Scientist: 'Vilification' of biotechnology risks food security

By Jim Webster

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WASHINGTON, August 22, 2015 - One of the most distinguished scientists in the public policy sphere is warning that “the increasing vilification of GM foods as a marketing tool by the organic food industry” may be “the most counterproductive development” in the effort to increase food production to meet the needs of a population projected to approach 10 billion in 35 years.

In “Food in a future of 10 billion” in the journal Agriculture and Food Security http://www.agricultureandfoodsecurity.com/content/pdf/s40066-015-0031-7.pdf, Nina V. Fedoroff, the Evan Pugh professor emerita at Penn State and a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), describes “an acute need to intensify agricultural productivity” with less land, water, energy and chemicals. She adds:

Lets Talk Food

“Transitioning to more sustainable agricultural practices while doubling the food and feed supply, even as we must increasingly cope with the negative effects on agricultural productivity of a warming climate, is likely to be the greatest challenge of the twenty-first century.”

Fedoroff says that modern science, including biotechnology, is capable of realizing the kind of sustainable intensification of agriculture needed to meet such a challenge but laments the “political, cultural, and economic barriers to their widespread use in crop improvement.”

Among impediments to adoption of higher-yielding and more efficient crops, she says, are non-governmental organizations, “most vocally Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth” who have carried out “vigorous campaigns of misinformation about GMOs first in Europe, then around the world,” and of “a number of organic food industry marketers [who] have systematically used false and misleading claims about the health benefits and relative safety of organic foods compared with what are now called ‘conventionally grown' foods.”

Fedoroff is troubled that “such organic marketers represent conventionally grown foods as swimming in pesticide residues, GM foods as dangerous, and the biotechnology companies that produce GM seeds as evil, while portraying organically grown foods as both safer and more healthful” against USDA's assertion that the organic seal is a marketing tool that makes no claims about food safety or nutritional quality. She also criticized recent “labeling” campaigns which “have the objective of promoting the organic food industry by conveying the message to consumers that food containing GM ingredients is dangerous.”

Asked for reaction, Organic Trade Association CEO Laura Batcha did not respond directly to the criticism of organic marketers, but told Agri-Pulse, “Consumers of all types - all ages, ethnic backgrounds, income levels and in all parts of the country - are making the choice to buy, wear and eat organic because it aligns with their values for transparent food supply, reduced environmental foot print and chemical exposure - and that's not going to change.”

Batcha added, “Discussions about feeding the world should not just be framed in production systems or yields. Comprehensive discussions include a focus on preserving the environment and the soil for long-term food security through the most sustainable farming practices, on how to reduce food waste, on how to improve food distribution systems, and how to empower small-scale farmers who grow most of the world's food supply.”

Fedoroff, currently senior science adviser to the OFW Law firm in Washington and once the science adviser to former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, is not pessimistic about the potential to overcome the future food challenge. In the two centuries since Thomas Malthus warned that population growth would always outstrip our ability to produce food, she writes, there has been “more than sevenfold expansion of the human population as a result of rapid scientific and technical developments in agriculture and a decline in the number of chronically hungry from half of humanity to about a sixth.”

But she wonders whether policies and investments will be up to the task going forward. “[T]he very fact that we are largely urban dwellers and have access to food through a global food system that supplies our food retailers with abundant produce blinds us to the basics of agriculture and makes us vulnerable to the increasingly strident opponents of modern agriculture who use fear to promote their economic interests.”

She poses these questions:

“Will we have the wisdom to overcome our fear of new technologies and re-invest in the kind of agricultural research and development that can simultaneously increase agricultural productivity and decrease its environmental impact, so that we might preserve what remains of our extraordinary biological heritage?

“Can we continue to keep food prices down through agricultural innovation based on modern genetic methods and better farm management?

“Or will poverty-based social instability continue to spread and consume governments as population continues to climb while climate warming squeezes agriculture?”

She concludes, “The answers to these questions will, for better or worse, shape our future civilizations.”

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