Agriculture might just save the earth

Mr Jack Bobo, senior adviser for biotechnology at the US State Department, believes that the next 40 years will be the most important for agriculture because “the decisions we make today about how our food is produced will determine whether we can feed the world in 2050”.
PHOTO: Agriculture might just save the earth

US biotech expert Jack Bobo says using genetically modified crops is the way to go.

Q: You believe that genetically modified crops - where the DNA is altered using genetic engineering - are necessary for the world to feed its people in the next few decades. Why?

If you look at the population projections, we all know we're going to go from about seven billion people now to about nine billion to 91/2 billion in 2050.

We all need to eat.

But today, about 800 million people are going to bed hungry.

We're not even feeding the people we have today.

The World Health Organisation says about nine million people die each year from hunger. In the next hour, 1,000 people will die of it.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, we need 60 per cent more food by 2050. And we need to do it using less land, water, fertiliser and pesticides.

When we talk about biotechnology, many people think it's technology for industrialised countries like the United States.

But it actually helps the smallest farmers far more than it helps the big guys. In countries like the Philippines, when a farmer has insect control through genetically engineered seeds, you can get 40, 50 per cent yield increases. That's a real opportunity.

Q: Why can't countries just devote more land to agriculture?

About 40 per cent of all arable land on earth is already devoted to agriculture. The amount of crop land is about the size of South America. The amount of pasture land is about the size of Africa.

When you think about agriculture's footprint in land, it's as big as it needs to be.

Q: Some people believe genetically modified foods can be harmful to health. What is your response?

We all want our food to be safe and healthy. I think it's an issue of trust. People who are opponents of biotechnology are not anti-science. Sometimes there is a lack of trust in the government and the companies. In these situations, the science doesn't matter.

But we have been modifying our food since the earliest days of agriculture. Take the kiwi fruit. In the early 1900s, some intrepid New Zealander went to China, took the Chinese gooseberry, created a new variety through conventional breeding and rebranded it as the kiwi.

Since the 1950s, scientists have been creating new varieties through mutagenesis or mutation breeding by exposing seeds to radiation or toxic chemicals.

There's a great database called the mutant variety database - it's the worst-named database in the world - but there are more than 3,000 varieties of mutation-created seeds on it. This is something we've done for decades, and experience tells us that it's safe. This is conventional breeding.

Genetic engineering allows us to achieve results we couldn't achieve through conventional breeding.

In Bangladesh, 25 per cent of all vegetable crops grown are eggplants, or brinjals.

There's a devastating pest that can reduce yields by 50 to 70 per cent, so farmers have to spray insecticide 50 to 70 times a season, far more than the recommended 25 times or less for health reasons.

A genetically engineered eggplant can virtually eliminate those sprays and increase yields. Reducing pesticides is good for the farmer, environment and consumer.

Q: Critics also fear that if farmers rely on a single type of genetically modified crop, the risks of a devastating crop failure are much higher. What is your view?

Is it a good idea for all Bangladeshi farmers to be producing a single variety of eggplant? No. But they don't have to. In the US, where 95 per cent of soya beans are genetically engineered, there are hundreds of soya bean seed varieties.

What scientists do is, they make sure the gene is in all the different varieties so they can license the technology to all of the seed companies. The firms then produce the engineered soya beans. This increases farmers' choices, not reduces them.

We will need to continue to conserve seeds for all different plant varieties to maintain genetic diversity for agriculture's future. Many countries like Sweden already do that for maize, wheat, all of the crops.

Q: You believe the next 40 years will be the most important for agriculture. Why?

The United Nations Population Division believes this is the year in which the most children will be born in human history. After this year, it will start to decline.

The population will still increase but, after 2050, the line will begin to level. After 2050, we are expected to add about one billion people in 50 years, compared with one billion people every 12 years now.

That's why the next 40 years are the most important: because the decisions we make today about how our food is produced will determine whether we can feed the world in 2050.

Take crops produced in 2011, compared with 1980, say, for a single bushel of corn - we used 40 per cent less land, 50 per cent less water and 40 per cent less energy. That bushel caused 60 per cent less soil erosion and 35 per cent fewer greenhouse gases. Farmers are doing everything better today than they did before.

Think about what would happen if, using the best of organic, biotechnological and agricultural practices, we could get to 2050 without cutting down any more of our forests or draining our rivers, lakes and aquifers.

After 2050, we don't need huge increases in food so productivity gains could go towards reducing agriculture's footprint.

If that happens, agriculture just might save the planet.

Gene-spliced fish: Scientists slam FDA for dragging its feet

Nineteen years - that's how long an American firm's genetically modified (GM) salmon, supposedly able to grow year-round instead of in spring and summer only, has been awaiting approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Last month, a long list of scientists wrote a letter to US President Barack Obama slamming the delay. They said they did not do so to support the approval of the product, but because the delay suggested that the FDA's regulation of GM food was based on politics and public opinion rather than science.

In the two decades or so since they emerged, GM plants have started to gain worldwide acceptance, and make up a substantial chunk of crops such as soya bean and corn.

But animals inserted with foreign genes to, say, grow faster remain stuck in a regulatory bottleneck. The beleaguered AquAdvantage Salmon is first in the queue.

In their letter, the scientists stressed that the roadblocks "not only undermine our ability to meet future food needs, but seriously damage the global credibility of the FDA and its objective, science-based approval process, while stifling innovation in this critical field".

"Further, it lays open every decision made by the FDA to be questioned by the public," said the group.

The company behind the GM salmon, AquaBounty, told American media that its application for approval had been delayed seemingly indefinitely, and that it had not been given any explanation.

The scientists noted that other kinds of genetically engineered products have historically gained easy approvals.

In this particular case, the FDA should move "as quickly as possible", the scientists said, ending the letter with: "There is much more at stake here than fish."

This article was first published on Oct 5, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.