Chuck Benbrook's closing remarks
2.Comment on conflation of GM and biotechnology
NOTE: Today is the last day to vote in this debate: http://www.economist.com/debate/overview/187&sa_campaign=debateseries/debate64/alert/round/opening
1.The opposition's closing remarks
The Economist, Nov 11 2010
[multiple embedded links to sources in original]
First, thanks to The Economist for the chance to participate and to all commentators for adding so much to this debate.
In the 1980s scientists gained the ability to move genes from outside the plant kingdom into it. Changes in intellectual property law in the 1980s and 1990s allowed the patenting of GE crops, vastly increasing profit potential and triggering the essentially hostile takeover of the seed industry by the larger, more profitable pesticide industry.
Since the late 1990s, strategies to increase private-sector profits through higher-priced transgenic seeds have driven plant-breeding priorities in corn, soyabeans and cotton.
Prior to the GE seed era, plant breeding was among the most important areas of basic and applied science serving the needs of farmers and society. It was controlled to a large degree by academic programmes.
In its pre-DuPont era, the Pioneer seed company was respected by competitors and admired by farmers because it delivered consistently on a corporate pledge to price new seed so that it would deliver $3 in return for every $1 the farmer spent. That level of return is long gone and a rising number of farmers planting GE seeds in America do not even break even.
The pesticide-seed-biotech industry now drives plant breeding priorities and investments for major crops, and its "technology packages" exert increasing influence on farming system changes, except in the sustainable agriculture community.
Preserving the integrity of sustainable agriculture is vital for innovation and is, moreover, a sound investment in preventing problems at their biological roots. The cutting edge of sustainable agriculture is also where farmers, scientists and businesses are promoting soil, plant, animal and human health, as well as food quality and flavour, through systems-based "technology packages", and earning a profit doing so with next to no help from government subsidies or preferential policy.
Feeding the world arguments
Biotech advocates are eager to bet on Western-style GE technology on behalf of the world's poor, a bet I see as reckless and misguided.
Sure, large portions of African agriculture could someday look much like Iowa, using similar GE seeds, equipment and fertilisers, but achieving this goal will require enormous investment in infrastructure and a willingness to accept unimaginable social upheaval. What will Africa have to give up to attract the huge inflow of foreign capital needed for such a transformation?
It is also clear that Iowa's current energy-dependent agriculture model is not sustainable, so why push Africa to replicate what will have to change in one or two decades?
The costs of GE crop technology
Developing, testing and growing commercial quantities of seed for a novel GE crop variety takes about as long as conventional breeding, and costs far more. Major Goodman, a maize breeder at North Carolina State University, has analysed the process, steps and cost of bringing GE corn varieties onto the market. He concludes that the minimal cost of a novel GE maize hybrid is $60m, compared with about $1m for a conventionally bred hybrid””a 60-fold difference. Why?
Moving foreign DNA into a crop genome is highly imprecise, whether it is done with a gene gun or a virus-based vector. There is no way to control where the foreign DNA lands, how many copies become active, and what turns the foreign genes on and off.
The exceptionally high cost of developing novel GE crop varieties is why the transgenic crop compartment of the biotech toolkit thus far has mostly been used on major row crops with billion-dollar-plus seed markets.
Contrary to the assertions made by the CropLife guest commentator and others, GE crops have not significantly increased dependence on no-till in America. No-till acreage grew rapidly in America from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, before GE crops had gained much market share. The percentage of corn acres planted using no-till rose from 8.5% in 1990 to 17% in 1996, but then to only 19% and 21% in 2002 and 2008.
The emergence of resistant weeds is driving herbicide use far higher on acres planted to herbicide-tolerant crops, and many farmers must now also apply older, higher-risk herbicides that increase the risk of birth defects.
The industry is addressing the problems posed by herbicide resistant weeds by creating new GE crops resistant to multiple herbicides, so even more herbicide "firepower" can be deployed. The logic supporting this strategy is profoundly flawed and surely does not "go together" with sustainable agriculture.
First, credible, independent research needs to confirm that any proposed transgenic technology works, is safe and is not likely to lead to other problems.
Applications of biotechnology designed to better understand soil-plant-pest-animal interactions (ie, probes and diagnostics), prevent animal diseases (ie, vaccines), or enhance the cost-effectiveness of conventional plant and animal breeding (ie, marker-assisted breeding) are compatible with sustainable agriculture if they are cost-effective and delivered without strings attached that abridge the farmer's freedom to innovate.
The well-defined principles of agroecology as set forth in the recent international IAASTD report should shape and drive the evolution of agricultural systems in developing countries. If and as this comes to pass, the actual and perceived threat to sustainable agriculture posed by biotechnology will subside, making it less risky to explore where and how biotechnology can strengthen sustainable agriculture systems.
2.Comment on conflation of GM and biotechnology
According to the motion this is not a debate about whether GM technology is compatible with sustainable agriculture, but whether biotechnology is compatible with sustainable agriculture.
Both Greenpeace and the Soil Association, for example, have issued position statements confirming that Marker Assisted Selection using advances in the branch of biotechnology called 'genomics' can be (as opposed to 'transgenic' technology) used in GM crops).
It is disappointing, therefore, that an 'educated' journal like the Economist should find itself encouraging a simplistic debate in this area by issuing such a general non-specific motion and then tying it to a specific 'yes/no' vote.
It all depends which biotechnology you are talking about, and the Economist hasn't specified which. As a result the associated 'voting' exercise is almost completely meaningless.
However, for those interested in a more useful discussion, here is a letter I submitted to Farmers Weekly on this subject earlier in the year (published 29 January):
"Oliver Walston (1 January) encountered a remarkable genomic analysis machine at Monsanto, reporting, 'What would have taken months - and maybe years - can now be done in days. I have seen the future and it works.'
This 'Marker Assisted Selection' (MAS) process is the most significant modern molecular plant development technology. It can readily handle groups of genes. Acceptable to most stakeholders (including Greenpeace) it is even more important politically.
These claims cannot be made for GM. GM in soya enables use of a particular herbicide but does not improve yield potential. However, Monsanto has released Roundup Ready 2 soya which does, achieved by applying MAS to the background genetics.
This progress has not come from GM. This goes to the heart of the ag-biotech debate.
MAS offers modern biotechnology's most important benefits, while avoiding the risks (real or imagined) of GM. Neither does it necessitate maintaining two food streams, GM and non-GM, with attendant costs and legal difficulties.
MAS is clearly the route forward for making the fastest technical and political progress with modern plant varieties. As Walston says, 'I have seen the future and it works.'"