Thursday, 16 July 2015

Biotech's current place in the world

Last autumn, I won a place on a media tour to Iowa. There she met farmers, scientists and global farming policy-makers, as well as attending The World Food Prize Conference. The focus of the trip was how to feed 9.2 billion by 2050. In this first report for Farm North East she looks at biotechnology’s place in the world. 

At the Oxford Farming Conference in January, Richard Lochhead stated that biotechnology (GMs) has no place in Scotland’s food production because its adoption by producers would tarnish the clean, green image of Scottish foods. Given consumer reticence to the technology, an the buoyant export market for Scottish food and drink, I completely understand his stance. In sharp contrast - 

Westminster-based ministers Elizabeth Truss, Defra’s Secretary of State and Huw Irranca Davies, the shadow minister - are both very pro the technology, as were miss Truss’s two predecessors. Added to the political situation, the EU seems to be settling on member states making their own decision of GM adoption or refusal. 

For Scotland’s ministers to say ‘never’ to adopting GM technology may also be foolhardy with climate change being described as irrefutable by the Government’s climate change advisor, Lord Krebs. Also speaking at The Oxford Farming Conference, this scientist said that dry summers, storms, high winds, flooding are all woes that farmers might have to routinely cope with as average temperatures rise by - at least - 2oC.

In relation to biotech, the overriding concern that I left Iowa with, was the polarised division between the the nations that have access to GM and those that have-not. It is dividing the world’s producers - and their relative competitiveness. Further concerns prick my conscience which directly impact Scotland; livestock producers need plant proteins and specifically soya, and given that most of the soya is GM; indirectly, we need the technology too. Worryingly, the EU is currently holding up the approval of a number of GM varieties of soya for import and consumption by European livestock. 

So how big is biotech? GM crops are grown by 18m farmers in 27 countries, with total plantings of 175m ha. GM crops feed 100 billion head of livestock globally. 

Access to technology a global concern 
It was clear from my trip that a universal concern for both developed and developing countries is the desperate need for advances in farming technology - and the related regulatory framework - to allow farmers and food chains to produce the quantity, quality and the market/health specificity needed. 
The reason that biotech was so openly championed by the farmers, biotech cos and scientists it met, is that the results are irrefutable. Where biotech varieties are used, establishment is better making plants more resilient; the need for agchems is reduced, yield benefits are significant (especially in the early years) and farmers can alternate GM and non-GM varieties because pest populations are much lower where GM varieties are used repeatedly. Combined with lo or no-till, GM varieties encourage soil moisture retention, can improve nitrogen utilisation, can significantly lower the costs of production and - arguably - can make farming more sustainable.

Consumers’ view on GMs
In societies that can afford to choose, or those with aspirations to produce for world markets, aversion to GMOs is still a very big barrier at consumer and political level. What was also very surprising is that anti-GM is a growing issue in the USA - very surprising given that the technology has been grown and consumed now for 30 years - and that it is a foundation technology for the American food industry. All of these findings support Mr Lochhead’s no-GM stance. 

In developing countries GM is seen as the solution to fundamental issues like the inherent infertility of African soils, drought and salinity, as well as climate change. In developed countries biotech is seen as a solution for addressing climate change, providing an alternative to agrochemicals, a solution to building weed and disease resistance and a technology proven to deliver improved yield. 

Both developed and developing countries also see GM delivering consumer benefits (e.g. nutrient/vitamin enrichment or specific health attributes) and potentially reducing the costs of production. 

The political and regulatory environment are seen as the biggest issues irrespective of whether the country has or hasn’t got access to GM.

For example, in India, farmers only have access to one biotech crop - Bt Cotton. According to the farmers I interviewed, this is because it is not an edible crop, so the regulatory environment is not deemed to be as important.

Africa’s GM adoption
In Africa, the situation varies between and by country, but it is a very hot topic in every food producing country. Jim Gaffney, DuPont Pioneer’s regulatory product strategy lead said that no company has brought a truly transgenic product to African countries yet (except South Africa), but that he thinks they are just on the point of receptiveness, e.g. Burkina Faso for Bt Cotton. Africa is seen as the big market because these traits are seen as silver bullets to address world hunger. In Africa, a country of 1 billion people, 65% are still involved in farming, in India, close to 70% of all farmers are small farmers. 

Global leaders have a big concern that the regulatory environment may not be robust enough, so as a consequence, NGOs, aid organisations and biotech companies are actively involved in R&D and development programmes. Kenya is an example of one country active in these partnerships [insert details re WEMA], and is considered the most progressive in trait introduction. 

To put costs into focus, Dr Adrienne Massey, CEO of Bio, said that the cost of developing one biotech trait in the USA, which takes 10-14 years to reach market, is $136m, with $35m of that spent on the regulatory process. 

Kevin Diehl (DuPont Pioneer) added that product safety and characterisation takes 75 studies and 5-7years. Studies are into molecular analysis, protein expression, field studies, validation methods, trait efficacy and things like allergenicity (given that traits are proteins). There are over 90 Government regulatory bodies globally.  

Farmers and farming organisations I met were very frustrated that farmers (many smallholders) are not allowed access to the high yield potential of biotech crops. One speaker cited African leaders as completely disingenuous - on the one hand denying smallholders access to biotech, but on the other allowing large multinationals to develop biotech crops, grow them across large areas and supply GM produce into the local markets.

Biotechnology is a dividing technology all over the world; but my question is, can we live without it for the long term?

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