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Going for GMOs

Farmers Deserve Options

This article by Sam Dryden, Director of Agricultural Development, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was first printed on March 6, 2013, on the Impatient Optimists blog.

It is an exciting time to be working in agricultural science: we are seeing developments in crop research that are transforming farmers’ lives: tools that allow farmers to adapt and survive environmental challenges, and innovations that mean farmers can grow and eat more food so they are healthier and more productive.

Throughout my career developments in science have come hand in hand with criticisms and sometimes rejections of new research or scientific breakthroughs. While critical dialogue is important, the debate is only constructive when based on evidence instead of dogma.

Unfortunately, in one area of agricultural science, GMOs, many of the arguments have often steered towards dogma.  So, it was refreshing when at the beginning of the year, a once outspoken anti-GMO activist, Mark Lynas, apologized for the myths he had helped create about biotechnology. He apologized for the scare tactics he and his peers had used to fill tabloid headlines and the trespassing and destroying of crop research he had led. He admitted—in a compelling speech to the Oxford Farming Union—that his previous views were “anti-science”. Once he had devoured the peer-reviewed articles and scientific data, he acknowledged the inconsistency between his position on climate change and his rhetoric around GMOs.

Most important of all, he apologized for contributing to depriving poor farmers of valuable, potentially lifesaving technology used successfully by most of the rich world.

It is this point that I feel most passionately about. What is so often missed in the debate about GMOs is choice: the choice for a poor farmer to consider planting a maize crop which could cope with droughts that are becoming ever more frequent; the choice to grow rice that provides the nutrition her child needs to prevent blindness; or put simply, a choice that we in the west take for granted.

Whether the tool being developed is produced by the latest technology or a more traditional approach, giving farmers access to solutions that deliver more productive or more nutritious crops, should be a decision based on scientific debate and research. 

As in medicine, the development of new products should undergo rigorous safety reviews, guided by national regulatory bodies. Instead of arguing about the role of biotechnology in agriculture (interestingly, genetic engineering has produced insulin for diabetics without any alarm or calls for a complete ban), we should concentrate on ensuring that products—whether they are new seeds or new vaccines—are safe and effective.

Once proven (and so far, GMOs have been proven safe and effective), the use of these tools must be a choice for farmers to make. And farmers are choosing GMOs in their millions: GMO crops are the fastest growing technology (in the US, in Brazil, in India, Argentina) – because when farmers have access to more productive, less resource intensive crops, they seize the opportunity.

Since Bt Cotton (insect resistant) was introduced to Indian farmers in 2002, this GM cotton has grown to now account for approximately 90% of all cotton grown.  During this past cropping season in India, roughly 6 million small holder farmers planted over 8 million hectors of insect resistant cotton.

The environmental impact, in the US alone, has been huge—cotton farmers have been able to cut back from 10 to 12 sprays per season to one. That’s less spraying of chemicals, less toxic agents impacting on the wildlife, marine life and on the children walking through fields. The same is possible throughout the developing world.

It is not just GM technology that is delivering positive results, innovations in conventional breeding are also benefitting small holder farmers. Our partners at the International Rice Research Institute in Bihar, India developed Stress Tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia (STRASA). This new rice can survive up to 20 days underwater so when rains flood their fields, farmers are now getting twice the yield compared to the old rice variety. The impact on farmers’ lives is enormous—in a flood year, they have seen their incomes double.

STRASA has reached 3 million rice farmers in South Asia. But that’s just the beginning. Farmers have started hearing about these seeds, and they all want them. In the next six years, we expect 20 million farmers to plant these new varieties.

By adopting new technologies (whether it is genetic modification, conventional breeding or any other approach) farmers are making a loud statement about the importance of choice to them. However, their voices are rarely heard in this debate.

Hopefully soon it won’t be old hats like myself or Vandana Shiva arguing anymore, but the young scientists and farmers themselves who are seeing the benefits of all the tools in the box.

It is time to share their stories with the rest of the world. I urge you all to step forward and make your voices heard.

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