Will Agriculture Destroy the World before It Saves It?

By Hannah Rowlands.

Last week, The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and the Plants for the 21st Century Institute were fortunate enough to host Jack Bobo, Senior Advisor for Biotechnology for the United States Department of State, giving a talk about biotechnology, agriculture and food security. In this blog post, I summarise some of the arguments he made.

To a packed lecture theatre, Mr Bobo began his talk by commenting that it was interesting that the US State Department has a biotechnology office at all – this is a sign of how important food security is.

Agriculture has such a big impact on the planet, and yet is also so vital for our survival. It should really have a greater importance in every way.

He then went through some of the key impacts of agriculture, and its interactions, with other important issues: water, climate change, population. Using some powerful visual images, such as the now almost non-existent Aral Sea and the dried-up Colorado riverbed or a visualisation of the number of deaths globally from malnutrition and hunger compared with deaths from TB or HIV/AIDS, he demonstrated the importance of agriculture and food security.

With the global population expected to reach 9-10 billion by 2050, we will need to produce, in the next 40-50 years, the same amount of food as has been produced in the past 10,000 years: quite a challenge!

Currently, the debate is polarised between “fast food” and “slow food”, between GMOs and organic – these are seen as colliding systems of food production, but it would be better if they were seen more as different strategies, with different pros and cons, each having something useful to add to the overall solution.

If we can get to 2050 without completely destroying the planet, then it’s game over: success, we’ve won! Global population is expected to plateau around 2050, so the crucial time is between now and then. If we reach 2050 and we’ve created irreversible changes to the planet, for example chopping down the Amazon rainforest, then it’s too late.

Agricultural technology over the past 50 years has led to a steady growth in maize production, largely through improved hybrids, but wheat has plateaued, because it has received less investment by farmers. In fact, farmers in the USA are keen to switch to GM/hybrid soy and corn because they know they will increase their profits. This is despite the need to buy seeds each year: the increased yields from the improved varieties more than make up for the cost of seeds. Fewer resources are needed to grow corn now than in 1980, and this is due to improved seed technologies and agricultural practices, not genetic engineering.

When we consider the safety of GM crops, we should first think about how our current foods were developed from wild varieties over thousands of years. For example, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, savoy, and Chinese kale are all varieties of the same species (Brassica oleracea) with each cultivar bred for different nutritional characteristics, and this was all before we knew about genetics.

To produce such morphological diversity required large genetic changes – far in excess of the targeted genetic changes in engineered crops. 

Prior to the molecular biology revolution, crops were frequently mutaginised using ionizing radiation to create new genetic variant for plant breeders.  Such strategies were viewed as risk free at the time but are considerably more problematic than modern genetic engineering.  We need to take a much more risk-based approach to assessing the costs and benefits of different technologies.

Genetically engineered crops are being grown in large quantities in the USA, Brazil, Argentina and India. In fact, the amount being grown in the Developing World has just overtaken that grown in the Developed World.

We should challenge the clichés that the USA “loves GM” – it’s one of the options farmers have there, and many of them choose to grow it. Likewise, the EU doesn’t “hate biotech” – it may not be grown in large quantities in the EU, but it’s the second largest importer of genetically engineered crops (after China) mainly for animal feed. The EU is also where a lot of the R&D is carried out for biotech.

Why are farmers in the US adopting biotech crops?

  • Costs go up, but so do revenues
  • Yields increase (less so in the US, because farmers previously had access to insecticides, so switching to GM crops isn’t such a great leap, but for farmers in India, for example, the jump is enormous – an example of where small farmers benefit more from GM crops)
  • Greenhouse gas emissions go down – for herbicide-resistant crops, this means you need fewer tractors on the farm, because you don’t need to distribute chemicals. But also, you can do no-till agriculture, which can lead to soil carbon sequestration, a happy side effect
  • Improved nutrition eg. Golden Rice, which has been biofortified with Vitamin A; Plenish soy bean oil, which contains 0g trans fat and less saturated fat than other oils
  • Soil erosion is reduced, due to the no-till or low-till agriculture
  • Water usage is reduced, especially when you use drought tolerant crops with enhanced root systems

You will only get sustainable agriculture when you combine the best technologies with the best agricultural practices. The competing systems need to work together; there needs to be dialogue not confrontation.

photo of cornfield from Flickr

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