Historical archive

Bioteknologinemnda

Genetically modified food - securing the world food supply?

Historical archive

Published under: Stoltenberg's 2nd Government

Publisher Ministry of Agriculture and Food

By: Minister of Agriculture and Food Lars Peder Brekk

Bioteknologinemnda

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends

It is my great pleasure to address this conference. I am honored to see such a broad range of experts gathered here, including scientists, representatives of NGOs and farmers organizations. And for those who have travelled far: welcome to Norway!

This seminar is held at a crucial point in time. The food crisis in 2008 pushed the prices of basic foods staples beyond the reach of millions of people. Poor households were forced to eat fewer meals and less-nutritious food. At the same time new technologies, including gene technology and genetically modified organisms, are claimed to be silver bullets that prescribe the solution.

I have just arrived back from the Hague-conference on agriculture, food security and climate change attended by more than 60 ministers from different countries. All agreed that we need increased food production in the years to come. However, genetically modified foods were barely mentioned in the conference.

First I will use some time to describe the emerging food crisis.
Prices on the world market are still unstable and unpredictable.  Only these last months, we have again seen surging prices. 

The UN Secreatry-General, Mr. Ban Ki- moon, said at the world summit on Food Security that ”The food crisis of today is a wake-up call for tomorrow”.  I think this is a good way to describe the situation we are facing.

The new estimate of the number of people who will suffer chronic hunger this year is 925 million. The continuing high global hunger level makes it extremely difficult to reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition by 2015.

Climate change is threatening the living conditions of farmers, fishers and forest- dependent people who are already vulnerable and food insecure. More extreme and unpredictable weather, drought and flood changes the conditions for food production. Rural communities, particularly those living in already fragile environments, face an immediate and growing risk of crop failure and loss of livestock.

In addition, the ecosystem services upon which agricultural production depend, are being eroded at an alarming rate. Environmental degradation and rising competition for land and water are both huge challenges for food security.  

The challenge to grow the food we need will only increase, as the demand for food is rising and the world population rapidly growing. To feed a world population expected to surpass 9 billion in 2050, it is now estimated that food production will have to increase by 70 percent between now and then. This increase will have to take place in the context of climate change and growing competition for the use of natural resources.

The question is therefore -How will we feed a dramatically increased world population in 2050?  The title of this seminar suggests that genetically modified food may secure the world food supply. I have a strong opinion and have previously spoken clearly on these matters. I do not think that genetic modified food is necessary to achieve food security and secure the right to food for everyone. I believe that there are no magic technological bullets that will solve the emerging food crisis. We should confront this crisis in a multitude of different ways.

I know that many researchers and companies claim that GMO may provide a multitude of benefits without additional risks compared to traditional breeding. Those stakeholders are in a hurry to use GMO at a wider scale. Indeed, while commercialized GM-crops today are mostly limited so soy, maize, cotton and rape seed I am aware that other important species such as rice, wheat, potato, and even animals such as salmon and pigs are in the commercial pipeline.

On the other hand, there are scientists both in Norway and abroad that are concerned about unintended and long term risks and I lend my ear to those and I share their concerns. I would like specifically to mention the Genøk Center for Biosafety in Tromsø were scientists for more than 10 years have carried out independent research and take seriously the precautionary principle and the scientists responsibility of early warnings. More research is needed and there are other tools than GMOs that should be scrutinized to deal with the food crisis. The technique of genetic modification is relative new and I claim the right, as a responsible politician and as a concerned citizen, to advocate a precautionary attitude. Moreover, a number of independent studies have also been published indicating that the long term production gain from already commercialized GM-crops is overestimated.

Allow me to highlight what I see as the most important challenges and steps forward to deal with the emerging crisis in world food supply. 
First of all, the declaration of the World Summit reaffirmed that food security is a national responsibility. It is of crucial importance that countries commit to this responsibility. The main instrument for global food security is the national food production. Every country has an obligation to provide food for its own population. Moreover, there must be room for manoeuvre within the trade regime to formulate and implement our national policy goals for food production.

The international community has also come a long way in identifying what needs to happen for agriculture to deliver on increased food production and improved food security. Global plans for food security, such as The Comprehensive Framework for Action by the UN High Level Task Force, as well as the IAASTD report from 2008 that will be presented later today, points to the need to boost smallholder farmer food production.  Access to food is for many people in developing countries closely tied to local food production. Women are responsible for most food production in developing countries. They are the key to success and should be at the core of all new efforts.

The World Development Report 2008 by the World Bank also draws attention to the longstanding underinvestment in food security, agriculture and rural development. The report states that agriculture must be at the centre of the development agenda if we are to meet the Millenium Development Goals to halve the proportion of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition.

As the Minister of Agriculture and Food in Norway, I am responsible for both agricultural and forest policies. It is crucial that we see these sectors as closely linked when facing the challenges of climate change and food insecurity. The major direct cause of deforestation is the need for agricultural land. The demand for agricultural land comes from industrial agriculture, but also from subsistence agriculture. This underlines the importance of improving agricultural practices and productivity on agricultural land that is already in use.

The food and climate crisis have shed new light on the need to secure the worlds genetic crop diversity. Agriculture is founded on the diversity of plant and animal genetic resources, and on their ability to adapt to change. The development of crops that can cope with heat, drought, flood and other extremes will likely be the single most important action we can take to adapt to climate change. This can be achieved jointly by farmers, breeders and scientist combining traditional and well known breeding techniques and new technology. Norway has taken a pro-active role through The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which provides backup safety storage for seeds from genebanks from around the world and thus contributes to the long-term global food security.

Global interdependence in the area of genetic resources is total. International treaties are important tools to enhance the protection and use of genetic resources. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture establishes common rules to make crop diversity freely accessible to plant breeders, and to ensure that that any benefits derived from that access are shared. Furthermore, the Aichi Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing was adopted under the Convention on Biodiversity just three weeks ago after six years of negotiations. The protocol outlines how benefits from genetic resources are to be shared with countries and communities who conserved and managed the resources. This should benefit developing countries, in particular.

Food security is also increasingly integrated in important processes such as the climate negotiations. Agriculture not only suffers the impact of climate change, it is also responsible for a large share of global greenhouse gas emissions. All sectors must cut emissions, and agriculture will take its share of the responsibility. 

To meet the challenge of feeding a growing population, reductions in the amount of food wasted after production are also needed. Tremendous quantities of food are wasted in processing, transport, and in people’s kitchens. We need to reduce our wasteful habits! 

The food crisis also calls for reinforcing the global governance on food security. We need a well-functioning global architecture for food and agriculture. The FAOs Committee of Food Security, can be the hub we need. It is our ambition that a reformed Committee of Food Security will enable the UN organizations related to food security to speak with one voice in the international community. We need a strong UN, a UN that “Delivers as One” in the field, drawing on the comparative advantage of each organization.  In this way, UN can serve as the multilateral arena for forging alliances to combat hunger and poverty.

Since modified organisms do not recognize national borders we need to develop standards and guidance for the development and use of genetically modified organisms. Products developed through the use of new technologies may enter the global food chain and must go through a risk assessment according to internationally recognized standards.

However, in the end, each country should have the right to deal with GMO cultivation according to its own laws, policies and priorities. In Norway the use of genetically modified food is regulated and requires authorization. Thus, every single GM is evaluated on a case by case basis to ensure that it does not constitute a risk to health or the environment. Deliberate release of a living GMO into the environment, that is not already approved in the EU, do also require an authorization which is mandated to give considerable weight to whether the GMO will be of benefit to society and is likely to promote sustainable development. Thus, in the case that future GMOs are found to make real contribution to food security without any additional risks they may be authorized after a critical evaluation.

Let it be clear that even though Norway has a restrictive policy on GMO, research and innovation in areas such as biotechnology and bio-prospecting are important. We should strengthen the private and public research on alternatives to GMO. The relatively short historical period of the black oil-economy will end and we have no other options than to reinvent an environmental friendly and sustainable knowledge-based green bio-economy.

Allow me to conclude these introductory remarks. A variety of efforts is needed to prevent the emerging food crisis. Each country shares a responsibility to produce sufficient and healthy food for its own population. However, every country should find its own way, based on natural resources and policies.

I am open to new knowledge. Future research may provide new insights, new solutions and greater confidence. However, I do not believe at the time being, that genetically modified foods will be needed to secure the food supply. With the urgent need to solve the emerging food crisis, we should focus on the methods that we know are working, and that we know are safe!

I wish you all a very fruitful discussion.

Thank you