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Pushing GMOs to feed the planet

“How do the starving destitute react? Well often and not surprisingly they react with violence.”

– joe clark

Co-operation and innovation, including new genetically modified crops, are needed to feed the world as it grows and gets richer, speakers told CropLife Canada and the Grain Growers of Canada meeting in Ottawa last month.

“This combination of population growth and increase in income is going to require us to produce more food in the next 50 years than we’ve done in the last 10,000 years combined,” said Lisa Safarian, president and CEO of Monsanto Canada.

“Let’s face it, people who have eaten a hamburger based on bread made with soyoil for the very first time are unlikely to be willing to go back to only eating rice, noodles and vegetables.”

Safarian and Guenter Bachlechner, head of Bayer CropScience’s product technology, promised their companies will do their part and urged competing crop science firms to do the same.

“We aim to double yields in our key crops – corn, soybeans and cotton – by the year 2030,” Safarian declared.

Increased productivity

“We’re going to double yields but we are going to do so by consuming a third fewer resources (land, water and fertilizer).”

Safarian said she hopes Monsanto can boost canola yields too.

Bayer is focused on finding new pesticides to protect crop yields and developing GM crops that can handle stresses like drought and salinity, both of which are on the rise due to climate change, Bachlechner said.

“Climate change has become and will continue to be one of the most critical global challenges of our century,” he said.

“The food crisis has reawakened interest in the need to secure the food supply… encouraging a change in attitude… regarding genetic engineering.”

Hunger grows

Concerns about the planet’s ability to feed itself are as old as humankind. But there’s a new urgency, warned former prime minister Joe Clark. Nine hundred million people are hungry and their ranks are growing. They’re angry too, sparking food riots in some developing nations earlier this year.

There are 70 million more mouths to feed each year. The current world population of 6.7 billion will hit nine billion by 2050. Meantime, the world’s farmers face challenges such as climate change, a finite amount of arable land, declining supplies of freshwater, increased demand for biofuels and pesticide resistance.

Bayer CropScience is investing 3.4 billion euros into research and development over the next five years with 2.5 billion euros dedicated to developing conventional in conventional crop protection products and 750 million euros in bioscience.

“It is also necessary now to lay the basis for a second ‘Green Revolution,’ which will consider and increase harvests, yield and quality, while taking into account the need for sustain-ability of agriculture and life on our planet,” Bachlechner said.

Safarian said in five years Monsanto will release corn genetically modified to tolerate drought, which right now yields eight to 10 per cent more than dryland corn. As part of its humanitarian efforts Monsanto will give African farmers free access to those new drought-tolerant GM crops.

In addition, Monsanto, which doesn’t work on wheat or rice, has set up a $10 million fund to provide prizes to encourage public researchers to boost yields of the world’s staple food crops.

GMOs not the answer

Martin Entz, a professor of cropping systems and agronomy at the University of Manitoba said he fears most research money will go to GM production, shortchanging farmers, especially in the developing world.

“Having been to the developing world and done a significant amount of research and develop work there I’d say GM is the last thing they need,” he said.

What’s needed is land reform, an emphasis on producing crops for local consumption and access to water for irrigation, Entz said.

He noted GM technology encourages monocultures, which are becoming increasingly expensive to manage. Entz said he believes the GM companies are more interested in expanding sales and profits than helping subsistence farmers.

“CropLife Canada is the least qualified to talk about how the developing world should feed itself because it doesn’t understand it,” he said.

What the developing world does need is a stable supply of food, Clark said.

“How do the starving destitute react? Well often and not surprisingly they react with violence – violence that can fester at home and as we know violence that can spread beyond where their home is,” he said.

World slow to respond

The world reacted almost immediately to the financial crisis that began on Wall Street, just as it intervened in the war in the former Yugoslavia, Clark noted. But the world does little to attack hunger, just as it has all but ignored the war in the Congo where there have been four million casualties – the largest loss of life since the Second World War.

“That sharp disparity of response can’t continue, not just for moral reasons, but because power in the world is changing and moving away from what we know as the ‘West’ toward what we thought of as ‘the rest,’” Clark said.

Food production, indeed all life, depends on water, and freshwater is drying up, said Margaret Catley-Carlson, a member of United Nations secretary general’s advisory board.

Water shortages loom

Seventy rivers no longer reach the sea, deltas and wetlands are disappearing, water tables are falling, one billion people have inadequate supplies and in 2000 20 per cent of the world’s population lived under water stress.

It takes about one litre of water to produce one calorie of food, Catley-Carlson said.

“Your diet is costing the world between 2,000 and 5,000 litres per day, but it depends on the type of food eaten and where and how it’s produced,” she said.

“As people have more money, more disposable income – it’s a good story – but they want to eat better. The water cost on food production goes up, up, up.”

Only about one per cent of the world’s water is usable as freshwater. Seventy per cent is locked up in the ice caps and only 20 per cent of the precipitation falls on land. [email protected]

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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