The following responses are excerpts of farmer perspectives about GM crops that can be used for food, which were shared by the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.
In Tanzania, researchers have figured out how to improve the cassava through biotechnology—a development that everyone ought to celebrate and promote.
This progress comes at a good time because the cassava brown-streak virus has become the leading threat to food security in many parts of East Africa. One study says that the disease can slash a farm’s productivity by as much as 70 percent. When it strikes, many smallholder farmers simply abandon their fields—and each time that happens, Africa’s dire food problems grow a little bit worse.
Biotechnology offers a potential solution. Scientists have learned how to trigger the cassava’s immune-defense system, allowing the plant to fend off the lethal brown-streak virus. These miracle plants are currently in field trials in Tanzania. If the field trials go well, farmers and consumers across the region will benefit. In East Africa, this means many smallholder farmers will experience enhanced cassava production, and hence food security and incomes.
Yet that will happen only if politics doesn’t get in the way of science. In Africa, unfortunately, politics always seems to intrude. Too often, we turn over our public policies to special-interest groups that despise biotechnology for reasons of ideology.
The result is a tragedy for Africa. Our continent routinely fails to feed itself.
In the United States and elsewhere, GM crops have produced an enormous bounty. This year, corn farmers in the Midwest are shattering all-time yield records, in large part because they can grow the best crops science can offer.
From the eyes of this African farmer, though, every year is a pretty good year for American growers. I wish we could enjoy similar levels of success.
The difference is technology. Americans have embraced it—and now they’re growing more food than ever before. In Africa, our governments have resisted GM crops—and we continue to suffer from hunger and malnourishment.
Forty-seven countries occupy the continent of Africa, but only four—Burkina Faso, Egypt, South Africa, and Sudan—have permitted the commercialization of GM crops. The rest of us must rely on farm technologies from the last century, even as we confront the 21st-century problems of climate change, environmental sustainability, and rapid population growth.
The cassava would be an excellent way to introduce more biotechnology into Africa. Most of its production goes straight into human bellies, feeding people directly. It’s also an essential famine-reserve crop. When other staples struggle or fail due to disease or drought, many Africans turn to the cassava for basic sustenance.
So a cassava plant that fends off the deadly brown-streak disease would be a blessing—and not just for the people who depend on this particular plant. Its commercial introduction could pave the way for Africa to accept more technology, especially in neighboring countries. Right now, goods and services, including crops, move with relative ease across our borders.
Years ago, India accepted biotechnology in agriculture when it commercialized GM cotton. At that moment, it looked like we might become full participants in a new wave of progress. Today, more than 95 percent of India’s cotton is genetically modified to resist insect pests.
This was a welcome start, but small in scale. Only a tiny minority of India’s farmers grows cotton. The rest of us produce other crops, and are yet to taste the benefit of GM crops as we try to feed a nation of more than 1.2 billion people.
Yet as farmers in North and South America pressed forward with GM corn, soybeans, and other crops, New Delhi hit the brakes. Instead of working to introduce GM brinjal—an important vegetable crop in India, known in the Unites States as eggplant—our government turned away from new forms of biotechnology.
In doing so, public officials made regulatory decisions based not on provable science, but on political science. They should have relied on reliable research from respected authorities. Instead, they responded to lies and propaganda from ideological activists.
The election of Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister earlier this year, however, appears to have changed everything. Modi’s environmental ministry, led by Prakash Javadekar, has chosen to emphasize science and technology.
India now will test some 30 varieties of GM brinjal and mustard, a decision consistent with PM Modi’s development agenda. If sound science truly animates our policies, farmers like me almost certainly will have access to better crops soon.
I’m looking forward to what happens next. I have grown brinjal in a small area, but gave up because I couldn’t keep away the pests and remain economically competitive. Many farmers in India will be benefited, if and when GM brinjal becomes available.
I plan to do everything in my power to help biotechnology take root in my country: We must make sure that successful field trials lead to commercialization, and see that our research expands to include additional crops. Today, the hard work of our Indian scientists who have developed lots of GM crops with desirable traits, including maize, rice, okra, cabbage and cauliflower, are confined to a lab while they wait for clearance from the government. This must change. It is important that these improved crops are made available to India’s farmers.
Since citrus greening showed up about a decade ago, Florida’s orange production has fallen by about half—and if it falls much more, the citrus business may become economically unsustainable. Our oranges won’t come from Florida anymore.
More than orange juice is at stake. After squeezing, a lot of the leftover pulp becomes feed for my cattle—not only is it good for them, but it allows us to use citrus in multiple ways. Nothing goes to waste, in accordance with the principles of sustainable agriculture.
Growers have tried to fight citrus greening in every way imaginable. They’ve scoured the planet for varieties of citrus with natural resistance. They’ve studied wasps from Pakistan that hunt the insects that carry the disease. They’ve even built special heated tents to keep the trees healthy.
For years, nothing seemed to work. Citrus greening kept on leaping from tree to tree and grove to grove. It looked unstoppable.
Then the industry turned to biotechnology. Seeing how genetic modification had improved farming in other parts of the country, it wondered whether the same tools of modern science might help Florida citrus survive. Then, a few years ago, researchers in Texas discovered that by inserting genes from spinach plants into citrus trees, the citrus trees became more resistant to citrus greening.
As of today, there are no research results or indication that citrus greening can be solved without genetically improved citrus trees. Science and technology are needed to save the citrus industry. This is a necessity – not just a ‘niceity’.
What happens next remains unclear. The technology could receive a first step in commercial approval this year, giving ordinary farmers in the near future a tool that holds the potential to save Florida’s oranges. This will require an involved decision from regulators. They will need to make a decision based on sound science, not the scientific illiteracy that has caused some people to demand special warning labels on food with GM ingredients.
The next step involves consumer acceptance. Will people drink orange juice that comes from genetically modified trees? There’s no reason why they shouldn’t: We eat GM food every day and we’ve been doing it for years.
Will spinach save oranges? There’s something almost poetic about this solution, as two excellent sources of nutrition join together, keeping us well fed and healthy.
There is currently a debate in our state to remove legislation that restricts the growing of GM food. I hope it’s overturned: Farmers in Western Australia should enjoy all the tools of modern agriculture, especially the ones that have proven so popular and effective in the Western hemisphere, from Canada in the north to Argentina in the south.
This would represent progress. Unfortunately, we may have to endure regress. The states of South Australia and Tasmania continue to ban GM farming. If a Labor government comes to power in the next Western Australian state election they have indicated they will re-impose the moratorium.
The controversy over GM food represents the greatest failure in our lifetime to communicate the basic facts of science. Around the world, billions of people misunderstand a whole class of technology. They don’t recognize that GM crops represent some of our best opportunities to address food security amid a booming global population and environmental challenges during a period of unpredictable climate change.
As an Agricultural Scientist, I am intrigued by the trend across the food chain in Australia and developed countries around the world – particularly Europe – to desire less modern agricultural science and technology than more. The full-bellied consumers in these countries are demanding more from the food sector than just cheap, safe and readily available food by raising unsubstantiated concerns regarding new applications of agricultural science in food production.
During my research and farming career, I have had the opportunity to meet many farmers and research organizations working with GM crops. From Arctic apples to weed-resistant canola, GM foods represent the victory of human ingenuity and the wonder of science over the grinding misery of hunger and suffering. I’ve witnessed the research trials in the Philippines on “Golden Rice,” a GM crop whose biofortification could wipe out the scourge of childhood blindness caused by vitamin-A deficiency.
It’s heartbreaking to visit these Golden Rice plots, and then to meet the sightless children whose fate in life would be so different if only they could have had access to this food.
The only thing standing between a new generation of blind children and a preventative solution is the illogical opposition of activist NGOs based in Western countries— prosperous countries that have full bellies and readily available and nutritious food, but nonetheless have allowed its fixation with hypothetical risks to trump both common sense and miraculous potential.
We cannot allow similar harmful obsessions to take root in Australia.
On our family farm in Western Australia, we grow grain and raise sheep. We’ve experimented with GM canola, with mixed results. Although we saw vast improvement in our paddocks, we didn’t benefit from gains in yield—and so we’re waiting for better technologies to come along before we try again.
That’s how GM farming ought to work: Farmers should enjoy the freedom to decide what they’ll grow, making decisions based on economic and environmental sustainability. One thing we’d like to try is drought-tolerant wheat, helping us make the most of our sparse rainfall in Western Australia and letting us grow more food on less land in tough times.