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Biotechnology world’s biggest balancing act

By Staff | Oct 23, 2013

Jack Bobo Senior advisor on biotechnology, U.S. State Department

WASHINGTON – Biotechnology’s role in food production continues to heighten controversy over possible long-time side effects of its use while at the same time helping to meet food demands of a rapidly growing world population.

“There is no single technology or production system that will get us where we need to be,” said Jack Bobo, senior advisor on biotechnology for the U.S. State Department,. “The answer will lie in a restructuring of the global agricultural system that recognizes the role of smaller farmers in the developing world as well as Midwest farmers.”

Bobo’s scheduled presentation last month on the continued controversy of biotech foods at Morningside College in Sioux City was canceled due to the government shutdown. Now that the shutdown is over, at least until January, he spoke to Farm News from his Washington office

“The greatest challenges confronting the world today,” Bobo said, “is to figure out how to maximize the benefits of agriculture while minimizing the negatives in order to achieve sustainable agricultural production.”

Last week’s awarding of World Food Prize honors to three biotechnology pioneers Robert Fraley, Marc Van Montagu and Mary-Dell Chilton – crediting their work of advancing genetically modified crops has prompted additional fueling of the two-sided issue.

Bobo said the State Department eyes not only “the critical issue” of food security, but food safety, economic security and energy security as issues deserving departmental attention.

He said his work focuses on trade and development bringing him into the arena of promoting “safe and fair” trade, opening foreign markets to U.S. products, with countries seeking access to new farm technologies for their own market development.

Bobo said that by 2050 the world’s population is projected to increase to more than 9 billion. This he points out will, along with changing dietary demands, require at least a 60 percent increase in agricultural production.

“Access to knowledge and technology will be critical,” Bobo said, “combining the best farm practices with the best technologies, including those that reduce food waste.

“We will also begin to address the related problems of hunger, malnutrition and the effects of climate change and environmental degradation.”

Critical ag era

Bobo said the next four decades “in many ways will be the most important 40 years there have ever been for agriculture” and possibly “the most important 40 years there will ever be.

“After the year 2050, human population growth is expected to begin to level off.” he continued. “This means that we will no longer be in a rush to produce more food.

“Productivity gains may reduce the land that needs to be under cultivation which might, for the first time in human history, begin to reverse the impact of agriculture on the planet.

“If we can reach that point without draining our rivers and lakes and cutting down our forests, we may very well have saved the planet from agriculture for all time.”

The sizable footprint of agricultural is one not readily apparent to everyone, Bobo said. This includes:

  • All lands under under cultivation for crops totals 16 million square kilometers, roughly the size of South America.
  • All lands under pasture land for livestock totals 30 million square kilometers, approximately the size of Africa.

“Taken together, agriculture is using nearly 40 percent of earth’s arable land,” Bobo said, “a shockingly high number and even worse, 40 percent of this land is considered seriously degraded.”

In addition, he said, agriculture consumes 70 percent of the world’s freshwater supply.

Bobo, emphasized that the “good news” comes with the awareness that agricultural efficiency improved “decade after decade for the last 100 years.”

Since 1980, he said, the amount of land, soil erosion, water, energy and greenhouse gases per bushel of corn produced have all decreased by about 40 percent or more.

“This doesn’t mean that environmental challenges no longer exist,” Bobo said, “but it does suggest that new agricultural practices combined with new technologies can make a difference” and can aid in decreasing farming’s ecological footprint.

“We need order to further decrease this footprint, to continue to do everything better tomorrow than we’re doing it today,” Bobo said. “We need to produce each bushel of corn using less land, less water, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

“This will require even better agricultural practices and technology in the hands of farmers. This is one reason we need to get beyond a discussion of industrial agriculture versus organic agriculture.

“We need the best of both worlds – agriculture that is intensive and productive, but also sustainable for the environment.

“This will only occur when farmers and agricultural enterprises begin to share their knowledge and expertise with others who may hold different political, moral and ethical views on how we feed the planet, while saving the environment, but who all agree on the need to do so.”

He added that the U.S. has, in recent years, worked with other partners in the development of climate smart agriculture.

He said it’s time to address these inextricably linked issues.

GMOs’ role

“Climate-smart agriculture is agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, climate adaptation and reduces greenhouse gases, while enhancing the achievement of national food security and development goals,” Bobo said. “Through this framework, we can leverage knowledge, resources and new technologies to find innovative ways to address the intersection of these challenges around the world.”

Scientists and farmers, he said, have been “modifying our crops in very significant ways” since the first hunter-gatherer culture started planting crops.

He said few people in the 21st century would recognize teosinte, “a plant that gave us corn” if they saw it in a field in Mexico.

Many people at the same time, Bobo said, are unaware that cabbage and kale and brussel sprouts are all the same species that have been altered through conventional breeding over the last couple hundred years.

Bobo points to what he said was the public’s experience with mad cow disease in the 1990s as contributing to current public distrust of government and businesses.

Mad cow was an incident that “fuels at least part” of the public concern about biotechnology.

“Once you have that lack of trust,” Bobo said, “it doesn’t really matter that every major regulatory body in the world that has looked at the safety of biotech crops, and that includes Europe, has found them to be safe.”

Grassroots agricultural organizations, such as Practical Farmers of Iowa, Bobo said, “can play a critical role” in bringing together large and small, organic, conventional and biotech farmers, as well as organic agribusinesses with traditional agribusinesses.

“Common ground can only be found by addressing common problems,” he said. “At the local level this means improving farmer income while improving the environmental health and sustainability of the farms.

“At the global level this means wasting less, producing more where it is most needed and doing it all with fewer inputs.

“We need the best of both worlds – agriculture that is intensive and productive and also sustainable for the environment.”

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