Battle lines

Will agriculture be a victim of its own success? By Nina Fedoroff


Norman Borlaug, whose 100th birthday we celebrate this year, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize when the Green Revolution was just gaining traction. He well understood the relationship between peace and food and often quoted Food and Agriculture Organization founding director general John Boyd Orr’s trenchant observation that peace can’t be built on empty stomachs. When Borlaug received the Nobel in 1970, half the human population faced chronic hunger. In the following decades, new high-yielding strains, combined with growing use of fertilisers and increasing mechanisation, reduced the fraction of the chronically hungry to a sixth of the world population, even as it doubled to more than six billion.

Borlaug understood that this was never a battle decisively won. “We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts,” he observed in his acceptance speech.

Borlaug viewed the continued rapid growth of the human population as the principle threat. But even in his Nobel lecture, he presciently warned of the growing disconnect between affluent urban populations and those who provide their food. “Urbanites have lost their contact with the soil, they take food for granted and fail to appreciate the tremendous efficiency of their farmers and ranchers, who … produce more than enough food for their nation,” he said.

Growth of the human population has slowed quite remarkably.

Let us fast forward to the paradoxes of today. Growth of the human population has slowed quite remarkably. Current projections anticipate stabilisation by mid-century. The ability to read plant genomes, combined with advances in plant genetic engineering, have enabled the creation of a new generation of genetically modified (GM) crop plants, also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GM crops that are able to withstand devastating insect pests or survive treatment with herbicides (or both) have taken the agricultural world by storm. First commercialised in 1996, they have been adopted by farmers faster than any new crop variety in the history of agriculture. GMOs are responsible for a significant fraction of recent yield increases in the crops where they are used. Our ability to feed the anticipated two to three billion more people coming to dinner by 2050 is well within reach.

Fittingly, the 2013 World Food Prize, established by Borlaug himself, was awarded to Marc van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton and Rob Fraley. Together with the late Jeff Schell, these scientists played seminal roles in the development of modern GM techniques. Montagu founded Plant Genetic Systems (now part of Bayer CropScience) and CropDesign (today owned by German multinational BASF). Chilton is a Distinguished Science Fellow of the multi-national biotech firm Syngenta. Fraley is chief technology officer of Monsanto.

What GMOs have already contributed to food security is staggering. In 2012, GM crops were grown in 28 countries on 170 million hectares. That represents a remarkable 100-fold increase over the 1.7 million hectares planted in the first year that GM crops became commercially available in 1996. More importantly, the benefits to farmers are not reliant on the size of the farm: 90% of the 17.3 million farmers growing GM crops have small hold ings and are resource-poor. Half of the biotech crop acreage today is in developing countries. The simple reasons that farmers migrate to GM crops is that their yields increase by between five and 25% and their costs decrease, in some cases by as much as 50%.

All of the environmental and health impacts, so far, both expected and unexpected, have been beneficial. Insect-resistant GM crops have markedly reduced pesticide use. Roughly 443 million kilograms less pesticide was applied to fields between 1996 and 2010 because insect-resistant crops were being grown. Less pesticide means more beneficial insects and birds and less pesticide contamination of water. Replacing toxic agricultural chemicals with biological solutions was environmentalist Rachel Carson’s dream. Herbicide-tolerant GM crops have made big strides in reducing topsoil loss and improving soil quality. No-till farming keeps the soil on the land and organic matter and water in the soil. It also reduces CO2 emissions from tillage: in 2010 alone, this reduction was equivalent to taking nine million cars off the road.

Why would any environmentalist or champion of sustainable farming oppose such progress? Yet the announcement of the 2013 prize engulfed the World Food Prize organisation in controversy and was met with shock and outrage from just such advocates. Google “GMOs” and you, too, will be astounded. You will find reports that GMOs produced by big ag-biotech companies are responsible for farmer suicides in India; that Monsanto sues hapless farmers whose fields sprout a few unpurchased GM seed through pollen contamination and that GM feed causes grotesque tumours in rats.

The European Union alone has invested more than 300 million euros in GMO biosafety research.

None of this stuff stands up to scrutiny; much is outright fabrication, as is the belief that GM crops are unsafe and untested.

The European Union alone has invested more than 300 million euros in GMO biosafety research over 25 years, concluding that crop modification by GM techniques is no more dangerous than crop improvement by older methods. Every credible scientific body that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion. The oft-heard complaint that GMOs are untested is belied by the facts, as well. In the US, each newly modified crop must be shown to be equivalent to the original crop and the products encoded by the added genes must be independently tested for toxicity and allergenicity. So GM varieties are the most extensively tested crops ever to be introduced into our food supply.

If popular myths about farmer suicides, tumours and toxicity had an ounce of truth to them, the ag-biotech companies selling GM seeds would long since have been driven out of business by lawsuits and vanishing sales. Instead, they’re taking greater market share every year. There is a real mismatch between mythology and reality. The demonisation of GM methods of crop improvement that the biotech companies have brought to market, and of large-scale farming itself, is profoundly disquieting. Yet it may well be a logical but unintended consequence of the very success of science- and technology-based agriculture in freeing most of us from both the backbreaking labour and the uncertainty of producing our own food. Today, more than half of us live in cities and our food comes from grocery stores and restaurants. Few of us are aware of the extraordinary global agricultural system that supports our lives.

Borlaug had no patience with the modern urban nostalgia for organic farming and was a staunch champion of modern GM technology, recognising that all of civilisation rests on the ability of farmers to produce food for themselves and a multitude of others. But embedded in the success of modern agriculture is the real and immediate hazard that the growing clamour against both GMOs and modern, large-scale farming will prevail. Paradoxically that would preclude the use of precisely the technologies that hold the greatest promise for sustainable food production for the 10 billion humans who will soon inhabit our finite planet.

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Nina Fedoroff is the director of the Center for Desert Agriculture at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. Among her many prestigious appointments, she was Science and Technology Adviser to former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
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