October 16, 2013

Commentary - We Must Not Take Science off the Table

By Dan Glickman and Doug Berueter
Dan Glickman served as U.S. agriculture secretary from 1995-2001 and was a member of Congress from Kansas from 1977-1995. Doug Bereuter is president emeritus of the Asia Foundation and was a member of Congress from Nebraska from 1979-2004. They are co-chairs of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Global Agricultural Development Initiative.

The World Food Prize is honoring three distinguished scientists whose achievements have greatly contributed to agricultural biotechnology. In some circles, these choices will be viewed as controversial, but the scientists’ work is important to eliminating hunger and malnutrition and making the world more food secure.

Global population will grow 65 to 75 percent between now and 2050, causing the demand for food to more than double. Yet, there is little arable land available for new crop production that is not forested or highly erodible.

As food demand increases, the only sustainable alternative to ripping up fragile lands is to increase productivity on fertile areas already being used to farm. Rapid urbanization will also put pressure on fresh water stocks, making less available for agriculture. The risk of water shortages, especially in the developing world, is further compounded by stresses from climate change and extreme weather variability.

There is no single strategy for addressing these challenges. In some cases, simpler approaches work — such as appropriate use of fertilizers, improved extension services, better technical capacity on the farm, effective conservation tillage practices and modern marketing arrangements.

However, including biotechnology in the array of efforts to increase food production will be essential to improving the nutritional composition of food; increasing crop tolerance to drought, heat, pests and disease; and reducing pesticide and chemical use.

To meet all of these objectives, we must rely on credible and objective science. For example, it is virtually impossible to overcome Vitamin A deficiency in many areas without fortifying the nutrient into a food staple that can be sustainably produced. With its enhanced Vitamin A attributes, Golden Rice could potentially help millions of people in the developing world overcome this serious deficiency.

Although biotechnology cannot realistically solve all food challenges, it is intellectually close-minded to deprive the world, especially the developing world, of the option to take advantage of it.

We can do several things to determine how and when to invest in and deploy biotechnology.

First, there must be a substantive discussion about the trade-offs of not pursuing sound technology as part of the mix of tools to meet food needs. We need to be generating more light than heat on this subject, and it is inescapable that the current debate does not discuss the consequences of not pursuing science. How do we reduce the use of chemicals and pesticides? How will we be effective in conserving scarce water and other natural resources in production agriculture? How will we fight the dangerous spreading of crop and animal diseases?

A sound assessment should be made of the beneficial results, as well as any offsetting effects, that deploying biotechnology can bring to food security, nutritional enhancement, environmental sustainability and economic progress. Without a credible discussion of the role of biotechnology in the solution and the tradeoffs involved, the public will continue to be confused as to who really benefits from genetically modified foods.

Second, the food industry needs to be more engaged in the debate on biotechnology to ensure products provide more direct benefits to consumers, especially with regards to nutrition and health. If using technology to produce food is perceived only to benefit production agriculture and the companies that develop it, the ability to engender political support in both the developed and developing world will be significantly hindered.

There is a saying that for every complicated problem, there is a simple and a wrong solution. Biotechnology cannot single-handedly save the world from hunger, nor will it cause the end of human and environmental health and vitality. However, to feed a hungry world sustainably and nutritionally, now and in the future, all solutions must be courageously placed on the table for full, objective consideration.

This was originally posted on Des Moines Register

About

The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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