Biotechnology can be used to improve soil health but that’s not necessarily happening the way it is being used today, the keynote speaker at the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture said.
David Montgomery, author of Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations and a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington told the conference biotechnology does not have to be at odds with conservation agriculture.
“At this point, that could be viewed as kind of a radical idea,” he said.
“But I would basically argue that if we reframed how we evaluate agriculture to be towards building soil and building soil fertility, then the degree to which anything, GMO products included, could work towards that goal should be considered,” he said.
However, that doesn’t mean current biotechnology is necessarily benefiting soil health, Montgomery noted, only that biotechnology could be developed with soil health in mind.
For example, plants could be engineered to facilitate symbiosis with soil bacteria similar to that which occurs between legumes and ribosomes, he said.
“That would change everything and would probably promote life in the soil,” said the geologist.
Philanthropist, businessman and farmer, Howard Buffett, also believes that GMOs and conservation agriculture are compatible.
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“I think we just have to be inclusive and understand that there is a place for everything and that if we can get those things in the appropriate places at the appropriate use, then we’re going to have a lot of wins,” he said, adding that he believes even debating the merit of genetically modified crops is a step in the wrong direction.
“If all we’re going to do is spend our time debating what’s good and bad and alienate everybody, and pick sides we’re going to lose a lot more than we’re going to win.”
That said, GMOs aren’t a silver bullet and they’re not going to work for every situation.
“I totally believe there are… millions of farmers in the world who will benefit more from improved OPVs (open-pollination varieties) today than they’ll ever benefit from GMOs, but there are all sorts of places in the world today that are way more productive because you’ve been able to add certain traits,” he said.
But Buffett also acknowledged that OPVs don’t provide the same financial incentives to the biotech industry as those that are genetically engineered.
“Improved OPVs don’t really make much money, they might someday though, if somebody started thinking about this and started figuring out where that productivity is, then that could be a pretty profitable source,” he said.
While less enthusiastic about current biotechnology than its future potential, Montgomery would like to see soil health become more of a driving factor as new biotechnologies are researched and marketed.
“I could see a role for GMO kinds of things in long-term conservation agriculture, but that’s a different thing from basically arguing whether or not, today certain products would meet that test,” he said. “And so my point is really that we should not be technologically averse.”
The geologist would also like to see more research on how current technologies are affecting soil health, particularly biocides.
“We’re basically running uncontrolled experiments, that may not be the best type of experiment to be doing on your most fundamental activity as a society — growing food,” he said. “We should be answering questions about how our technologies are actually playing out in fields, and how they work and whether or not we can actually continue to improve and change them in ways that help us hit the goals of conservation agriculture, which is intensifying agriculture without reducing our ability to maintain that intensification.”