Money matters Science & tech changing agriculture (The News)

Science & technology changing agronomics

By Babar Ayaz

Application of science and latest technology is fast bringing a paradigm shift to traditional agriculture. A visit to the Farm Show at Bonne, Iowa last month brings the realisation that how fast the science-based agricultural inputs and high-tech implement manufacturing companies are moving to meet the growing demand of the world.

The scientists and technology experts at the show and at the high-tech laboratories of Monsanto have one message, that the world population is growing rapidly and by 2050 another two billion people would be added to the present seven billion. Their aim is to increase the production of agricultural produce by using science and technology.

Their claim is that the world’s arable land is becoming scarce with growing urbanisation and water availability is declining due to the climate changes.  Pakistan has already started facing these constraints. The USA is facing one of the worst droughts this year hence their biotechnology scientists are now focusing more on drought-resistant varieties of seeds. Eventually this technology is going to be available to the world, of course at a cost. But then users have to always bear the massive cost of research and development, be it an agricultural, pharmaceutical or any other product.

It is true that these companies are not spending billions of dollars every year on research and development just for the love of humanity. Monsanto alone spends around $1.4 billion on R&D every year and it takes almost seven years of research to develop one trait that can be used to protect a crop from a particular threat – pest, insect or weed. All the companies whether local or foreign invest in R&D patiently for years only because they know that if they are successful they can make profits. Traditionalists often criticise the under-lying profit motive. But they fail to appreciate that if any company does not make profit it doesn’t grow and would not invest. That’s the cycle of capital formation.

A counter argument is that the state should do the R&D and make the end product available to the people at the cost of production. Where will this money come from? Indeed, from the people living in that state. Now experience has shown that the benefit of such investments may flow to some end-users and mostly to the middleman, while all the tax payers’ money is used even if they are not end-users. This is bad economics and has failed, that is the reason that most new research-based products come from the private companies.

Coming back to the application of new technologies, scientists at the St. Louis facility of Monsanto pointed out that 29 countries have adopted bio-tech crops, of which 10 are developed industrial countries and 19 are developing countries. Now this depends where do we place the world’s second biggest economy – China? As a matter of fact almost all from the BRICS countries have been beneficiary of GM technology.

When it comes to registering a new medicine, most countries ask the pharmaceutical MNCs if their product is FDA approved and marketed in the country of origin. The same principle should be applied when it comes to GM crops.

Of the total 160 million hectares on which GM crops have been planted by around 17 million farmers, USA’s share was 69 million hectares of Canola, Maize, Soyabean, Cotton, Sugarbeet, Alfalfa, Papaya and Squash. Canada grows 10 million hectares of GM crops. Together they are producing GM crops on almost 50% of the total GM hectares. Europe – Germany, Spain, Portugal. Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic and Romania — is entering slowly in the GM Maize and Potato crops. Interestingly, while the Green parties are resisting plantation of GM crops in many European countries the European Food Security Authority (EFSA) has approved import of GM agricultural produce for food and industrial use.

Another misnomer attached to GM seed is that it makes the farmers dependent on the companies producing it and they have to buy it every year instead of the traditional method of saving his/her own seeds from the previous crop. GM seed industry officials claim that there is no restriction on the farmers saving their own seeds. But the restriction is in the commercial sale of the seeds developed by the research-based companies. The issue is of intellectual property rights (IPR), as it is with all other research based products or for that matter with writers and artists creations.

However, the apprehensions are misplaced because the second and third generation seeds saved by the farmers do not give increase in yield. That is the reason that most farmers buy their hybrid varieties every year. The GM crop introduction and maintenance also needs the after sale support from the company that sells it, which is like providing extension service.

Then there is the issue of the high price of GM seeds. According to PG Economics Limited’s claim, the benefit to the GM crops’ farmers because of higher yields and lower expenditure on pesticide in 2009 was to the tune of $10.8 billion. Since 1996 the farmers gain was $64.7 billion. The other players in the supply chain – seed sellers, seed multipliers, plant breeders, distributors and GM technology providers gained $4.5 billion in 2009. The fact that the number of farmers and hectarage is increasing by around 8 to 12% every year in a number of countries shows that the farmers are finding it profitable to adopt the GM technology.

GM technology is also beneficial for the industry. Take the example of what I would say ‘custom-made corn seeds’. The technology enables to identify and enhance the starch or protein or oil content in the corn seeds as required by the industry which uses corn.

Then the next leap forward is using computer technology and high-tech implements for testing the soil, programming the seed sowing moving machines where to plant which seed according to the nature of soil, mange the fertility & diseases and monitor the yield. This integrated farming system is not the future; to begin with it has already being applied in US. When we would be able to catch up depends on the capacity of the devolved agriculture departments of the provinces and federal bio-safety regulators. The imperative is that the federal and provincial governments should form delegations of large educated farmers and take them to the events like Farm Show so that Pakistan can be a part of the paradigm shift and not limp behind as usual. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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