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Global food security and the governance of modern biotechnologies

Tait, J   Barker, G

EMBO reports   12 763-768

July 2011   (Published online July 2011)

Food security has become an issue of serious concern because global food supplies are threatened by systemic collapse. Increasing demand for food caused by global population growth, changing lifestyles in developing countries, climate change and competition with biofuels are combining to create a ‘perfect storm’. Moreover, short-term weather pattern changes leading to floods and droughts and associated fires in key grain-producing areas of the world encourage speculation in agricultural commodities and cause wild price fluctuations. Drastic price hikes for staple foods during the past few years have triggered famine and revolts in developing countries, where people are hardest hit.

Basic research into plant, animal and microbial physiology and molecular processes has yielded extensive knowledge about plants, their pathogens and symbiotic partners. Scientists and policy-makers are confident that the application of this knowledge could lead to new and more efficient approaches to crop production that will eventually improve food security. In this context, Europe has a particularly important role, as it contains highly fertile land and is agriculturally very productive.

However, European countries find it difficult to respond constructively to these challenges, given their divergent opinions on how to address food-security issues, particularly in terms of whether and how science and technology should be part of the solution. In addition, individuals and interest groups opposed to genetic modification and related technologies have influenced policy making in agriculture. Unfortunately, the European Union (EU) has yet to develop a coherent approach that allows European citizens to reap the benefits of scientific progress and prevents special interests from dominating decision-making processes. European regulatory systems—instead of scientific progress—will therefore determine whether technology-based solutions are part of the future of agriculture within Europe, and in many other countries. This article explores the link between regulation and innovation in the context of food security in Europe, and considers the impact of European policy on the ability of other countries to respond to food-security challenges.