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Is biotechnology really humanity’s savior?

Two billion more mouths to feed by 2040. With shrinking budgets, where should agricultural research focus be? Public sector scientists say biotechnology promises are too often overblown leading to underfunding of conventional agricultural research.  

In 40 years, there will be an estimated 2 billion more mouths to feed. With the increasing pressure to find ways to produce more food, agricultural leaders around the globe have been discussing political, market and agronomic bottlenecks.

In late January, the world’s future food supply was front-and-center at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “I am here because the world’s leaders are deeply worried about our ability as farmers to feed a growing world population and they want to hear farmers’ voices to find solutions,” said Robert Carlson, National Farmers Union vice president for international affairs.

“The good news is that agriculture has never received such prominent attention since the end of World War II. But there are some real challenges for us, too. Water supplies for irrigation are being drawn down faster than they are being recharged and the demands for using fertilizer and pesticides more efficiently and sparingly are real. On top of that, we face the uncertain effects of climate change. We know it is happening, but we don’t really know how it will affect our individual farm production. The bottom line is that we are being asked to produce more with less.”

Also atop the list of concerns is research funding priorities. With shrinking funds cutting into agricultural research, well-respected, public sector scientists say biotechnology proponents often overpromise what new traits are capable of providing in terms of yield. They also contend that legislators holding the purse strings are too easily swayed by the allure of GM traits and the ability of biotechnology to actually provide ample food for those extra 2 billion bellies.

That doesn’t mean, however, that they dismiss biotechnology out of hand.

“We need biotechnology,” says Ken Cassman, professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska.We need seed companies making large investments using all possible tools including conventional breeding, transgenic crops and marker assistance selection.

“I have no problem with seed companies being excited about what they do and to continue to invest in crop improvement through any means possible.”

What many fellow researchers take issue with, says Cassman, “are the claims about what’s possible in the near future — say, the next 10 to 20 years. That’s the critical period, really, because food prices are rising so fast.

“What’s really feasible in the next 10 to 20 years? What can really be delivered? That’s where many of us take issue with what we consider unreasonable claims about what’s in the pipeline.”

So, where should research dollars be allocated? Should the focus be on GM crops or conventional agriculture?

“I hope it isn’t an either/or,” says crop physiologist Thomas Sinclair, North Carolina State University professor. “We need both. However, the reality is we have lots of information now about how to increase crop yields that isn’t being put in place. There are a lot of reasons why that hasn’t happened. I think investing in disseminating some of the knowledge we already have would be worth it. In developing countries, we need to exploit what we already know.

“At the same time, I’ve heard people say, ‘The only future is the biotech approach.’ I believe that is very much an oversell. Biotech can certainly contribute to disease and insect issues. However, it’s worth remembering that conventional breeding can, as well. In fact, barring the Bt gene, most progress has been in the conventional realm.”

Just within reach?

Cassman, who once ran the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, echoes Sinclair on the tardiness of biotech’s promises. “Do you realize that (weed control) traits were discovered in the late 1980s and released in the mid-1990s? We’re 16 years down the road and there’s nothing released with biotech traits that come close to those.

“The point is, (biotech) progress has been much slower than many predicted. The question is whether there really are major advances coming soon. Or is the biotech check continuously in the mail? The optimism expressed (by biotech proponents) is worth questioning.”

With the world “under pressure to meet food, feed, fiber and fuel demands … we need to have a correct vision of understanding where productivity gains will come from.”

Suggestions that major biotech breakthroughs are just within reach — “when, in fact, it’s been 16 years without such a breakthrough despite a massive increase in investment in both the public and private sectors — one has to question whether the goods will be delivered,” says Cassman. “The reason that is so important is that if it is unlikely to see such breakthroughs we need to look at other areas for major productivity gains.”

Sinclair is worried about the “unrealistic view” that crop yields will continue to increase to very high levels because it “shades how agriculture operates in the United States.” He and colleagues “are rather convinced we’re approaching the maximum yield we’ll see in most crops. We aren’t going to be able to gain new, huge yields. Claims by companies of such big yield leaps simply can’t happen because the resources aren’t available.”

In the United States, “we need to begin to consider how to deal with (stagnant) yields. That has a lot of policy implications — one of them is biofuels. How can we talk about corn and soybean being major contributors to biofuels when yields won’t continue to rise? We’ll need those acres for food, both domestic and for export.

“I’ve heard arguments including ‘biotech will provide large yield increases.’ I’m convinced that can’t happen — we have neither the water nor can the plant take up the nitrogen to produce yields that GM companies like to predict.”

Acreage issues

Cassman, too, points out the problem with adequate farm acreage. “All of the good farmland in the world is currently being used in agriculture. The remaining land that we might consider is under rainforests, wetlands or grassland savannahs in places like Africa. Those are also among the last refuges for wildlife and biodiversity.”

Also consider that cities are expanding everywhere. “So, we’re losing some of the best farmland that surrounds cities.

“Even if your goal is to produce the food needed between now and 2050 (when there will be more than 9 billion people) on existing farmland, you’re actually admitting there will be about 150 million acres of new farmland to replace that lost to urbanization and industrialization. If the world says ‘we need to protect as much of the rainforests, wetlands and grassland savannahs as possible by holding agriculture to existing farmland,’ we’re already conceding the need to expand farmland lost to cities.”

Sinclair returns to the politics of agricultural research funding that has “shifted dramatically to funding biotech approaches. That’s because of the advertised promise of huge yield gains.

“The cold-blooded view is that those claims simply can’t be true. It’s like building a racing Ferrari and then not having any gasoline to put in it.

“We’re arriving at the point where plants are incapable of taking up and storing more nitrogen during vegetative growth for later use in supporting seed growth. The same is true with how plants use water. We can tweak things and still push (yields) up 10 to 25 percent. But there will be no doubling. There just isn’t the water to do it. We need to get a grasp on all this and face reality.”

The good news, says Cassman, is that the agricultural industry has the ability to deliver food “in amounts that boggle the mind. They’ll have to do it on a limited land resource with declining supplies of available water. We can do it. But the only way is to clearly assess where we should be investing limited research dollars.”

Prioritizing research

Cassman has conducted research on crops for 33 years in almost every major cropping system around the world. For almost 30 years of that time, “it didn’t matter if you chose the right research topic or invested properly in research because we had enough food globally. If policymakers at major universities, USDA or in the international research system made poor decisions on research prioritization, it didn’t matter. There was still enough food.

“As a result, there is a generation of policymakers and decision-makers who established their careers at a time when it didn’t matter, in terms of having enough food, if you were successful at prioritizing research.”

For more on Cassman’s work, see here.

With the global economic downturn, all that has changed in the last three years.

That leads to a question that Cassman says must be asked: “Do we have leaders who have become, in a sense, so unused to rigorously prioritizing research? Do we have leaders in place that can help us do what is necessary quickly? At this point, we can’t afford to make poor decisions in research prioritization.”

Keen to keep from “personal criticism” against any individual, Cassman has a general complaint: “Claims being made — particularly those from seed companies — influence what is being invested in by the public sector. If you’re a legislator deciding where to allocate research funding and are being told by industry that ‘major breakthroughs’ are in the pipeline that will transform agriculture, that’s something you’ll latch onto. If you believe that and have limited funds to allocate, you’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s provide money for this research. Biotech seems like a goldmine and will have a huge payoff.’”

So, with a view towards the long-term, what is the first research priority? Water management? Fertilizer?

It turns out that fertilizer is almost always a limiting factor in many developing nations, says Sinclair. In fact, a study done by the Dutch in the area south of the Sahara was very interesting. You’d figure that water is the key issue. But they applied water in experiments and saw little yield change. When they applied fertilizer and no water, there were yield increases.”

History has shown “yield has been tightly correlated with the amount of fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, available to the crop. I’m told the expense and infrastructure to deal with fertilizers in places like Africa is a great challenge.”

What about soybean, peanut and grain legumes that contribute their own nitrogen? Sinclair has worked on those crops for a long time and says if lack of nitrogen is the ultimate problem, “we should exploit them. We need more effective grain legume production systems.

“I’m also working on an international project largely funded by the Gates Foundation looking at the legume breeding for higher yields in various parts of Africa. Many African researchers are involved and I’ve been impressed with how they operate with so few resources. It’s often agonizing to realize how little they often have to work with.

“Ultimately, we should be able to use the conventional breeding approach, search the germplasm and find plants that do what we want them to. I say, ‘Anytime I’ve looked for a trait I think will improve the crop, I’ve found it in existing genetic material. At this point, there may be limited need to try and figure out how to find new genetic diversity. We already have it. We just need to identify it and use it.’”

A delicate balance

Sinclair says working in developing countries is “delicate because no one wants to be accused of a new era of colonialism — ‘you must do it our way.’ We must work within their farming systems.

“Some of the things we could introduce would mean risk for the farmers in developing nations. In places like Africa, risk needs to be near zero. If you tell them to spend a bit more on fertilizer and a subsistence farmer loses her crop, the situation is worse than ever. It’s a precarious balance.”

There are reports of difficulties in getting Africans to eat grains they’re unfamiliar with. Sinclair says this is another facet of the hunger problem.

“The four crop species that are part of the Gates project are chickpea, common bean, peanut and cowpea.

“The dietary issue is very interesting. Basically, if anyone is given a new food, the inclination is ‘that tastes odd. I’m not sure I like it.’ We like to eat what we were brought up eating.

“However, I’ve spoken to people who tell me if we’re sensitive to recipes and preparation that fit what people are used to, they’ll accept the new grains. I know someone who introduced pigeon pea into Bolivia. It took some work to get the pigeon pea to fit what the locals were used to.

“But this points to the need to present a whole package. Too many approach food issues saying, ‘We’ll do this and this.’ When it isn’t adopted rapidly, they just give up. Well, the locals don’t know how to cook it and/or it doesn’t taste right. That’s a challenge.”

Regulatory reform

What about complaints that the U.S. government presents too many obstacles for agricultural research and there is need for regulatory reform?

“There is room to improve the regulatory process,” agrees Cassman. “That doesn’t mean diluting the goals of ensuring that any product that comes to market is environmentally friendly and safe in terms of health and nutrition. We can make the system more efficient and effective without losing the benefit of regulation to make those assurances.”

Biotech proponents have “a significant point to make there. For instance, the major emphasis placed on products like Bt crops or Roundup Ready crops and their impact on nutrition. Clearly, there is no effect. Yet, it seems every time a similar product comes to market (there is pushback), especially overseas.

“Globally, we need a much more efficient, effective regulatory system that can look at risk and benefits in ways that are much more effective and science-based. That way we can continue to make improvements genetically by any means.”

It may surprise the biotech industry that Cassman doesn’t believe there is a “need to disinvest in biotechnology. Rather, we need to increase investment in agricultural research, in general, and get to a better balance. There needs to be at least as much investment, perhaps more, going to the nuts-and-bolts research that has been so successful in improving productivity in the past. That includes things like nutrient management, water management, and disease and pest management.

“I think the future lies with more ‘responsive agriculture,’ that can react to real time conditions during a growing season. That will allow producers to make decisions quickly with regard to management of pests, nutrients and water. We need fine-tuning to push yields towards genetic potentials.”

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