May 23, 2013
Letter to the Editor, Western Producer
October 15, 2007
Your editorial “Ag has obligations to explore options” (11 Oct) unfortunately falls for the perennial promises of the biotech industry, promises that have been repeated ad nauseam since Canada first launched its national biotechnology strategy in 1981. The ills of the world are pressing indeed. But it would be wise to question the offering of a technological fix as a ‘solution’ to climate change, peak oil, or malnutrition.
You make bold claims, but it is hard to see how biotechnology is going to contribute to carbon sequestration or environmentally-sound agrofuel production through genetic engineering of crops. There is already scientific evidence that transgenic canola processed into bio-diesel is harder on the environment than regular diesel fuel* and the promise of carbon sequestration would appear to be little more than a sales campaign. The only ethanol that appears to be viably produced without massive subsidies is from sugar cane in a geography like that of Brazil, but there its production is dependent on virtual slave labour and is accompanied by the destruction of small farms and the Rainforest. Cellulosic agrofuels are years, if not decades, away from actual production, regardless of their promoters hype.
While there have been promises and more promises for improved nutrition through genetic engineering, it is now evident that the industrial production of food crops, GE or not, has led to diminishing nutritional value.** As for feeding the hungry, it is obvious that biotechnology is not the answer. There is enough food produced today to feed everyone. The problem is political and economic, a matter of equitable distribution.***
You suggest that “drought and saline resistant crop varieties could free up water for other uses.” You do not elaborate. What water are saline resistant crops going to free up? The genetic engineering of drought resistance is being heralded as making it possible to grow crops with little or no water, not to “free up” non-existent water.
You cite the figures published by International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotechnology Application (ISAAA) which was established years ago as a lobby for the biotech industry and has never deviated from that function. The ISAAA figures are intended to be “staggering” – that is the job of propaganda – but they are equally misleading. Resistance to genetic engineerinh is increasing, and the biotech pushers know that. Resistance to the insidious government-backed (USAID in particular) GE-colonization of Africa is growing rapidly, particularly in West Africa. Resistance to GE is also growing in India. The advance of GE soy production in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay is due, not to the eagerness of farmers to plant it, but to the ruthless expansion of massive industrial production and the virtual elimination of small farmers who actually grow food for people, including their own families and communities, not animal and automobile feed.
You ask, “Does agriculture owe it to the world and to future generations to explore responsible use of biotechnology?” Yes indeed. But aggressive promotion of biotechnology, the refusal to label GE foods, the incessant promises of ‘benefits’ that continually recede over the horizon is not responsible. It is irresponsible, as is your editorial. Both farmers and the public deserve better.
*’Nobel chemist finds corn farming methods can hurt the Earth more than burning gasoline,’ Reuters, 28/9/07; ‘Is the party over?’, editorial Manitoba Cooperator, 4/10/07
**see “Still No Free Lunch: nutrient levels in U.S. food supply eroded by pursuit of high yields,” by Brian Halweil for The Organic Centre, www.organic-center.org/science.latest.php?action=view&report_id=115
*** “Shattering Myths: Can sustainable agriculture feed the world?”, Institute for Food and Development Studies, Fall, 2007 <http://www.foodfirst.org/node/1778>
Brewster Kneen, publisher, The Ram’s Horn newsletter, Ottawa; Colleen Ross, women’s president, National Farmers Union, Iroquois, ON; Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, Ottawa, for the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN)
Ag has obligation to explore options - WP editorial
this document web posted: 2007-10-11 Western Producer
WHEN one considers looming global problems, the case for greater use of biotechnology is strong and its application to agriculture makes it stronger still.
In fact, those at recent biotechnology events are unreservedly bullish on the potential of agriculture to help improve global conditions. They're confident that biotechnology will be an important tool in effecting needed changes.
Projections indicate that global population will grow to 10 billion by 2025 from about 6.2 billion today. That's going to require a major increase in food production on essentially the same amount of land.
Consider these additional four horsemen of the apocalypse: climate change; obesity and malnutrition; lack of energy security; and a shortage of ample fresh water. Then look at the solutions that biotechnology in partnership with agriculture may provide.
In the case of climate change, there's carbon sequestration and biofuel production, both of which can be improved through genetic modification of various food and fuel crops.
For the twin problems of starvation in the developing world and obesity in the developed world, biotechnology applied via new crop varieties can bring adequate food to the hungry, more nutritious food to the malnourished and healthier food to the obese.
To address the limits on fossil fuels, biotechnology has potential to develop crops more suitable for biofuel, such as switchgrass, sorghum, poplar, willow and other crops with huge biomass that can be used in cellulosic biofuel production.
Drought and saline tolerant crop varieties could free up water for other uses.
As a practical matter, however, those who develop and commercialize biotechnology know farmers have to turn a profit before they turn their attention to saving the world. Fortunately the two are not mutually exclusive.
Biotech crops in development address profitability by using less fertilizer, using nitrogen more efficiently, having greater drought and frost tolerance and delivering higher yields. Research on each of these applications is well developed, with many new genetic traits in various crops nearly ready for commercial release.
And many farmers are eager to plant them. Resistance to genetic modification in Europe, Australia and Africa is weakening.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotechnology Applications, there are more than 10 million farmers in 22 countries now planting biotech crops, up from 8.5 million in 2005. The ISAAA says that biotech adoption has improved production and farm income around the world by five to 50 percent. In 2006 alone, biotech crop production value was more than $50 billion worldwide.
The figures are staggering, the global problems are large but the potential for agriculture is truly fantastic.
Does agriculture owe it to the world and to future generations to explore the responsible use of biotechnology? It's a pretty strong case indeed.
Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D'Arce McMillan and Ken Zacharias collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.