka leaf disease, brown streak virus and Xanthomonas wilt, all of which have suppressed yields of an important staple food in Africa.


Dr. Thomas Adams, co-founder and CEO of Pairwise, a United States-based biotechnology firm, said that genome editing can also help agriculture respond to climate change impacts by speeding up the otherwise lengthy process of traditional plant breeding. It has other applications as well, he noted, such as adapting crops for carbon sequestration, extending shelf life and reducing food waste.

Pablo Orozco, AfS global policy lead, said he’s seeing tremendous interest in the upcoming Summit that stems from a sense of urgency in addressing problems in the world’s food systems. As the Food Systems Summit highlights, we only have nine harvests left to achieve the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

“We need to boost production in a safe, sustainable and nature-positive way while reducing the agricultural system’s environmental footprint,” Orozco said. “A game changing idea that can allow us to achieve the SDG’s faster and more safely is the use of modern biotechnology in plant breeding.”

Agricultural biotechnology can reduce crop damage caused by climate change, insect pests and plant diseases, Orozco said, while also improving yields, protecting farmers by reducing the need to pesticides, increasing rural livelihoods and providing more nutritious foods.

“Genome editing can help breed innovative plants that save water,” he added. “There is also current research being conducted on developing crops with higher nitrogen use efficiency, which can increase crop yields with lower amounts of fertilizers, thus reducing energy use and the environmental footprint of agricultural production. By boosting nature-positive production at scale through the use of plant breeding innovations we can significantly contribute to the delivery of SDG12 (responsible consumption and production), SDG13 (climate action), SDG14 (life below water) and SDG15 (life on land).”

Added Dr. Lawrence Haddad, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), “The potentials seem limitless in terms of what can be done with gene editing.”

However, he noted, “it’s going to take brave, bold activist governments to make that a reality. In other words, governments will have to set up transparent, enforceable governance that clearly works for the interests of people and planet.”

Supporters of agricultural biotechnology are hoping the Food Systems summit will lay the foundation for such governance, ensuring that innovative plant breeding tools have a chance to contribute to food security and improved nutrition across the globe.

Register now to virtually attend the Food Systems Summit in New York.

Verenardo Meeme contributed to this report from Kenya.

Image: A woman sells cereals in a Tanzanian market. Photo: Shutterstock/Benny Marty