Patrick Mulvany on The Economist's GM debate
Comment by Patrick Mulvany of the development charity Practical Action
On the motion that "This house believes that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory", opponents of the proposed coexistence of biotechnology/GMOs and agroecology carried the day with 65% of the votes.(See The Economist)
Sponsors of the debate BASF will be disappointed that they could not further undermine UK resistance to GMOs, having surely chosen The Economist as the likely platform for a Yes vote. [Within agriculture, BASF Agricultural Solutions Segment partners with farmers to help them optimize sustainable agricultural production, improve nutrition, and thus enhance the quality of life for a growing world population. Learn more at www.basf.com, www.agro.basf.com]
David Baulcombe and others in the UK's scientific oligarchy who are pushing for the contamination of agroecological systems with GMOs - a proposal for chymeric coexistence, no less - should take note of these public views and the scientific reasons as expressed by Charles Benbrook, the successful opposer of the motion. Balulcombe, lead author, of the Royal Society paper has been peddling these ideas for some time - as he said in the last year's Royal Society meeting with NGOs to discuss his paper "Reaping the Benefits"...
"However, future food production would need to embrace some of the best principles of organic farming, such as "push-and-pull" cropping." But what if we combined this practice with applied technology to improve all the components of the system, and get an even higher yield?" This was what the Royal Society's study, Reaping the Benefits, called "sustainable intensification", Prof Baulcombe said. (See www.fwi.co.uk/Articles/2010/11/08/124288/Bridge-the-organic-GM-divide-to-feed-the-world-urges-leading.htm)
It could be said that Balulcombe's ideas of push-pull technology are to pull the genes that repel or attract pests, weeds and diseases out of plants that contain them (e.g. desmodium) then push them into other crops (e.g. beans)... doesn't seem to be able to keep his fingers off the GM trigger....
The 'successful' opposer Chuck Benbrook's presentation in The Economist's was:
"Biotechnology is not a system of farming. It reflects no specific philosophy nor is it guided by a set of principles or performance criteria. It is a bag of tools than can be used for good or evil, and lots in between.
Virtually all contemporary applications of molecular biology, in any field, are part of biotechnology, and many aspects of biotechnology can and should be tapped to advance science and promote sustainable agriculture on all types of farms-large, small, conventional, sustainable, or organic.
But that is not what this debate is about. The issue at hand is whether genetically engineered (GE) seeds "go together" with sustainable agriculture. This debate must be grounded in how, and for what purposes, genetic engineering is used today on the farm, in contrast to sustainable agriculture.
Sustainable agriculture, otherwise known as agroecology:
* integrates crop farming with livestock;
* promotes diversity in the crops a farmer grows, in livestock enterprises and in human diets, which in turn promotes health and system resilience and minimises the risk of catastrophic crop failure;
* relies as fully as possible on local resources, and farmer skills and labour, while lessening dependence on off-farm inputs;
* builds soil quality and fertility to produce higher-yielding crops (ie, the "brown revolution" recently called for by Howard Buffett);
* strives to prevent problems by altering the biology and/or ecology of system interactions, rather than treating problems by adding a new input, practice, or technology into the system.
Today, biotechnology on the farm consists almost exclusively of corn, cotton and soyabeans engineered to make plants herbicide-tolerant (HT) and/or resistant to certain insects. HT crops account for 84% of the global biotech acreage, 62% as a stand-alone trait and 22% combined with insect resistance.
HT technology allows farmers to rely largely or exclusively on one broad-spectrum herbicide. Multiple herbicide applications can be made, including after the crop has germinated, applications not possible prior to HT technology because the crop would be damaged too.
Scientists accurately predicted the dominant impact of HT technology-an increase in reliance on chemical herbicides and, in particular, on one herbicide (glyphosate, or Roundup).
In the light of the intended purpose and impacts of HT crops, let's assess whether biotechnology and sustainable agriculture "go together".
Does HT technology help or hinder integration of crop farming with livestock? It is essentially neutral.
Does HT technology promote diversity in crop rotations and human diets? No, on both counts. It promotes specialisation and farm consolidation, and shifts acres to grain crops mostly fed to animals, or used for ethanol or food-processing ingredients. In Argentina, HT soyabeans have displaced 4.6m hectares of diverse crops and pasture, reducing local access to a healthy, diverse diet.
Does it seek to make full use of local resources and farmer skills? No, HT crops reduce the need for labour and skill, and increase reliance on high-cost, often proprietary inputs from outside the region.
Does HT technology help prevent problems through management? Definitely not. It is a treatment-based intervention that when overused creates new weed problems. In the case of HT soyabeans, it also impairs the uptake of micronutrients from the soil and worsens some plant diseases.
It is hard to get to "Yes", biotech and sustainable agriculture go together, with one neutral and three "No" answers to the above questions.
Corn and cotton have also been genetically engineered to manufacture natural toxins from a soil bacterium which are lethal to some insects. Bacillus thuriengensis ( Bt) crops account for 38% of biotech acres worldwide, of which 22% are combined with the HT trait.
Bt corn and cotton are largely neutral in terms of crop-livestock integration, and like HT crops do not promote diversity in food production or self-reliance. They do help reduce insect feeding damage and lessen the need for toxic, broad-spectrum insecticides, and as a result, help build populations of beneficial insects and promote above-ground biodiversity, two key sustainable farm-management goals.
But these Bt crop benefits come at a cost. Toxins are produced constantly in all plant tissues, not when and only where they are needed. This increases the risk that common corn and cotton insects will develop resistance. In regions where Bt-resistant insects routinely overwinter in fruit and vegetable crops, farmers will no longer be able to rely on Bt insecticide sprays, which are currently their safest and cheapest option. Technologies that solve one problem at the expense of others cut against the grain of prevention-based sustainable agriculture.
Single-tactic solutions to complex farming-system problems often work well for a while, but organisms and systems co-evolve, often opening the door to new problems. Multiple-tactic systems composed of "many little hammers" offer the best hope for sustained progress. Biotechnology can help create new hammers and harden existing ones through marker-assisted breeding and the development of new diagnostic tools, vaccines, biopesticides and soil inoculants-but not the way it is being used today on the farm."