What is the future of synthetic chemicals and GMOs in sustainable food systems?
Synthetic chemicals and GMOs can lead to lock-ins and surprises in food systems that must be navigated in transformations to sustainability
- Humanity has surprisingly little knowledge of the full effects of synthetic chemicals and GMOs, so called human-made novel entities
- They have been essential for maintaining high and predictable yields within conventional agriculture – but only in the short term
- The authors conclude that their role and effect needs to be made explicit in sustainable development planning and policy
Synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and more recently genetically modified organisms are a cornerstone of today’s global food security paradigm. However, by facilitating the intensive production forms of this paradigm, these so-called novel entities are also major contributors to climate change, biodiversity loss, eutrophication and pollution.
We can think of each novel entity as a drop of water creating rings of cascading change in a body of water. The paths and interactions of rings become increasingly hard to predict as the number of drops increases.
Peter Søgaard Jørgensen, lead author
The recent finding that we have left the safe operating space for humanity when it comes to the use of novel entities means it is high time to re-evaluate the role of man-made compounds in future food systems, argues a research team led by centre researcher Peter Søgaard Jørgensen in a new article in One Earth.
“We are faced with a conundrum: our capacity to wield novel entities has never been greater, but their role in moving towards a sustainable, equitable and healthy food system has never been more uncertain”, says Peter Søgaard Jørgensen.
Humanity has surprisingly little knowledge of the full effects of novel entities. A group of researchers has recently argued that our understanding of them is so limited that we should consider a global moratorium on new agrochemicals until the ones currently in use are better assessed.
Their use is especially risky given the rapid growth in volume, diversity and types of new compounds.
“We can think of each novel entity as a drop of water creating rings of cascading change in a body of water. The paths and interactions of rings become increasingly hard to predict as the number of drops increases”, explains Peter Søgaard Jørgensen.
Chemical compounds and genetically modified organisms have been essential for maintaining high and predictable yields within conventional agriculture – but only in the short term.
In the longer term, agricultural systems based on agrochemicals are prone to erode ecosystem services and social resilience. In a vicious cycle, the most common solution is often to use more and new forms of novel entities to compensate for the losses they cause.
This lock-in can prove troublesome. Production of many novel entities requires significant amounts of energy which has turned the current energy crisis into a real test of food system resilience.
A transformative pathway
The authors identify three opportunities for advancing transformations towards sustainable food systems in the context of synthetic chemicals and GMOs.
The first is to increase assessment capacity and activity to reduce uncertainty about their effects in the environment and in human societies.
The second opportunity is to shift towards agroecological strategies that are less reliant on these compounds and organisms.
The third opportunity is to involve communities in the design of the chemicals, materials and organisms that are assessed as safe enough. This includes making sure that communities can integrate novel entities into their practices without being held back, for example by patented rights.
The authors conclude that whichever stance societies choose on synthetic chemicals and GMOs, the most important point is to make their role and effect explicit in sustainable development planning and policy.
Søgaard Jørgensen, P., Avila-Ortega, D.I., Blasiak, R., Cornell, S., Gordon, L.J., Nyström, M, Olsson, P. 2022. The lure of novel biological and chemical entities in food-system transformation. One Earth.
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