* Green Thumbs: GE Crops are More Environmentally Friendly than Organic Ones
* Fear of Science Will Kill Us
* Genetically Engineered Crops Benefit Many Farmers - NRC report
* Biotech Crops are Good for Earth, Report Finds
* Modified Crops Touted
* NY Times Spin on the Same Report - 'Study Says Overuse Threatens Gains From Modified Crops '
* What It Will Take to Feed The World
Green Thumbs: Genetically Engineered Crops are More Environmentally Friendly than Organic Ones
- Elliot Entis, Boston Globe, April 11, 2010 http://www.boston.com
There is a green revolution going on, “doubly green’’ according to ecologist Gordon Conway, but it’s one the organic movement does not want to join. This revolution relies on modern biotechnology to create crop hybrids that can better utilize our scarce resources, and there’s the rub: the science is not trusted by organic farmers, and it plays against their economic interests.
The mantra against genetically engineered crops is that there are hidden dangers lurking within this powerful technology and we don’t know how it may harm us. We may not know what we don’t know, but we do know this: since genetically engineered crops have been planted, there have been no incidents of harm to man, beast, or the environment. We also know that organic farming is not any healthier for people than other methods, a unanimous conclusion among peer-reviewed studies as well as the US Department of Agriculture.
We also know that organic farming is not environmentally friendly. Yes, organic farming avoids some harmful chemicals and pesticides, but not as effectively as farms that plant genetically engineered crops. The yield per acre of such organic crops as wheat and beans, the world’s most widely planted crops, is between 50 and 80 percent of the yield of conventional crops, according to the Elm Farm Research Centre.
Historically, the yields from genetically engineered crops of the same type are even above the yields of conventional crops: 36 percent better per acre for corn and 12 percent better for soybeans. Then there is the reduction of herbicides and pesticides. Overall, since 1997, the reduction in pesticide use resulting from genetically engineered crops is estimated at 790 million pounds, or 8.8 percent, and herbicide reduction in soybeans at 161 million pounds, or 4.6 percent.
But what is most telling perhaps, is a finding reported this year by the USDA: “Farmers who grow Bt-corn [a GE variety that contains the natural pesticide Bt] use 75 percent less pesticides, essentially receiving the benefits of chemicals without releasing them into the environment or leaving residue on the final product.’’ Bt is one of the pesticides organic farmers use to protect their own crops.
Lower yields force more acres of what could be left wild to be turned over to domestication. You want more organic foods? Then think about clearing more forests, more wetlands, and reducing wilderness. You want sustainable agriculture for the future? Then look ahead to the next generation of genetically engineered crops that address what is probably the biggest constraint we face: limited fresh water available to expand crop production. Genetically engineered crops are now under development to address this constraint.
One would expect that “green’’ organizations would welcome genetically engineered crops and part company with the organic movement. But this has not been the case: political expediency and romance have — temporarily at least — trumped science.
The organic movement is largely a romantic ideal, far removed in many ways from science. It believes it is environmentally friendly, but it largely avoids science. True environmentalists look at the facts, and those facts do not support the growth of organic farming as a way to feed the world. However, with few exceptions, environmental organizations do not admit to this publicly. Why? Because they share a constituency: citizens who oppose certain elements of mass production farming, who yearn for a simpler time, when things were more natural. But this constituency is built on a shared belief system about the past, not the future.
At some point the contradiction between what organic farming leads to — more land devoted to farming, higher food prices, less biodiversity — and the goals of environmentalists — sustainability, more biodiversity – will fracture this alliance.
Environmentalists will have to rethink their public position on the benefits that biotechnological innovation provides and the potential harm of an overly ideological organic movement. Stewart Brand, the editor of Whole Earth Catalog, recently summed up the issue best: “The environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about. We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.’’
Elliot Entis, CEO of the American Salmon Company, is a former board member of the Biotechnology Industry Organization and the founder of Aqua Bounty Technologies, Inc.
Fear of Science Will Kill Us
- Michael Specter, CNN, April 13, 2010. Watch video at
American denialism threatens many areas of scientific progress, including the widespread fear of vaccines and the useless trust placed in the vast majority of dietary supplements quickly come to mind.
It doesn't seem to matter how often vaccines are proved safe or supplements are shown to offer nothing of value. When people don't like facts, they ignore them.
Nowhere is that unwillingness to accept the truth more evident than in the mindlessly destructive war that has been raging between the proponents of organic food and those who believe that genetically engineered products must play a role in feeding the growing population of the Earth. This is a divide that shouldn't exist.
All the food we eat -- every grain of rice and kernel of corn -- has been genetically modified. None of it was here before mankind learned to cultivate crops. The question isn't whether our food has been modified, but how.
I wrote "Denialism" because it has become increasingly clear that this struggle threatens progress for us all. Denialists replace the open-minded skepticism of science with the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment. It isn't hard to find evidence: the ruinous attempts to wish away the human impact on climate change, for example. The signature denialists of our time, of course, are those who refuse to acknowledge the indisputable facts of evolution.
Nowhere has the screaming been louder, however, than in the fight over how we grow our food. If you are brave enough to set a Google Alert for the phrases "genetically modified food" and "organic food," you will quickly see what I mean.
The anxiety is certainly understandable. When it comes to food -- the way we produce it and particularly the way we consume it -- we have a lot to worry about.
One third of American children are overweight or obese; for adults, the numbers are higher. Our addiction to mindless consumption has made millions sick and costs this country billions of dollars. The financial toll comes in terms of time lost at work and money spent treating and supporting people with diabetes, heart disease and many cancers, who, had they followed a better diet, would never have fallen ill.
Nonetheless, better eating habits have nothing specific to do with organic food, which provides no nutritional advantage over more conventionally raised products. Opponents of genetically modified food constantly argue that it is unsafe. There has, however, never been a single documented case of a human killed by eating genetically modified food.
If every American swallowed two aspirin right now, hundreds of us would die today. Does that mean we ought to ban aspirin? Of course not. It simply means that there are risks and benefits associated with everything we do and with every decision we make.
When people say they prefer organic food, what they often seem to mean is they don't want their food tainted with pesticides and their meat shot full of hormones or antibiotics. Many object to the way a few companies -- Monsanto is the most famous of them -- control so many of the seeds we grow.
Those are all legitimate complaints, but none of them have anything to do with science or the way we move genes around in plants to make them grow taller or withstand drought or too much sun. They are issues of politics and law. When we confuse them with issues of science, we threaten the lives of the world's poorest people.
We are doing that now. By 2050, we are going to have 9 billion people to feed, a huge increase over today's 6.8 billion. It's not a figure about which there is much dispute. To feed that many will require nearly 50 percent more food than we produce now.
It's not enough to simply say we waste food and consume too many calories, so that if we distributed it more intelligently everyone could eat just fine. Not in sub-Saharan Africa, where drought is nearly permanent.
Many of those people subsist on cassava, the basic potato-like staple in the region. It lacks most protein, nutrients and vitamins.
You cannot survive for long without them, so a team of international scientists funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is engineering vitamins and micronutrients into cassava.
They are engineering success into a failed crop. It will save and prolong many lives; that is farming and genetic modification at their best. Who could be opposed to that?
Michael Specter is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens our Lives." TED, a nonprofit organization devoted to "Ideas Worth Spreading," hosts talks on many subjects and makes them available through its Web site, http://www.ted.com/
Genetically Engineered Crops Benefit Many Farmers, But The Technology Needs Proper Management to Remain Effective
National Research Council, USA http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=12804
WASHINGTON -- Many U.S. farmers who grow genetically engineered (GE) crops are realizing substantial economic and environmental benefits -- such as lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields -- compared with conventional crops, says a new report from the National Research Council. However, GE crops resistant to the herbicide glyphosate -- a main component in Roundup and other commercial weed killers -- could develop more weed problems as weeds evolve their own resistance to glyphosate. GE crops could lose their effectiveness unless farmers also use other proven weed and insect management practices.
The report provides the first comprehensive assessment of how GE crops are affecting all U.S. farmers, including those who grow conventional or organic crops. The new report follows several previous Research Council reports that examined the potential human health and environmental effects of GE crops.
"Many American farmers are enjoying higher profits due to the widespread use of certain genetically engineered crops and are reducing environmental impacts on and off the farm," said David Ervin, professor of environmental management and economics, Portland State University, Portland, Ore., and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "However, these benefits are not universal for all farmers. And as more GE traits are developed and incorporated into a larger variety of crops, it's increasingly essential that we gain a better understanding of how genetic engineering technology will affect U.S. agriculture and the environment now and in the future. Such gaps in our knowledge are preventing a full assessment of the environmental, economic, and other impacts of GE crops on farm sustainability."
First introduced in 1996, genetically engineered crops now constitute more than 80 percent of soybeans, corn, and cotton grown in the United States. GE soybeans, corn, and cotton are designed to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, which has fewer adverse environmental effects compared with most other herbicides used to control weeds. In addition to glyphosate resistance, GE corn and cotton plants also are designed to produce Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium that is deadly when ingested by susceptible insect pests.
Farmers need to adopt better management practices to ensure that beneficial environmental effects of GE crops continue, the report says. In particular, farmers who grow GE herbicide-resistant crops should not rely exclusively on glyphosate and need to incorporate a range of weed management practices, including using other herbicide mixes. To date, at least nine species of weeds in the United States have evolved resistance to glyphosate since GE crops were introduced, largely because of repeated exposure. Federal and state government agencies, technology developers, universities, and other stakeholders should collaborate to document weed resistance problems and develop cost-effective ways to control weeds in current GE crops and new types of GE herbicide-resistant plants now under development.
Improvements in water quality could prove to be the largest single benefit of GE crops, the report says. Insecticide use has declined since GE crops were introduced, and farmers who grow GE crops use fewer insecticides and herbicides that linger in soil and waterways. In addition, farmers who grow herbicide-resistant crops till less often to control weeds and are more likely to practice conservation tillage, which improves soil quality and water filtration and reduces erosion.
However, no infrastructure exists to track and analyze the effects that GE crops may have on water quality. The U.S. Geological Survey, along with other federal and state environmental agencies, should be provided with financial resources to document effects of GE crops on U.S. watersheds.
The report notes that although two types of insects have developed resistance to Bt, there have been few economic or agronomic consequences from resistance. Practices to prevent insects from developing resistance should continue, such as an EPA-mandated strategy that requires farmers to plant a certain amount of conventional plants alongside Bt plants in "refuge" areas.
Economic and Social Effects
In many cases, farmers who have adopted the use of GE crops have either lower production costs or higher yields, or sometimes both, due to more cost-effective weed and insect control and fewer losses from insect damage, the report says. Although these farmers have gained such economic benefits, more research is needed on the extent to which these advantages will change as pests adapt to GE crops, other countries adopt genetic engineering technology, and more GE traits are incorporated into existing and new crops.
The higher costs associated with GE seeds are not always offset financially by lower production costs or higher yields, the report notes. For example, farmers in areas with fewer weed and pest problems may not have as much improvement in terms of reducing crop losses. Even so, studies show that farmers value the greater flexibility in pesticide spraying that GE crops provide and the increased safety for workers from less exposure to harmful pesticides.
The economic effects of GE crops on farmers who grow organic and conventional crops also need further study, the report says. For instance, organic farmers are profiting by marketing their crops as free of GE traits, but their crops' value could be jeopardized if genes from GE crops flow to non-GE varieties through cross-pollination or seed mingling.
Farmers have not been adversely affected by the proprietary terms involved in patent-protected GE seeds, the report says. However, some farmers have expressed concern that consolidation of the U.S. seed market will make it harder to purchase conventional seeds or those that have only specific GE traits. With the exception of the issue of seed industry consolidation, the effects of GE crops on other social factors of farming -- such as labor dynamics, farm structure, or community viability -- have largely been overlooked, the report says. More research is needed on the range of effects GE crops have on all farmers, including those who don't grow GE crops or farmers with less access to credit. Studies also should examine impacts on industries that rely on GE products, such as the livestock industry.
Research institutions should receive government support to develop GE traits that could deliver valuable public benefits but provide little market incentive for the private sector to develop. Examples include plants that decrease the likelihood of off-farm water pollution or plants that are resilient to changing climate conditions. Intellectual property that has been patented in developing major crops should be made available for these purposes whenever possible.
The study was funded by the National Research Council. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are independent, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under an 1863 congressional charter. Committee members, who serve pro bono as volunteers, are chosen by the Academies for each study based on their expertise and experience and must satisfy the Academies' conflict-of-interest standards. The resulting consensus reports undergo external peer review before completion. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org/studycommitteprocess.pdf
Biotech Crops are Good for Earth, Report Finds
- Richard Harris, NPR, April 13, 2010
Over the past 14 years, three of the nation's biggest cash crops have quietly become genetically engineered crops. These days, 80 percent of the corn, cotton and soybeans are the products of biotech.
A report released Tuesday by the National Research Council committee finds that crops produced through genetic engineering are on the whole beneficial for farmers who plant these seeds. But the committee cautions that the technology could lose some of its power if it's not carefully managed in the future.
First Look At Impact On Farmers
Other studies have looked at public perceptions of this technology and the health and social issues that it raises. But the National Academy of Sciences noted that nobody had tried to take a broad look at how this technology affects farmers.
"We think the farmer's perspective is crucial in this," says David Ervin from Portland State University in Oregon, who chaired the National Research Council's exploration of the subject. "Because they're the ones using this technology. They have the most to potentially gain and perhaps some risks involved."
And from the viewpoint of the farmers, the results are largely quite positive. "What we found," Ervin says, "is that the farmers who have adopted these genetically engineered crops have received both environmental and economic benefits." Although genetically engineered seeds often cost more, the farmers more than make up for the discrepancy by using less labor and fewer chemicals to produce their crops.
The report also finds the farm environment benefits as farmers can reduce the use of pesticides on pest-resistant genetically engineered crops. They can also reduce soil erosion caused by tilling by instead using herbicides to control weeds. "One of the herbicides that's very popular in the genetically engineered crops, glyphosate, is less toxic than many of the herbicides it replaces," Ervin says.
However, the report finds that glyphosate, known by the brand name Roundup, may be getting too popular. Some weeds are growing resistant, a potential downside of the technology. "That's a serious concern," Ervin says. "In fact, one of the strong messages in our report and findings is that we have to take very seriously the high level of resistance of weeds to glyphosate. There's an increasing number of weeds and an increasing extent of area where we see this."
If that trend continues, farmers might fall back on more environmentally damaging herbicides, or return to tilling their fields and sacrificing soil in the process. There are measures to manage this problem, Ervin says, but they're not being used effectively.
Ervin would also like to see biotech used for broader social benefits, such as crops that need less fertilizer. "And if we can get plants to be more efficient in how they use their fertilizer and have less fertilizer runoff," he says, "it not only benefits the farmer by reducing their fertilizer application bill, but it also benefits the downstream users of waters who have less polluted runoff."
Biotech Shifts Focus From Conventional Breeding, Critic Says
Ervin emphasized that the panel decided not to go back and look at the health and environmental concerns raised a decade ago when the technology was taking off. The worst fears there have not come to pass. But Margaret Mellon, at an advocacy group called the Union of Concerned Scientists, still isn't overly enthusiastic about biotech crops. "I look at the technology in light of what it promised, and we all, including myself, expected from it 20 years ago when it first came on the scene," Mellon says.
Hopes were high it would altogether transform agriculture and bring higher-yielding crops, fields that required a lot less spray, and less fertilizer. "And in light of what we expected the technology to do," Mellon says, "its performance is really very disappointing."
It turns out most of those highly desirable traits are complicated and more likely to arise from conventional plant breeding, Mellon says. So she is disappointed that that so much enthusiasm has shifted away from conventional breeding to new and high-tech genetic engineering.
Modified Crops Touted
- Scott Kilman, Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2010
A report by the National Research Council issued Tuesday found that genetically modified crops have increased profits for U.S. farmers while reducing the environmental damage caused by agriculture.
Biotechnology is controversial among environmental activists, who worry that pollen from genetically modified crops can spread unwanted traits to organic farms. But the independent scientific group concluded that genetically modified crops on balance do less damage to the environment than conventional crops.
The Washington-based group, which gives scientific advice to the federal government, found that genetically modifying crops such as corn and soybeans to tolerate exposure to glyphosate-based herbicide has made it possible for many farmers to mechanically till their fields less often, which reduces soil erosion, as well as farming costs.
Many farmers no longer need to disturb the soil to kill weeds, because they can spray herbicide directly on their fields without harming their genetically modified crops.
At the same time, genetically modifying crops with a gene from a soil microorganism to make a natural insecticide has allowed many farmers to reduce their use of synthetic pesticides that kill beneficial insects such as honey bees. "Genetically modified crops have had less adverse effects on the environment" than their conventional relatives, said L. LaReesa Wolfenbarger, a University of Nebraska biologist who studies the ecological effects of transgenic crops.
The 253-page report was launched in 2008 and researched by a ten-member committee of scientists, economists and a sociologist. It helps explain why genetically modified crops have spread rapidly since Monsanto Co.'s herbicide-tolerant soybean was introduced in 1996: About 80% of the soybeans, corn and cotton grown in the U.S. are now produced from genetically modified plants, the report said.
The authors of the report warned, however, that farmers would undermine the effectiveness of herbicide-tolerant crops if they didn't begin using them more prudently. Several weeds in the Southern U.S. have already developed resistance to glyphosate, apparently because of repeated applications.
Study Says Overuse Threatens Gains From Modified Crops
- Andrew Pollack, New York Times, April 13, 2010 http://www.nytimes.com
Genetically engineered crops have provided "substantial" environmental and economic benefits to American farmers, but overuse of the technology is threatening to erode the gains, a national science advisory organization said Tuesday in a report.
The report is described as the first comprehensive assessment of the impact of genetically modified crops on American farmers, who have rapidly adopted them since their introduction in 1996. The study was issued by the National Research Council, which is affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences and provides advice to the nation under a Congressional charter.
The report found that the crops allowed farmers to either reduce chemical spraying or to use less harmful chemicals. The crops also offered farmers lower production costs, higher output or extra convenience, benefits that generally outweighed the higher costs of the engineered seeds.
"Many American farmers are enjoying higher profits due to the widespread use of certain genetically engineered crops and are reducing environmental impacts on and off the farm," David Ervin, the chairman of the committee that wrote the report, said in a statement.
However, added Dr. Ervin, a professor of environmental management and economics at Portland State University in Oregon, "These benefits are not universal for all farmers."
Nor are they necessarily permanent. The report warned that farmers were jeopardizing the benefits by planting too many so-called Roundup Ready crops. These crops are genetically engineered to be impervious to the herbicide Roundup, allowing farmers to spray the chemical to kill weeds while leaving the crops unscathed.
Overuse of this seductively simple approach to weed control is starting to backfire. Use of Roundup, or its generic equivalent, glyphosate, has skyrocketed to the point that weeds are rapidly becoming resistant to the chemical. That is rendering the technology less useful, requiring farmers to start using additional herbicides, some of them more toxic than glyphosate.
"Farmer practices may be reducing the utility of some G.E. traits as pest-management tools and increasing the likelihood of a return to more environmentally damaging practices," the report concluded. It said the problem required national attention.
More than 80 percent of the corn, soybean and cotton grown in the United States is genetically engineered. The crops tolerate Roundup, are resistant to insects, or both. American farmers were the first to widely adopt the technology and still account for about half of all the engineered crops grown. The crops are also being widely grown in Latin America and parts of Asia but still largely shunned in Europe.
The rapid adoption of the crops is evidence that American farmers see the technology as beneficial. Nevertheless, in the fiercely polarized debate about genetically modified crops, there is little agreement on anything. Critics have issued studies saying that use of the crops have led to increased pesticide use and has had only a minimal effect on crop yields. The National Research Council report was prepared by a committee of mainly academic scientists and relied primarily on peer reviewed papers.
Still, the report is not likely to win over critics of the crops. One critic, Charles Benbrook, who reviewed a draft of the report, said the conclusion that the crops help farmers might no longer be true, or might not be true in the future. That is because the report relies mostly on data from the first few years, before prices of the biotech seeds rose sharply and the glyphosate-resistant weeds proliferated.
"This is a very different future," said Dr. Benbrook, an agricultural economist who is chief scientist at the Organic Center, which promotes organic food and farming. "The cost is going to be way higher. The environmental impacts are going to go up fairly dramatically."
As prices of the biotech seeds have risen sharply, even some farmers are now starting to question whether they are worth it. Just last week, Monsanto, the leading agricultural biotechnology company, said it would lower the prices of its newest genetically engineered soybeans and corn seeds because farmers were not buying as many of the seeds as it had expected.
The Department of Justice is now investigating whether Monsanto, which has patents on some of the fundamental technology including the Roundup Ready system, is violating antitrust laws, unduly increasing prices or hindering innovation.
The National Research Council report addresses this issue briefly without mentioning Monsanto. It says that issues of proprietary terms "has not adversely affected the economic welfare of farmers who adopt G.E. crops." But it said there is some evidence that the availability of non-engineered crops "may be restricted for some farmers."
The report said that the use of Roundup Ready crops has led to a huge increase in the spraying of glyphosate but a nearly concomitant decrease in the use of other herbicides. That is a net environmental benefit, the report said, because glyphosate is less toxic to animals than many other herbicides and does not last that long in the environment.
The use of herbicide-tolerant crops has also made it easier for farmers to forgo tilling their fields as a way to control weeds. So-called no-till farming helps prevent soil erosion and the runoff of rainwater containing sediments and chemicals.
The improvement in water quality could prove to be the largest benefit of the crops, the report said, though it added that efforts should be made to measure any such effects.
Still the biotech crops are only one factor promoting no-till farming. The report said that about half of soybeans were already being grown with little or no tillage by the time Roundup Ready soybeans were introduced in 1996. That rose to 63 percent in 2008.
The other major class of genetically engineered crops is the so-called BT corn and BT cotton, which contain bacterial genes allowing the plants to produce an insecticide.
The report said that use of chemical insecticides has declined as the BT crops have spread. In areas of with heavy insect pressure, it said, the use of the crops has increased farmer income because of higher yields and reduced expenditures on insecticide.
The report said that when genetically engineered crops were first introduced, some had lower yields than conventional varieties, a finding often cited by critics. But the report said that newer studies show either a modest increase in yield or a neutral effect.
What It Will Take to Feed The World
- Declan Butler, Nature, April 14, 2010, v.464, p.969 http://www.nature.com
'Nature talks to the chief executive of France's national agricultural institute.'
Marion Guillou is the chief executive of France's National Institute for Agricultural Research, Europe's largest agricultural-research agency. She talks to Declan Butler about how researchers are trying to meet the challenge of feeding a world population that is estimated to grow to 9 billion people by 2050.
Agricultural researchers held the first ever Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development last week in Montpellier. What came out of that?
The conference showed that agricultural researchers are mobilized and recognize themselves as a global community. At the same time, there is strong tension between the CGIAR [Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research] international research centres and the global agricultural research community. The centres tend to be too closed to those outside, and there is pressure to open them up to national and other agricultural research bodies.
Developing countries at the conference also sent a strong message about the return in strength of family farms; that making these more productive is key to both alleviating poverty and meeting local and global food demand. It's a new political message: count on and help small farms. The international focus has long been on large-scale industrial farming, so this changes quite a few things. The themes of research for smallholdings are very different from those of large-scale farming, involving, for example, concepts such as crop rotation, complements of animals and plants, and the use of animal waste as fertilizer, so the research questions are not the same.
What are the most promising routes to feeding 9 billion people?
The first priority is to fight loss and waste. We lose as much as 30 to 35% of the world's food output. That gives us a large margin of manoeuvre to increase the food available. We are doing research with food processors and distributors to explore solutions. We certainly won't be able solve the problem, but we can improve it.
Diet will also be a major determinant in our capacity to nourish the world [animal products require considerably more energy and land than plants]. We need to ensure food availability of 3,000 kilocalories a day per person, of which only 500 kilocalories is from animal products — we are not trying to transform everyone into vegetarians. This provides a healthy and satisfying diet, but is far from a typical Western diet. If we continue the current dietary regime typical of OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries, and if many other countries follow us on this trajectory, we will not have the same results in terms of food availability as we would with a more moderate diet worldwide.
What's the role of food prices?
One really big research area is studying the volatility of prices. It is the main problem. Remember the food riots in several countries in 2008? We are still trying to understand what happened, but much of it was because of financial speculation. We already have enough food to feed everyone on the planet at 3,000 kilocalories per day, but it is a question of price. We need research to find out which economic tools are available to stabilize prices at the international level, and to ensure, for example, adequate available reserves of cereal. We need to propose economic solutions, and regulation of markets of agricultural foodstuffs to avoid the yo-yo whereby prices can go so high that people do not have access to food. We also have to guarantee minimum prices if farming is to remain viable.
Much media coverage on developing-world agriculture has focused on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Are these the silver bullets they are often made out to be?
It's clear that genetic progress in the past in France and other rich countries accounted for much of the increase in production, so genetics is far from passé; it's still the number-one technique for increasing yields, for example. For Africa to improve its yields, we clearly need new genetically selected varieties, engineered by either genetic modification or classic breeding techniques. For me, GMOs are not a magic bullet, but we should not refuse them a priori. It's critical to look at GMOs on a case-by-case basis. The first generation of genetically modified organisms on the market is not the one that will solve Africa's problems, although one crop, a Chinese GMO cotton that is resistant to bollworm, has proved extremely useful to the population, because it avoids the spraying of dangerous pesticides — the risk–benefit equation is clearly in favour of its use.
We are now at a stage where we have years of extensive research results on the ecological, economic and health aspects of many GMOs. There are GMOs for which the assessment is undisputedly positive, but there are others — in particular some crops engineered to be resistant to this or that herbicide — for which this is not so. For example, some GMOs result in increased use of herbicides, which can lead to concentration of these chemicals in the environment and negative effects. The results are mixed — that's why it is important not to speak of GMOs in general, but case-by-case. Pest resistance is a really promising and important application for genetic selection because there are a lot of health problems in developing countries that have been linked to the spraying of pesticides.
Public funding of agricultural research in rich countries has declined, and is increasingly shifting to the private sector, which has less interest in the needs of poorer countries. What's the overall funding outlook?
We need to continue to innovate and reinvest, in particular to increase yields. This isn't happening in rich countries, but worldwide budgets are on the increase — largely in emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil. China is heavily involved in training and technology transfer to Africa, and in Europe we should be trying to offer Africans an alternative; we have the scientific capacity. It would be a pity if we were to leave all collaborations in the hands of the Chinese.
(This is a translated and edited version of an interview conducted in French.)