New Technologies (The News)

Resisting new agriculture technologies is a luxury

By Babar Ayaz

All through the history of human progress there has been a debate between the
supporters of scientific progress and new technology and the forces of status
quo. Change is difficult to accept by those who want to retain the older views,
systems and values.

Let’s take a couple of examples from history before moving on to our own experiences
in Pakistan. When famous Italian mathematician and astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) first expounded heliocentric
views on the basis of his research, the Church and other proponents of
geocentric theory hounded him. He was forced to live under house arrest for
writing “Dialogue Concerning World’s Two Chief Systems” in 1632. But
today contrary to all the religious assertions that the Sun and other planets
move around the earth, the heliocentric view stands proven without doubt.

When Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) presented his theory of natural selection to
explain the evolutionary process and wrote “On the Origin of Species” in
1859; the orthodox religious lobby rejected it because it was contrary to the
scriptures. Even today the clergy of all the major religions does not accept
Darwin’s theory of natural selection although the scientists and rationalists
around the world have further strengthened this view based on their scientific
research. In Pakistan many schools do not teach Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Such thoughts were rambling in the background while listening to many speakers at a
three-day seminar held in Jakarta on “Status, Impacts and Future Prospects of
Agri-biotechnology in a Changing Climate.”

Leading Economist Graham Brookes, who has conducted an independent study on “Global impact of Biotech Crops: economic & environmental effects 1996-2010,” says
that by 200914 million farmers were sowing BT crops on over 130 million
hectares (1 ha = 2.47 acres) in 29 countries spread over all the continents of
the world. Another study shows that agriculture land under biotech crop had
expanded to 148 million hectares in 2010.

Brooke’s research claims that adoption of Biotech crop has delivered important economic and environmental benefits of about US$64 billion during 1996-2009. Biotech crops he says has helped in improving environment by reducing use of 393
million Kg of pesticide which brought the carbon emission down by 17.7 billion
Kg “equal to 7.8 million cars off the road for a year.”

The main submission of all the scientists and economists at the seminar was that
Biotech crop adoption was a win-win for the farmers, food security and
environment. The argument given in favour of biotech by the Director of the
Agricultural Biotechnology Support Programme at the Cornell University Dr.
Frank Shotkoski was that this technology can be used to ensure food security as
the world population is expected to be around nine billion by 2050.

While the population is increasing particularly in the East, the world is moving
towards climate change that is likely to create water scarcity. “At the same
time,” Dr. Shotkoski pointed out that “world arable land is static or declining
owing to urbanization, industrialization, soil erosion and rising sea levels.”
Another development that would affect world agriculture in future is the rapid
urbanization. At present around 50% world population lives in the cities, by
2050 this figure is expected to balloon to 70%. What does this mean to
agriculture? Fewer farmers to till the land.

Already changing food habits of the leaping Indian tiger and rising Chinese dragon coupled with the increase in population pushed up world food prices last years by about 40%. Thus the luxury of debate between organic food and increased production by using modern technologies is frivolous now.

One of the solutions for meeting the world food security challenge is to employ
biotechnology for developing pest and drought resistant varieties. More
importantly, drought resistant biotech seeds which demand less water intake are
urgently needed.  Scientists are working in the private and public sector to develop drought resistant sugarcane and rice varieties.

Now let’s bring the discussion home. New technologies and science have always been
resisted by a small lobby. Why? The first reason is that a section of the
opponents is comfortable with the status quo and are averse to change. Second,
they are genuinely concerned about the people and want any induction of
technology or science regulated by the government. Here they are absolutely
right but interestingly they don’t show a similar enthusiasm to check the huge
informal unregulated sector. Third, they are influenced by international
movements which are not realistic when it comes to feeding the growing
population of the world. Fourth, the stance that BT seeds will make the farmers
dependent on the seed companies and hence ‘is not sustainable.’ Now this
argument is by itself not sustainable because most of the farmers who want
better yield already buy their hybrid seeds every year from the local and
foreign seed companies. The introduction of new seed varieties of wheat and
rice and use of fertiliser and pesticides were also opposed when they were
introduced but the farmers adopted them because it was beneficial. The farmers
know their interest well and do not need parenting by the urban intelligentsia.
They need new technologies and support from the public and private sector agriculture organisations to provide them the right information. Period. The decision
should be left to them.

In the case of Pakistan we have seen that while the government was going through
lengthy regulatory procedures to allow sowing of BT cotton in the country, the
farmers jumped all the barriers and today about 80% cotton sown in the county
is BT cotton. The government has finally approved eight basic traits of BT
cotton, but the market is full of smuggled, counterfeit, legally imported and
locally developed BT cotton seeds. While farmers I have talked to support BT
cotton because it has given them better yields, there are some reports in the
media that in some places farmers have complained that their production
dropped. One of the reasons, according to experts, is that many farmers either
tried to develop their own seeds from the first BT cotton crop or they were
tricked to buy low quality seeds.

The second generation of BT cotton has not yet come into the market because it has
to go through the approval process by the National Bio-safety Committee and
complete the trial production phase. At the same time field trials for BT corn
have been completed and their approval is under consideration of the
regulators. On the other hand most of the major corn/maize growers around the
world have switched to BT corn because it is pest resistant and reduces the
need of herbicides. One lady farmer from Philippines Rosalie Ellasus said that
she could raise her production from over 3.5 metric tons in 2000 to 8.2 metric
tons per hectare in 2003.

But the best argument in favour of new agriculture technologies was given by the
Indonesian Vice Minister of Agriculture Dr. Bayu Krisanamurthi: “you don’t have
to love Biotechnology, but if it gives solutions for meeting the world food
security challenges, use it.” (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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