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Making the case for biotechnology

One of the World Food Prize laureates says European productivity is lagging because of its refusal to allow GM crops

A World Food Prize laureate says sustainable intensification tools should be embraced, not banned. 


The following contains excerpts from a brief distributed by VIB (the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology) a non-profit institute uniting 76 European research groups working in life sciences. One of this year’s World Food Prize laureates, Marc Van Montagu, is founder of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology Outreach within VIB. He co-authored this paper.

Europe hesitates to support the use of genetically modified crops in agriculture. While 46 GM crops can be imported and used in food and feed, only one GM crop is commercially grown in five European countries on a small acreage. European farmers can hardly make use of the technology to improve their productivity and they lose competitively. Europe already depends on imports for 75 per cent of its protein needs.

This year, the World Food Prize honours the pioneers of agrobiotechnology, a technology with a safe-use status for 17 years that increased food security and agricultural productivity. GM crops are not the miracle solution, but being part of a holistic approach, can help overcome future agricultural hurdles and could increase European farmer productivity.

… Today agriculture occupies about 40 per cent of the Earth’s surface, uses 70 per cent of the water resources and is responsible for 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide production. During the coming decades, production of food, feed and fibres will be challenged on several levels. First, as a result of population growth, the arable land per capita will decline. Second, climate change and water scarcity threaten crop productivity. Third, more and more chemical crop protection agents will be banned, leaving farmers with fewer tools to secure their harvests. To overcome these huge challenges, we should move to an integrated agricultural model that combines the best features of conventional and organic farming with the adoption of the latest (bio)technologies.

… Thirty years after the proof of concept, more than 170 million ha of GM crops are grown annually.

Herbicide-tolerant GM crops have stimulated the adoption of no-tillage farming, while insect-resistant GM crops protect harvests while reducing insecticide sprayings by more than 25 per cent. Virus-resistant GM papayas have saved the local papaya industry in Hawaii, while India evolved from cotton importer to cotton exporter thanks to insect-resistant GM cotton that almost doubled productivity while reducing insecticide use severalfold.

In contrast to what the anti-GM movements may communicate, GM cotton is not responsible for the suicides among Indian farmers, GM crops are not responsible for the “oligopolization” of the seed market, GM crops do not harm bees or other beneficial insects and are not dangerous for human health.

However, by misinforming the public, the anti-science movements spread fear that leads to political hesitancy. The results can be observed in Europe. In Europe, the current regulatory process puts the developmental costs of GM crops out of reach of public institutes and mid-size companies.

Anti-globalist movements should realize that their actions push the development of GM crops into the hands of multinationals, a situation they fight against. The hostility towards the technology is also preventing the development of innovations that are essential for food security and prosperity of agriculture-based economies in less-developed countries.

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