Ukraine, Food Security, and Biotechnology

Val Giddings May 9, 2022
May 9, 2022

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Celebrated in symphonies, and storied in literature and cinema, the steppes of central Asia have long played a key role in the history of western civilization. Early inhabitants domesticated the horse, first for meat, then for riding and hauling; they developed the wheel, harnessing it for daily life, trade, and warfare, and gave us the Indo-European languages that underpin our cultures and drive our economies. They also played a central role in developing and harnessing wild grasses: wheat, barley, and rye that allowed for easy accumulation of food surpluses, enabling specialization, the essential prerequisite to civilization, and the experience of food security as something more than ephemeral good luck.

Now these steppes feature in the daily news covering Russia’s  criminal (and, happily, failing) attempt to conquer Ukraine. The moral outlines of the conflict are clear, and completely unsurprising to anyone who’s paid attention to international politics in recent decades. But Putin’s apocalypse will have far-reaching impacts that threaten the whole world even if the nuclear nightmare is avoided.

The global distribution of food security is uneven. Food reserves have been tightening in recent years, and with more than a quarter of the world’s wheat coming from Ukraine and Russia the prospects for severe disruption to global food supplies grows with each day Putin’s doomed, delusional misadventure continues. Although Ukrainian farmers continue to plant as they are able, about a third of their land is projected to lie fallow this year. The capacity of other countries to make up the difference is imperfect.

As The Economist has noted, “The war in Ukraine is going to change geopolitics profoundly. Some bits will look familiar, some will look unprecedented.” Food prices are already rising in many countries: Livestock husbandry in Kenya is suffering as rising animal feed costs ripple through the economy, triggering widespread price increases; Tunisia, where food price spikes spawned the Arab Spring a decade ago, is seeing prices soar for wheat, fuel, and fertilizer imports; Brazil and Peru anticipate major disruptions due to fertilizer shortages; Indonesia has banned palm oil exports; and other forces converge and cascade to magnify negative impacts, all exacerbated by ill-considered policies of various flavors.

Not all food price increases are from Putin’s war. Drought, bird flu, and other factors contribute, along with pandemic supply chain disruptions. The consequence is that Russian aggression in Ukraine means “hunger will haunt the world.” What is to be done?

The United Nations has made the case that global agriculture requires a profound reshaping to meet the challenges of climate change and food security in the 21st century. We have seen success from such reform efforts before, despite misguided opposition. And recent increases in our understanding of biology have given us the most powerful tools we’ve ever had to address the challenges we face. But the solutions they bring are impeded by a political obstacle: regulatory policies driven by fear rather than informed by science and experience.

New biological tools make it possible more effectively to harness underutilized resources like orphan crops, and farmers are increasing their demands for access to modern tools that can provide some buffering from geopolitical turmoil. Important voices in areas long hostile to genetically engineered crops are increasingly shifting from opposition to embrace, as past worries have been laid to rest by data and experience.

Genetic engineering has already delivered vast economic and environmental benefits to humanity. Gene editing is rapidly expanding those contributions, with some even recognizing new biotechnologies are key to future sustainability.

Researchers have discovered crop yields can be increased by 10 percent by using CRISPR gene editing simply to silence a single gene. We’ve already seen gene editing used to improve the nutrient content of  fruit, with new products already on the market and the pipeline bulging with more. These new products improve the economic outlook for farmers, but are also poised to improve the sustainability of their farming, cutting fertilizer use, pesticides, and helping against climate change by increasing the carbon they sequester. It has now become possible to improve photosynthesis itself, and make trees far more effective at sequestering carbon. Indeed, it is clear that not only are the opportunities almost limitless, but that the technology is the greenest thing going.

All of this is threatened by government regulations that are ostensibly aimed at enhancing safety but which in fact do little but perpetuate reliance on obsolete technologies. The measures imposed by these regulations violate widely accepted bedrock principles that they should be proportional to the hazards they aim to mitigate, and no more onerous than required to meet the goal. Restoring the primacy of these principles to regulation, through steps ITIF has outlined, would go a long way toward unleashing their innovative potential. Not only would this help make famine from geopolitical upheavals less likely, it promises longer, richer lives to the entire world. The sky is the limit.