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For over a decade, Indigenous and local communities have demanded a bigger share of international funding to protect nature and the climate, as well as easier access to that money. But progress has been limited, with only 1-2 percent of such finance reaching them directly, reports show. 

Now frustrated Indigenous rights groups are trying a new tactic to speed up change: creating their own funds in a push to boost the flow of money to frontline communities and shift away from what some see as an outdated colonial-style model driven by donors in the Global North. 

Since 2020 – and especially last year – more than half a dozen new Indigenous-led funds have sprung up, largely in forest-rich Brazil but also in developing countries from Indonesia to Mexico.  

Many are still in a start-up phase, but a few have already begun pushing money to frontline communities. They include the Mesoamerican Territorial Fund (MTF), which invested $1.3 million in 32 projects – from chocolate production to tourism and protecting traditional knowledge – in communities from Mexico to Panama last year. 

“We are aiming not only to make the funds reach the real guardians of the forest and the real guardians of mitigating and adapting to climate change, but also to support sustainability, democracy and good governance of all these territories,” said María Pía Hernández, a lawyer and regional manager for the MTF. 

World Bank climate funding greens African hotels while fishermen sink

Multilateral funds can take years to approve projects and often struggle to funnel big pots of nature and climate finance into the smaller-scale projects communities need, Indigenous leaders said.  

The new funds aim to fill the gap by gathering large amounts of money, distributing it nimbly and leap-frogging the barriers faced by forest communities in dealing with traditional funds, such as onerous paperwork. 

“We aim to improve not just the condition of the territories and people who live there but also promote global climatic justice,” Hernández said on the sidelines of last week’s Skoll World Forum, a gathering of social innovators.  

Bypassing the giants 

As the World Bank and International Monetary Fund hold their Spring Meetings in Washington this week, focused in part on reshaping lending for climate action, Indigenous communities are already rethinking how to better access the resources they need to protect nature and the climate – and to ensure those on the frontline benefit from changes such as new clean energy infrastructure. 

Along the way, they are setting up new rules and structures in line with their own traditions and beliefs, after years of chafing against constraints imposed by big donors, some of them former colonial powers. 

Fossil fuel debts are illegitimate and must be cancelled

In Canada, for instance, many Indigenous governing bodies now run their own renewable energy utilities, providing a fifth of Canada’s renewables, said Joan Carling, executive director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International. 

“If we transform the business-as-usual and create the enabling environment and conditions to put Indigenous people at the centre of this, then we can have a truly just, equitable renewable energy for all,” she said. 

A new dashboard released last week by the Rights and Resources Initiative and the Rainforest Foundation Norway shows climate finance for indigenous and local communities rose between 2020 and 2023 to about $517 million per year, a 36 percent increase over the previous four years. 

That increase comes after governments and charitable donors promised $1.7 billion back in 2021 to Indigenous and local communities by 2025 for their role in protecting land and forests, which are considered key to protecting both the climate and biodiversity. 

Yet with much new funding still moving through big international environment organisations and other intermediary agencies, rather than directly to communities, “there is no evidence yet indicating a systematic change in funding modalities,” the groups noted in a report.

Connecting communities with cash 

Solange Bandiaky-Badji, coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative, said improving direct access to funding is the key issue. At least $10 billion in finance for Indigenous and local communities will be needed to meet a global pledge to protect at least 30 percent of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030, she added. 

Indigenous-led funds believe they can be pivotal to achieving that ramp-up. 

Shandia, established by the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities uniting 35 million people from 24 countries, is still in a start-up phase but aims to serve as a conduit for much larger-scale finance to Indigenous and other frontline groups. 

“Millions of dollars are moving in the world. We want to connect claims on the ground to those millions,” said Juan Carlos Jintiach, a Shuar indigenous leader from Ecuador and the alliance’s executive secretary, who was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his work on behalf of Indigenous communities. 

Indonesia’s main Indigenous alliance similarly in 2023 helped establish the Nusantara Fund, while in Brazil a range of Indigenous-led vehicles, including the Podáali Indigenous Amazonian Fund, were launched last year.

Guardians of the forest – and finance?  

Anthony Bebbington, who runs the Ford Foundation’s international natural resources and change change programmes, said the last few years had seen the emergence of substantial new funds, with the potential to grow, that are challenging the traditional ways donors have worked.  

“Funds are saying to us, ‘If you trust us to be guardians of the forest – a role for which we are often harassed and sometimes killed – then there is no justification for you to also not trust us to be guardians of the finance’,” he told an event on the sidelines of the Skoll World Forum. 

In projects backed by the Mesoamerican Territorial Fund, for instance, indicators of success are changing from a simple focus on hectares of forest replanted to include things like whether more water is flowing through key rivers, said Hernández, whose fund so far gets 80 percent of its support from philanthropies. 

An Indigenous Ramas man lifts a crayfish trap in the Rio Indio river, San Juan de Nicaragua, Nicaragua on February 16, 2022.(Photo: Reuters/Antoine Boureau/Hans Lucas)

The MTF also actively seeks out and helps prepare applications from Indigenous and local communities that could benefit from its support rather than just accepting grant proposals, as traditional donors often do.  

David Rothschild, senior director of partnerships for Nia Tero, a US non-profit that works with Indigenous groups, said avoiding heavy paperwork was key to enabling the new funds take off. 

“What they don’t want is to become another entity in the system operating in a colonial way. How do they not fall into the same patterns that have been destructive, while still reporting to donors?” he asked. 

Hernández said new ways of working are developing, if sometimes too slowly. “We are not asking for blank cheques,” she emphasised. “But we deserve a little bit of consideration.”

(Reporting by Laurie Goering; editing by Megan Rowling)

The post As donors dither, Indigenous funds seek to decolonise green finance   appeared first on Climate Home News.

As donors dither, Indigenous funds seek to decolonise green finance  

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Cropped 22 May 2024: Farmland ‘grabbing’; Ocean court ‘victory’ for small islands; Pre-COP16 talks



Welcome to Carbon Brief’s Cropped. 
We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.

Key developments

EU nature, water and farmers

SAVING NATURE LAW: Environment ministers from 11 EU countries made a “last-ditch effort” to rally support for the bloc’s nature restoration law, the Irish Independent reported. The proposed law aiming to restore the EU’s degraded habitats has been in limbo since a final vote was shelved after pushback from several countries in March. The new letter, signed by ministers from Ireland, Germany, France and eight other countries, called on EU ministers to approve the law at the 17 June environment council meeting. The newspaper noted that this is the “last chance” for the law to be signed off in this legislative term. Failure to do so would “fundamentally undermine public faith in our political leadership”, the letter said. 

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DUTCH FARMERS: In the Netherlands, the “citizen-farmers” movement party is one member of a newly formed rightwing coalition government, Euractiv reported. The coalition also includes the Party for Freedom, which is led by far-right politician Geert Wilders. The government has pledged to “simplify” EU green rules, tackle the “manure crisis” and re-introduce tax breaks for agricultural fuel, the outlet said. The coalition agreement also “shuts the door on forced livestock cuts, which the previous government considered as a way of cutting nitrogen emissions from animal manure and fertilisers”, Euractiv noted.

LEAVING ON A JET PLANE: Environmental law charity ClientEarth welcomed the Portuguese government’s decision to not build a new Lisbon airport on an “internationally protected nature site”. Previously, NGOs launched a lawsuit against plans to build the airport “on the Tagus Estuary, Portugal’s most important wetland and a crucial safe haven for millions of migratory birds”, the press release from ClientEarth said. The new airport will instead be built on the far side of the River Tagus at a military airfield across from Lisbon, Reuters reported. Soledad Gallego, head of ClientEarth’s Iberian and Mediterranean office, said the government “should be asking itself whether building a new airport at all is in line with its climate goals and in the best interest of the health of people and nature”.

WATER DAMAGE: The EU needs to better protect people and the environment from emerging waterborne diseases and pollution as global temperatures continue to rise, according to a report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) covered by Politico. The outlet listed some of the “looming threats” in the report, including “serious food poisoning from contaminated fish, drug-resistant bacteria emerging from melting permafrost and reindeer populations decimated by anthrax”. The article quotes EEA chief Leena Ylä-Mononen, who said that the EU’s existing climate, water and health policies must be “implemented more broadly and systematically”. 

Land grabs threaten farmers

COMPETITION FOR LAND: The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) recently released a report addressing farmland grabbing worldwide. The report found that the largest 1% of farms control 70% of global agricultural land. This consolidation has caused farmers, Indigenous peoples and pastoralists to lose their land, culture and livelihoods, the report said. It also makes it more difficult for young people to access farmland. It has particularly affected central and eastern Europe, Latin America and south Asia. According to the report, the world is facing “overexploitation and exacerbated competition for land around the world”, which could deepen land inequality and rural poverty, drive “the most sustainable forms of agriculture out of business for good” and threaten food security and biodiversity. 

‘GREEN’ GRABS: The report found that 20% of large-scale land deals can be classified as “green” land grabs. “Green” land grabbing refers to governments and corporations using global environmental objectives, such as carbon-offseting projects and green energy production, to “usurp” agricultural land and exclude local land users and food producers. Other reasons for land grabs are extractive industries, mega-infrastructure projects and the expansion of industrial agriculture and monocultures. The report called for “building integrated governance of land, environment and food systems to stop green grabbing”. This will be achieved by prioritising community climate and biodiversity action, helping communities map and defend their land and creating “land and agrarian reforms to return land to communities”, IPES-Food concluded.

SCEPTICISM: One of the funds that has financed carbon-offseting projects and clean energy projects is the Bezos Earth Fund, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the Guardian reported. The outlet added that the fund aims to donate a total of $10bn by the end of the decade to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss. It “has become one of the most influential voices in the climate and biodiversity sector” by having a presence in international negotiations and supporting dozens of NGOs. However, experts consulted by the Guardian cited concerns about the fund’s influence over “critical environmental institutions”, with one telling the newspaper that “there is obviously a risk of a conflict of interest”.

Road to Cali

COP16 PREP: Delegates at a technical meeting held in preparation for the COP16 biodiversity summit later this year “set the stage” for a potential agreement on how the world defines and protects ecologically or biologically significant marine areas, a press release from the Convention on Biological Diversity said. Countries also advanced details of the framework to monitor progress on the global deal for nature agreed at COP15 in 2022. The recommendations from the meeting will be discussed at the upcoming summit in Cali, Colombia in October. Further pre-COP talks on finance and other issues are taking place in Nairobi, Kenya over 21-29 May.  

CASH FOR NATURE: Meanwhile, the Global Biodiversity Framework Fund approved new grants worth more than $70m (£55m) for projects across 21 countries, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) said in a press release. This is the second round of preparation grants for projects, which range from strengthening biodiversity corridors in the Philippines to “empowering Indigenous peoples for sustainable development” in Suriname. The fund, which was set up to support the global deal for nature, is financed by six countries so far, including Canada, Japan and the UK, according to the GEF. 

News and views

VICTORY FOR ISLAND STATES: The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea found that greenhouse gases constitute marine pollution, in what Reuters described as a “major breakthrough” for small island states at risk of being submerged by rising sea levels due to climate change. The judgement is an “advisory opinion” and was requested by nine Caribbean and Pacific island nations, including the Bahamas, the newswire said. The court said that states are obliged to monitor and reduce their emissions and laid out requirements for environmental impact assessments. For climate activists and lawyers consulted by Reuters, the decision could influence two pending opinions on states’ climate obligations from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the International Court of Justice.

FOOD FOCUS: UK prime minister Rishi Sunak put forward a plan to improve food security and boost fruit and vegetable production, the Guardian said. It includes measures to ease planning rules for greenhouses and replace EU horticulture resilience funding. According to Tom Bradshaw, the president of the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales, this will do little to restore farmer confidence after a winter of floods and other extreme weather. The Guardian reported that the government has also published its first food security index to assess the country’s ability to produce its own food. It found that the UK produced 17% of its own fruit and 55% of its own vegetables in 2022. The newspaper noted that the government was criticised by policy experts for listing climate change as a “longer-term risk”, rather than a current issue in its index.

LAND SQUEEZE: Following heavy rainfall and floods that have ravaged east Africa since March, the region is at risk of food shortages, Down to Earth reported. The outlet said that there are thousands of acres of croplands affected and thousands of dead livestock in the region. Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia and Burundi were all heavily affected by the floods. Down to Earth also reported that more than 1,465 clean water sources, such as rivers and ponds, have been contaminated, posing a risk to aquatic foods and public health. The outlet added that the World Food Programme and other humanitarian agencies “have expressed concern about disrupted food production”.

‘UNTOLD HARM’: More than 4,000 species are trafficked worldwide, causing “untold harm upon nature”, according to a new report published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and covered by the Guardian. The report found that 40% of around 140,000 wildlife seizures over 2015-21 involved threatened or near-threatened species, including mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. The Guardian said that the UN report also noted that wildlife trade permeates more than 80% of countries and is a “global problem [that is] far from being resolved”. The outlet pointed out that wildlife trafficking is often linked to organised crime and corruption. 

ENVIRONMENTAL DATA THEFT: China’s spy ministry accused two foreign NGOs of stealing environmental data “under the guise of research and environmental protection”, the South China Morning Post reported. The Chinese security ministry said those organisations collected geographical, meteorological, biological and other data from China’s nature reserves, which poses “risks and hazards to national security”. According to the outlet, China has “some of the strictest” laws for regulating the activities of NGOs. It added that the security ministry called on the public to report “suspicious activity” to the authorities. 

Watch, read, listen

NO BORDERS: An Associated Press video explored how botanists from California and Baja California joined forces to record plant biodiversity along the US-Mexico border. 

CLIMATE INSURANCE: The BBC News World Service podcast Africa Daily looked at the “limitations and difficulties” facing farmers insuring themselves against climate disasters.  

GARDENING ZONES: NPR mapped the changes in the US agriculture department’s gardening zones, which help people determine which plants might thrive in their region.

DRC MINING: Mongabay investigated the extent of, and response to, pollution from the mining of cobalt and copper in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s “copper belt”.

New science

Severe decline in large farmland trees in India over the past decade
Nature Sustainability

India lost more than 5m large farmland trees over 2018-22, a study found. This was partly due to changed farming practices “where trees within fields are perceived as detrimental to crop yields”, the study said. Researchers mapped 600m trees planted on agricultural lands in India and tracked them over the past decade. They found that approximately 11% of large trees disappeared between an earlier period of 2010 to 2018. The findings are “particularly unsettling” as the practice of planting trees on farmland is seen as a “pivotal natural climate solution”, the researchers wrote.

Bee and butterfly records indicate diversity losses in western and southern North America, but extensive knowledge gaps remain

New research found that the western US and southern Mexico have suffered a decline in pollinator species richness over time. In contrast, eastern North America and other cooler and wetter regions saw an increase in pollinator diversity. The researchers analysed four families of bees and butterflies, for which they constructed more than 1,400 species distribution models over two time periods in North America: 1939-79 and 1980-2020. The study concluded that “changes in pollinator diversity appear to reflect changes in climate”, but added that “other factors, such as land-use change, may also explain regional shifts”.

Multi-decadal climate services help farmers assess and manage future risks
Nature Climate Change

Long-term climate projections – those which look more than 20 years into the future – can help farmers better understand future climate risks, according to new research. Researchers introduced 24 Australian farmers to an online long-term climate projection service called “My Climate View” and asked them to evaluate long-term risk management. They found that such a service helped “[reduce] complexity and potentially [reduce] psychological distance” from climate risks in farmers. As farmers are often sceptical of climate change projections – in part because of “their experience in perceptions of inaccurate short-term weather and seasonal forecasts”, the study suggests taking advantage of “the expertise of trusted service providers” to increase confidence in the data.

In the diary

This is an online version of Carbon Brief’s fortnightly Cropped email newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione, Aruna Chandrasekhar, Daisy Dunne, Orla Dwyer and Yanine Quiroz. Please send tips and feedback to

The post Cropped 22 May 2024: Farmland ‘grabbing’; Ocean court ‘victory’ for small islands; Pre-COP16 talks appeared first on Carbon Brief.

Cropped 22 May 2024: Farmland ‘grabbing’; Ocean court ‘victory’ for small islands; Pre-COP16 talks

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South Africa election 2024: What the manifestos say on energy and climate



Nearly 28 million South African registered voters will go to the polls on 29 May to elect more than 800 representatives to the national assembly and provincial legislatures.

The leader of the party that secures a majority in the 400-member national assembly will become the country’s next president.

For the first time, independent candidates will be allowed to run, although all but 11 of the 14,889 certified candidates were nominated by 70 political parties.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has been in office since the end of apartheid in 1994, retains the most support – despite dwindling fortunes.

Its closest challengers are the right-leaning Democratic Alliance (DA) and the left-leaning Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

A new party formed by former president Jacob Zuma, uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), had been expected to also play a significant role in the election. However, South Africa’s top court has now ruled that due to the 15-month jail sentence he served, Zuma himself is ineligible to run.

South Africa – a country with more than 62 million people and considered the most industrialised economy in Africa – was the world’s 14th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2018. (See Carbon Brief’s South Africa profile for more.)

The country is gripped by a severe electricity crisis due to faltering and ageing coal power plants, which account for more than 80% of power generation.

Shortages have forced the government to implement electricity rationing, known as load shedding – helping drive a boom in rooftop solar for those that can afford it.

The ongoing crisis – and a failure to meet wider renewables goals – means coal plants will be kept running for longer and the country’s 2030 climate pledge will be missed.

In the interactive grid below, Carbon Brief tracks the commitments made by South Africa’s leading political party, the ANC, and its closest challengers, the DA and EFF, in their latest election manifestos. The grid covers a range of issues connected to climate change.

Each entry in the grid represents a direct quote from one or more of these documents.

Climate policy

South Africa is already experiencing the impact of climate change, including droughts, floods and an acute water crisis. However, climate change itself is not a key focus for South African voters; as of 2021, only about half of South Africans said they had heard of climate change.

Meanwhile, under the ANC, the South African government has strengthened its commitment to the Paris Agreement, by pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions to between 350m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) and 420MtCO2e by 2030, from 442MtCO2e in 2020.

The country has also set the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, although a presidential commission report suggested it would require up to 535bn rand ($29bn) per year to meet its climate targets. South Africa’s national climate plan also emphasises the importance of adaptation in the face of climate impacts.

In its manifesto for the 2024 election, the ANC reiterates its commitment to net-zero, adaptation and mitigation plans, plus pledges to continue to “work with other countries in the fight against climate change, global poverty and inequality in line with applicable international resolutions”.

The DA manifesto also says it is committed to “achieving net-zero carbon emissions to reduce the impact of energy generation on the climate”.

Within its manifesto, the EFF also pitches climate action, although it does not explicitly back the net-zero target. It says:

“The EFF government will reduce carbon emissions by 10% by 2029 and will renegotiate our nationally determined contribution (NDC), which includes components on climate adaptation and mitigation as well as support requirements for both.”

However, a professor of politics at the Wits School of Governance, David Everatt tells Carbon Brief most South African political parties have merely performed a “ritual nod towards climate change” in their manifestos, as climate concerns are not a major campaign issue in the country.

Instead, the focus is on reducing load-shedding and strengthening energy security.

Electricity policy

The revitalisation of South Africa’s power sector is undoubtedly one of the major focuses of the coming election.

“The vast majority of the debate in South Africa is about the power sector and load-shedding,” says Dr Tracy Ledger, head of the energy transition programme at PARI, an African research institute affiliated to the University of Johannesburg and Wits University in South Africa. She tells Carbon Brief:

“Load shedding has ruined people’s lives and devastated the economy; the economy is probably 20% smaller than it would be without load shedding; hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost. It’s been a disaster.”

During COP26 in Glasgow, South Africa, alongside France, Germany, the UK, US and the European Union, announced a Just Energy Transition Partnership. This is designed to mobilise an initial $8.5bn to support South Africa “to move away from coal and to accelerate its transition to a low emission, climate resilient economy”.

However, South Africa’s worsening electricity crisis has raised concerns that it may struggle to fulfil its climate ambitions. In April 2023, president Cyril Ramaphosa said the government will consider a delay in the decommissioning of coal plants to help ease electricity cuts.

Another concern is the potential job losses associated with coal decommissioning in Mpumalanga province, an area known as South Africa’s coal belt.

In their 2024 election manifestos, the ANC and the DA do not mention coal, instead pledging investments in renewable energy. However, the EFF says that it would “establish a state-owned mining company to manage coal mines owned by Eskom (South Africa’s state-run power utility), ensuring a quality coal supply at affordable prices”.

Dr Ledger tells Carbon Brief:

“The DA is very much in favour of the just energy transition. The official line of the ANC is that they support the energy transition, but the ANC is in so many factions, and there are a lot of factions within the ANC that are anti-energy transition.

“The EFF is trying to keep everyone happy at the same time. They are saying we need security of supply and we need to address climate change, but we can’t close any coal-fired power stations because people will lose their jobs.”

Meanwhile, despite the continued support for coal in South Africa, particularly in Mpumalanga province, the ANC, DA and EFF all acknowledge the importance of renewable energy in their manifestos.

Dr Ledger believes that regardless of the rhetoric around coal, renewables have a place in South Africa’s energy mix:

“There is now so much embedded [renewable] generation making up the deficit [in supplies from the central grid]. The coal plants will eventually have to shut down. We can’t afford a nuclear power plant and the treasury will never approve it. So, the only practical option available is the private sector and renewables. The energy transition is kind of happening by stealth. 

“Electricity generation in South Africa is being privatised and what the private sector is interested in is renewables and maybe a little bit of gas. But gas can’t compete on price with solar. Nothing can compete with solar. Solar in South Africa is already 30% cheaper than the power being produced by Eskom from its coal-fired power stations. And in ten years time, it will be 70% cheaper. That’s what is going to drive the energy transition in South Africa.”

Water policy

Alongside the power crisis, South Africa is also suffering a water crisis, as droughts become increasingly common. In March, thousands lined up for water in the country’s largest city, Johannesburg.

Record temperatures have exacerbated the problem, but the issue has also been politicised with the DA, for example, blaming the ANC for mismanaging the country’s water resources.

Meanwhile, sewage systems are leaking and polluting the country’s freshwater supply, further complicating the matter.

According to Prof Richard Meissner, a water governance expert at the University of South Africa, water-related issues are set to play a more significant role in the 2024 election than in previous years. He tells Carbon Brief:

“It’s important to note that South Africans use 61.8% more water than the global average, which is 173 litres per day. This is largely due to issues such as leaks, wastage and illegal connections, which can be addressed through proper infrastructure maintenance.”

He adds that political parties have also focused on water security in their manifestos, proposing specific solutions to improve water and sanitation services.

For example, the ANC promises it will allocate more powers to the national and provincial government to provide clean water to citizens. The EFF has a similar solution – prioritising government intervention.

The DA, on the other hand, wants to involve “private companies in water infrastructure projects through a performance-based private-public partnership model”.

The post South Africa election 2024: What the manifestos say on energy and climate appeared first on Carbon Brief.

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Q&A: The evolving debate about using genetically modified crops in a warming world



Crops that have been “altered” by scientists in a laboratory can be found growing on millions of hectares of farmland around the world.

These “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) are planted extensively across swathes of North and South America, in particular, but remain strictly limited in many countries.

However, these stringent regulations have eased in some nations for crops altered using new, more precise “gene-editing” technologies.

Several experts tell Carbon Brief that these new technologies are not a “silver-bullet” solution for agriculture, but that they could help crops deal with extreme weather and boost nutrition in a faster, safer and cheaper way than GMOs.

In contrast, other experts, as well as environmental groups, are concerned about how these gene-edited crops will be produced, regulated and patented.

In this Q&A, Carbon Brief looks at the difference between GMOs and gene-edited foods and whether these technologies can help crops deal with climate change while boosting food security.

What are genetically modified crops?

For centuries, farmers have used selective breeding techniques to prioritise growing crops with desirable traits, such as resistance to disease.

In the 1970s, scientists developed new ways to boost these traits directly by changing a plant’s genetic material.

GMOs – genetically modified organisms – are plants, animals and microorganisms whose genes have been altered with the help of technology.

Dr Jennifer Pett-Ridge is a senior researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and principal investigator on a soil carbon project at the Innovative Genomics Institute in Berkeley, California.

She explains that gene modification technologies take DNA from one species and insert it into another. She tells Carbon Brief:

“It might be a frog or a tomato, or something like that, that you’re importing from another organism that has a trait that you really want that will work within your organism of choice. You’re splicing that in, essentially.”

The most common traits scientists put into genetically modified crops include tolerance to weed-killing herbicides and resistance to insects and viruses. The techniques can also be used to develop plants that are better able to deal with drought, heat and other intensifying effects of climate change.

A tractor and sprayer applying glyphosate on a field in Germany in 2020.
A tractor and sprayer applying glyphosate on a field in Germany in 2020. Credit: dpa Picture Alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

In the US in 1994 – after years of testing and experiments – a GM tomato was the world’s first genetically engineered food sold in shops, according to the country’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

This tomato was “genetically altered to ripen longer on the vine while remaining firm for picking and shipping”, the New York Times reported at the time.

Two years later, farmers began growing genetically engineered crops across the US. One example is “Roundup Ready” maize, cotton and other crops. These plants were developed by the chemical company Monsanto – which was bought out by Bayer in 2018 – to be more resistant to the weed-killer Roundup.

A gene that is resistant to glyphosate – the herbicide used in Roundup – was taken from a type of bacteria and inserted into these crops. This, in turn, allowed farmers to apply the herbicide to kill weeds without destroying their crops.

In more recent years, scientists have developed different ways to alter DNA. One prevailing method is Crispr/Cas9 – a gene-editing technology that can tweak genetic code without needing to introduce traits from another species. The scientists behind the discovery were awarded a Nobel Prize in 2020.

The method is akin to using a “pair of scissors to just snip a gene out and move it somewhere else” within the same plant, Pett-Ridge says, preventing the need to mix in DNA from other species, which is how GMOs are made.

For example, the technology could be used to remove a gene that makes a plant less able to deal with drought.

How Crispr-Cas9 gene-editing works
A visualisation of how the Crispr/Cas9 technology works in DNA. Source: Adapted from the Innovative Genomics Institute by Carbon Brief.

A 2016 study on the possibilities of Crispr for plants described the technology as relatively simple, cheap and versatile compared to other methods. So far, scientists have carried out studies on the method’s ability to alter the genetic make-up of a wide range of crops, from rice and tomatoes, to oranges and maize.

However, these trials are in the early stages of development and experts tell Carbon Brief more research is needed before they are widely commercially available.

New technologies such as Crispr are being regulated differently to other GMOs in many countries, but opinions differ on how different they truly are from older genetic-engineering techniques.

Although there is limited evidence showing that GMOs have a negative effect on human health and the environment, they remain controversial for many due to concerns over reduced biodiversity and the prevalence of crop monocultures.

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Where are genetically modified and gene-edited crops grown around the world?

Genetically modified crops are grown in 29 countries around the world
Genetically modified crops are grown in 29 countries around the world. The countries (brown) are largely in North and South America and parts of Asia. The US and Brazil are the world’s biggest producers of GM crops by area. Source: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (2019). Map: Carbon Brief.

Genetically modified crops are widely grown in some parts of the world, such as the US and parts of South America, and are more restricted in the EU and many African countries.

In 2019, more than 190m hectares of genetically modified crops were planted around the world – an area roughly the size of Mexico – according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

In 1996, around the time GM crops were being approved for commercial use in several countries, this figure stood at 1.7m hectares.

The US grows the most GM crops of any country, followed by Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India – as shown in the figure below.

More than 90% of the land growing in genetically modified crops is in the US, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India
The vast majority (91%) of land growing genetically modified crops is in five countries: the US (71.5m hectares), Brazil (52.8m hectares), Argentina (24m hectares), Canada (12.5m hectares) and India (11.9m hectares). Source: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). Graphic: Carbon Brief.

Almost all soya beans, cotton and maize now planted in the US are genetically modified, often to resist pests or deal with herbicide use, according to the FDA.

Alongside feeding people, GM maize and soya beans are frequently used to feed animals. More than 95% of livestock and poultry in the US eat genetically modified crops, the FDA says.

In the US, more than half of harvested cropland contained varieties with at least one genetically modified trait in 2020
More than half of the harvested cropland in the US contained varieties with at least one genetically modified trait in 2020. This is 55% of the 304m acres of harvested cropland. Source: US Department of Agriculture. Graphic: Carbon Brief.

In the EU and other parts of the world, GM crops are not widely grown. The EU’s rules require GMO foods to be labelled as such for consumers and permit individual EU countries to ban genetically modified crops, if they choose. Most EU countries do not grow GMO crops.

The EU’s GMO rules still apply in the UK. But, in 2023, the rules in England were eased to allow the development of plants that are genetically edited using modern methods such as Crispr.

Further laws are needed to allow these gene-edited plants – and, later, animals – to be sold in England. The legislation for plants is set to be brought in this summer.

Rules around whether these gene-edited plants should be treated the same as, or differently to, GMOs are still being assessed by many governments around the world.

In some countries, such as the US, they are essentially treated the same as non-GMO products. Since they do not contain “foreign” genes, they are seen as indistinguishable from conventional plants.

The EU could be moving in a similar direction with a proposal from the European Commission to loosen its stringent GMO requirements for plants that have been made using newer gene-editing technologies.

The changes would “better reflect the different risk profiles” of the way in which gene-edited plants are made compared to genetically modified ones, the commission said.

Dr Ludivine Petetin, a reader in law and expert in agri-food issues at Cardiff University, says the proposal marks a significant change from the EU’s previous attitude to genetically altered foods.

If approved, the EU would create two categories of plants that have been altered by new genomic techniques. One category of plants would be considered comparable to conventional plants and would not require any GMO labelling for consumers.

Plants that have been made using these newer techniques, but do not meet this criteria, would fall into the second category. This would require stricter assessment and mandatory labelling, similar to how GMOs are currently regulated in the EU. Petetin tells Carbon Brief:

“That’s a massive, massive difference to the precautionary principle used before, where it was all about the need to inform the public – the need to tell them whether there is [genetic modification] or not in what we are all eating.”

The “precautionary principle” approach is used to apply caution to issues that have uncertain levels of scientific evidence about a risk to environmental or human health. It is used in the EU’s directive on GMOs.

The debate around the EU’s proposal is on hold until after the European parliament elections in June.

Earlier this year, more than 1,500 scientists and 37 Nobel Prize winners signed an open letter calling on EU politicians to support gene-editing techniques and “consider the unequivocal body of scientific evidence supporting” new genomic techniques.

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What are the perceived benefits and concerns of genetically engineered foods?

Proponents of GMOs highlight that they can boost crop yields and help feed the expanding global population. Critics point to human and environmental concerns.

A 2022 study found that the “right use” of GM crops could potentially “offer more benefit than harm, with its ability to alleviate food crises around the world”, based on a review of different impacts of GM crops on “sustainable agriculture” systems.

The main concerns laid out by the World Health Organization are triggering allergens, raising antibiotic resistance and spillover of GM plants into land that is growing conventional crops.

This spillover could reduce the diversity of crops being grown and lead to monocultures of plants, which can degrade soils and reduce biodiversity.

Other concerns focus on the use of pesticides and herbicides. A 2023 review study said that some areas growing herbicide-tolerant crops sometimes use more of the plant-killing chemical due to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds.

Nonetheless, the study found that, overall, genetically modified crops have had a positive impact on crop yields, pest and disease resistance and tolerance to stresses such as high temperatures or drought.

A 2017 study said there is evidence that GM crops can have negative environmental impacts, such as harming biodiversity. But this – and other studies – have concluded that further research is still needed on the human and environmental health risks of GM plants.

Other criticisms around GMOs and gene-edited crops centre around how they are regulated. Patenting is one of these concerns.

In the US, Brazil and other countries, GMO seeds can be patented. The global seed market, in general, is dominated by a small number of companies, such as Bayer and Corteva. The chart below shows that these two companies control 40% of the global seed market.

The leading companies in the global seed market in 2020.
The leading companies in the global seed market in 2020. Combined, Bayer and Corteva account for 40% of sales and control a significantly higher portion of the market than the next closest competitor, ChemChina, which holds 7%. BASF and the remaining companies each have between 1-4% of the global market share. In total, nine companies control 63% of the market. Other companies control the remaining 37%. Source: ETC Group (2022). Chart: Carbon Brief.

Petetin says that if seed patenting is permitted under the EU’s gene-editing rules, as currently proposed, it could lead to “more concentration of the seeds and the plant business”.

Experts tell Carbon Brief that the patenting of these seeds impacts farmers as they often have to re-purchase GM seeds each year from a company which has complete control over the cost.

The price of GM seeds rose by more than 700% between 2000 and 2015. A number of large seed companies have taken farmers to court for infringing on patent rights by growing GM crops without payment.

Patenting can also pose problems for small-scale seed developers, as similarities with patented crops can also lead to infringement claims. This can apply to both genetically modified and conventional crops.

Eva Corral, a GMO campaigner at Greenpeace EU, is calling for more information on the climate, health and environmental impacts of gene-edited foods and for labelling to remain in place in the EU’s rules.

She tells Carbon Brief that gene-edited crops are not a “panacea” to “miraculously solve all the problems in the world”, adding:

“We have to be really very, very cautious, which I think is something very much missing in the debate about new GMOs.”

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Could gene-editing and GMOs benefit food security?

Whether through traditional breeding or by scientists in a lab, crops are often altered to make them more resistant to drought, better able to fight off disease or to improve their nutritional value.

All of these elements could be helpful for farmers around the world whose crops are being damaged by extreme weather conditions fuelled by human-caused climate change.

Disasters – such as floods, droughts and wildfires – have caused about $3.8tn worth of lost crops and livestock production over the past three decades, according to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Genetically modified crops can increase the amount of food grown in a certain amount of space – which is significant given that the amount of arable land around the world is declining

Global crop production grew by more than 370m tonnes between 1996 and 2012. Genetically modified crops in the US accounted for one-seventh of this boost.

Withered corn crops during a drought in Kansas, US in 2012.
Withered corn crops during a drought in Kansas, US in 2012. Credit: Melanie Blanding / Alamy Stock Photo

Increased crop yields and reduced losses due to extreme weather can be particularly attractive for countries hit by high levels of hunger and facing severe impacts of climate change.

Between 691 and 783 million people faced hunger in 2022, according to the UN’s 2023 report on food security and nutrition. The issue is particularly acute in Africa, where around one in five people face hunger – a “much larger” amount than the rest of the world, the report says.

Several experts tell Carbon Brief that scientists have long-hoped that Crispr’s relatively low cost and simpler technology would enable more gene-edited crop development in developing countries.

In African countries, GM and gene-edited crops could be part of the solution, but are not the only fix to problems facing agriculture, such as drought and poor crop yields, says Prof Ademola Adenle, a guest professor of sustainability science at the Technical University of Denmark. He tells Carbon Brief:

“Just like GMOs, gene-editing is not a silver-bullet solution to hunger or food security problems or climate change. But it could be part of a solution to a wide range of problems in the agricultural sector and [have] the potential to create crops that are resistant to diseases.”

Adenle, who is from Nigeria, has researched the progress in regulation and development of GM crops in different parts of Africa. GM crops are commercially grown in South Africa and a small number of other countries on the continent, such as Kenya and Nigeria.

He tells Carbon Brief that more research is needed to inform ongoing GMO and gene-editing discussions in African countries:

“Without investment in research and development programmes, Africa will be left behind…in terms of applying new technologies to solve some of the problems we have in the agricultural sector.

“Before gene-editing can be accepted in Africa, just like GMO, [countries] have to have the scientific capacity, they have to have the policy in place and, of course, they need to raise the level of awareness about the advantages and perhaps disadvantages that may be associated with the application of gene editing.”

Dr Joeva Sean Rock, an assistant professor in development studies at the University of Cambridge, has researched the politics of GM foods in Africa, particularly Ghana.

She says there is “a lot of hype” around the potential uses of gene-editing to develop crops that can “improve climate resilience and food security”. But she urges caution, telling Carbon Brief:

“An important question becomes how that hype compares with present reality…We are in a moment where there’s a real opportunity to ask not necessarily whether this technology could be a panacea, but rather if and how it might be able to benefit people at different scales and with different needs.”

A recent study found that a relatively small number of gene-editing crop projects focus on benefitting smallholder farmers in the global south. These farmers are “exceptionally vulnerable to climate change and food insecurity”, Rock says, adding:

“Farmers have diverse needs and so an important question is whether genome editing is an appropriate tool to address those needs and whether it is being used to do so.”

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Do genetically modified crops benefit climate mitigation and adaptation?

There have been a lot of claims – and counter-claims – about the climate benefits of GMOs, both in terms of making crops more resistant to extreme weather and in helping plants to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere.

Dr Emma Kovak is a senior food and agriculture analyst at the Breakthrough Institute – a controversial thinktank in California that claims it “promotes technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges”.

Kovak was the lead author of a 2022 study which said that growing more GM crops, such as wheat, in the EU could lead to reduced land-use emissions in other parts of the world. The researchers estimated the extent that greenhouse gas levels would be impacted by the EU growing similar levels of genetically modified maize, soya beans, cotton, canola and sugar beet as the US.

The study claimed that this increase in EU GMOs would boost crop yields, which would allow the bloc to provide more of its own crops, Kovak tells Carbon Brief. This could lead to emissions cuts equivalent to more than 7% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, the study found. Kovak says:

“Expansion of crop production through yield increases in the EU can decrease farmland expansion in other places in the world, which means less deforestation and emissions from deforestation.”

Agriculture drives at least three-quarters of deforestation around the world, with forests cleared to raise animals and grow crops such as soya beans.

Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest with some land cleared for livestock in Brazil.
Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest with some land cleared for livestock in Brazil. Credit: Paralaxis / Alamy Stock Photo

Another study published in 2018 looked at the environmental impacts of GM crops, such as maize, cotton and soya beans, on pesticide use and CO2 emissions across different countries over 1996-2016.

The study combined previous studies on fuel use and tillage systems – that is, preparing the land for crops – along with evidence on the impact of GM crop usage on these practices. It also looked at farm-level and national pesticide usage surveys.

It found that the use of GM insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant technology reduced pesticide spraying by 8%. This, as a result, reduced the environmental impacts of herbicide and insecticide use.

It further led to cuts in fuel use and tillage changes, resulting in a “significant reduction” in emissions from areas growing GM crops. Combining figures from reduced fuel use and increased soil carbon storage, the researchers said the emissions reduction would be equivalent to taking almost 17m cars off the road for one year.

A 2011 review study found that GM crops could reduce the impacts of agriculture on biodiversity in a number of ways, such as by reducing insecticide use and boosting crop yields to ease the pressure to transform more land to grow crops.

A 2021 study found a correlation between GM crop growth and use of the herbicide glyphosate with an increase in soil carbon sequestration in a province of Canada. However, herbicide use decreased soil biodiversity in banana fields in Martinique, a Caribbean island, a different study found.

Research examples of gene-edited foods and their targeted traits
Examples of gene-edited foods with different targeted traits undergoing early stages of research around the world. Source: The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (2023). Graphic: Carbon Brief.

When it comes to gene-edited plants, experts tell Carbon Brief that more research is needed to determine the possible climate benefits or negative impacts.

Studies on gene-edited crops remain in the early stages of development.

In terms of boosting carbon sequestration through soils, whether it is through gene-editing or conventional breeding, Pett-Ridge says that definitive results are still some distance away. She tells Carbon Brief:

“There is a lot of hype…there are folks out there saying that this can solve everything or we can fix our climate issues with soils. I would push back on that, while still saying it’s a significant opportunity.”

Targeting certain traits through gene-editing will “take some time before we can really assess whether those have a net benefit on the amount of carbon put in soil”, she adds:

“As much as I’m an optimist and excited about it… I don’t know anyone who has got traits focused on carbon capture really being applied even in a field trial.”

Petetin believes gene-editing may “provide some answers” to help the agriculture sector deal with extreme weather and other issues, but adds:

“They’re not the only answers to all the issues agriculture is facing with biodiversity and climate change emergencies. Putting all your eggs in this one basket is not the solution.”

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Q&A: The evolving debate about using genetically modified crops in a warming world

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