Viewpoint: COVID-19 food shortages—Why the pandemic is a warning to embrace agricultural technology

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Credit: Chinatopix/AP
We will always remember a world before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the novel coronavirus began making its way across the globe—infecting over a million people, killing thousands and straining food supply chains—few individuals in developed nations worried about going hungry, let alone the threat posed by infectious disease. How things have changed in just a few short months.

Terrible as our current predicament is, it has afforded us an opportunity to rethink our relationship with technology and the importance of scientific innovation in helping us achieve higher standards of living. We now wonder what kind of world we can and should collectively shape. As the pandemic progresses and catapults us into to uncertain territory, the question worth asking is this: will we learn from our trying experience and embrace agricultural technology to build a more thoughtful, just and sustainable world, or return to our pre-COVID ways of thinking until the next pandemic rears its ugly head?

Our food during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

On April 5, 2020, The UN Food and Agriculture Ogranization (FAO)  alerted the world about  a looming food crisis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Closed borders to migrant workers,  disruption in the food supply chain and economic recession are likely to cause havoc in food production and delivery. Like healthcare workers, farmers and other food supply chain workers are our bloodline. Without agricultural workers, most of us would starve, yet modern society values them so little as to virtually ignore the issues they face. 

People can stop doing many things in this time of global pandemic, but they cannot stop eating. Could malnutrition and starvation raise their ugly heads again in Europe, where food (which is mostly imported) has been abundant since the end of World War II? It is unthinkable, but to avert this outcome, we need efficiency and innovative technology to continue fueling large-scale, sustainable agriculture and drive a gentler, less aggressive bioeconomy to support our environment. But the developed world is pursuing these policies at a dangerously slow pace.

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Damaged banana leaf, caused by the fungal disease, black Sigatoka. Credit: Iowa State University

In Europe, compared to more impoverished regions of the world, only a very small percentage of the population is engaged in agricultural production. If cheap prices and food wastage are good indicators, the sense of where food comes from and the many perils farmers go through to produce and commercialize it seems to have been lost in sophisticated urban societies with a preference for organic, chemical-free, GMO-free, “natural” food and other such products.

We seem to understand little about where wheat, rice, maize, sugar, oil, coffee, cacao for chocolate, coconut oil, bananas or avocados come from. While we pick our inexpensive tropical fruit from our  local supermarket shelves and check to see if it has a “Rainforest Certified” sticker, I wonder how many of us  know about the lengths banana farmers in Ecuador or Honduras go to produce Sigatoka-free bananas, or rust-free coffee (both are fungal pathogens deadly to these crops) without using  fungicides and fertilizers the crops require to stay healthy and produce reasonable yields. Like human epidemics, crop and animal epidemics exist too, and most people never hear  or worry about them.

Our anti-chemical stance when it comes to food production is crippled by an embarrassing double standard. Many of us believe farmers are irresponsible for using  pesticides and fertilizers to grow healthy crops, yet we wouldn’t try to overcome a severe case of COVID-19 with good intentions, prayers and cups of hot tea with lemon and honey! We’d happily accept a state-of-the-art treatment prescribed by our doctors.

But perhaps it’s time we consistently live up to our convictions. If we think farmers don’t need genetically engineered pest-resistant or drought-resistant crops, maybe we should manage COVID-19 in the future without a genetically engineered vaccine as well, opting for the slow, conventional route of vaccine development, or worse, no vaccine at all, like some fringe activists advocate. 

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Coffee rust

I don’t call out this double standard to be clever. We all acknowledge, most scientists included, that agricultural companies and farmers may abuse the use of agrochemicals to safeguard yields, and that we need to find alternatives to potentially harmful pesticides when possible. The broader point is that biotech crops are a crucial part of that effort.

There is also agreement that we need to use less land, energy, water and fewer agricultural inputs to promote sustainable agriculture, slow down climate change and maintain healthy biodiversity, which ultimately will help our species survive into the future. Genetically engineered crops contribute to all these goals.

I  applaud the slow food and urban farming movements, because these are important and creative initiatives—yet they are mainly solutions for affluent societies. They don’t work nearly as well for poor societies that need efficient industrial agriculture, especially to feed densely populated cities.

Agriculture vs. the environment

Should we go back to our imagined idyllic farming past?  I don’t think we can with a population of seven billion people that continues to grow. The industrial revolution started in Europe in the 18th century and brought significant social changes that resulted in an increase in population and urbanization. In 18th century Europe, small-scale farming gave way to intensive, efficient and large-scale agriculture that was required to feed an ever-growing urban population of new professionals and  factory workers that no longer worked in the fields, often producing poor yields.

The explosive population growth in Europe and North America began much earlier than in less developed regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America, which are still growing today. Towards the late 20th century and after recovering from two world wars, Europe’s main problem was not feeding more people, but maintaining a healthy population and boosting economic growth (food could be imported) to maintain a high standard of living.

The poorer countries in the East and South watched the West’s industrialization and increase in wealth with wonder and, naturally, wanted to emulate this glorious path out of poverty and into progress. These nations began to copy rich countries shortly thereafter. Their populations grew exponentially, which small-scale subsistence agriculture could no longer support. People left the fields and moved to cities in search of jobs.  Spectacular advances in the 1960s and 1970s in agricultural science collectively known as the Green Revolution greatly increased agricultural output and averted famine, especially in Asia and Latin America.

Related article:  Malawi inches closer to commercializing GMO Bt cotton as crop yields double in field trials
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The Green Revolution drastically increased wheat yields in India. Credit: The Indian Express

Like in Europe and North America, agriculture also became industrialized and mechanized: irrigation systems were installed, plant breeding produced more and better varieties of crops and chemical fertilizers and pesticides were developed. The paradigm was  “what the plant needed (water, food, no competition from weeds and no pests), the plant got”, so farmers changed the plant’s environment to suit its needs. For once, Malthus and his dire predictions of population growth exceeding food production were proved wrong.

With a misguided sense that we had enough food for everyone, many commentators adopted the mantra that the world’s remaining food-shortage problem was one of distribution, not of insufficient production. Agricultural innovation after doing so much good, paradoxically, became the main enemy of the environment and biotechnologists the bad guys.

Public funding for agricultural research and extension dwindled in most countries and the slack was picked up mainly by the private sector. The Monsantos of the world were born and were universally hated. Nonetheless, the agricultural biotechnology revolution had begun, with an important paradigm shift from the Green Revolution. Instead of changing the environment to suit the plant, the plant could be adapted to a changing environment by genetic engineering and the use of microbes.

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Europe slows the biotech revolution

By the late 20th century, the rules to industrialization had changed dramatically, mainly in the European Union, which also dominated the UN agencies for food and the environment.

New and stringent agricultural policies came from this affluent food-importing region, with repercussions for everybody else during the first years of the 21st century, after genetically modified crops were first commercialized.

EU and UN programs provided aid funding for biosafety projects related to environmental conservation in many developing countries in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. Most programs came with “strings attached” to the new European policies on agricultural biotechnology. Generous funds were disbursed to ministries of the environment (not agriculture), although the programs were concerned with new agricultural technologies.

Bizarrely and very unfortunately, agriculture and biotechnology became the environment’s worst enemies under these UN programs. The term biosafety was borrowed from microbiology, yet the programs were not designed to promote biosafety against crop, animal or human pathogens to avert pandemics like SARS, avian flu or COVID-19, but to safeguard the environment, including human and animal health, against the perceived risks of biotechnology.

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Specifically, the biosafety guidelines for genetically modified crops (or Living Modified Organisms) developed through conventional genetic engineering were designed to manage the (exaggerated) biological risks set by the Convention of Biological Diversity, through its famous Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of Biotechnology.

Most developing countries, trained in biosafety of biotechnology by generous European and UN programs blindly adopted Eurocentric guidelines to the detriment of local agriculture and the environment. Without appropriate policies and lacking incentives for innovation from demanding markets and low prices, they are stuck with outdated and low-yielding technologies that cause great damage to the environment.

Today, many countries in Latin-America like Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Guatemala, are trying to change their ill-conceived and hopelessly outdated legislation as demands increase to solve urgent food production problems. The last decade has also witnessed fast development of other biotechnologies that can aid these efforts, such as CRISPR genome editing and gene drives that span medical, veterinary, environmental and industrial applications. Shaping biotechnology policies from ministries of the environment makes no sense in these circumstances.

Will coronavirus be a game changer?

Maybe a couple of decades ahead of the biotech revolution, the information technology or infotech revolution (Al, IoT, 3D printing, robotics and drones, blockchain) took over a  globalized world. Now we have entered a third era of the agritech revolution, where exponential technologies merge to change forever the way we live and  grow food. This technical progression unsettles and scares many people who view the technological future with great distrust and angst.

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Then SARS-Cov-2 appeared (not as a surprise to many scientists) and changed everything, for better or worse. I personally believe it will be for the better in the long term. For a start, people everywhere are interested in learning a little about biology and virology, including IT programmers who could be inspired to learn the flawless biological designs of nature and incorporate them into their work.

In the 2020s, the approach of synthetic biology and the increasing involvement of newly trained young bioengineers in both industrialized and developing countries will create a domestication and democratization of biotechnology. It is imperative not to tie the hands of this second generation of biotechnologists with ill-conceived ideas of risk and precautionary policies. Instead, it is key to craft robust, pragmatic, science-based and coherent biotechnology policies, for the successful development of the bioeconomy and to maintain human, animal and environmental health.

The mantra that “there is enough food and we only have a problem of distribution” is not valid today. The tools of biotech and infotech have already been developed and deployed in certain regions to address the unique challenges they face. They will be able to grow food efficiently in future times of crisis, provided they aren’t made to face more regulatory hurdles.  Do we envisage a better and fairer post-COVID world, or will we return to “business as usual” and keep the status quo of social inequality? The choice is  ours, more now than ever before.

Maria Mercedes Roca is a Latin-American/British virologist and biotechnologist. She splits her time between Mexico and Bolivia and wrote this article during lockdown from the UK.

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