GM has role in meeting food needs: researcher 


Long-term research | Focus needed on sustainable production systems

The chair of a global network of agricultural research centres says work is ongoing to develop genetically modified wheat varieties that could contribute to global food security.


Carlos Perez del Castillo of the consortium board of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) also predicted that the politically heated debate about GM crops will soon be set aside as world demand for food grows.


“I think so, it will come if we engage and debate on a very solid scientific basis,” he said March 13 during a visit to Ottawa. 


“I think in the next five years or so, we will have that debate. We need to.”


The Uruguayan cattle farmer, former government foreign minister, World Trade Organization ambassador and global food security expert said a portion of the $740 million budget available to the 15 CGIAR research centres goes to GM wheat research.


“It is a small portion of the research being undertaken by CGIAR, and at the moment I don’t think it reaches five percent,” he said.


Perez Del Castillo said the research isn’t being done to impose GM technology on farmers or consumers who do not want it, even if new, stronger varieties could be part of the solution to feeding a projected nine billion people by 2050.


“The question is, can you cut costs, can you cut time and finally be able to open the door to another alternative, which is not at the moment in the hands of farmers,” he said. 


“But we are very cautious because we know there are sensitivities out there on the subject and therefore it is research we think we should conduct because we have to be open to all possibilities, but we will not impose it on anyone,” he said. “It is up to governments to make their choices.”


He was in Ottawa to speak to a forum organized by the International Development Research Institute, a federal crown corporation that along with the Canadian International Development Agency contributes to CGIAR.


His main message in Ottawa was that agricultural research through the centres has made a significant difference in dealing with world hunger, including involvement in the green revolution that turned many Asian countries in the 1970s from famine-prone to major rice producers.


He urged Canada to maintain its commitment to agricultural research around the world.


In the interview, he noted the current tendency by governments and private interests to invest in short-term, results-driven research projects that often concentrate on variety improvements. 


However, he said that approach needs to be supplemented by longer-term research commitments that help create sustainable production and communities.


“We see those who want quick results, and they usually put their money in crop improvement be-cause that’s where you get the fastest result that you can measure,” he said. “But the sense is growing that the commodity approach is not necessarily the one that will get you results in the long term, so now we are looking at more complex issues like production systems which bring crops and livestock and trees and communities together at the same time, and that takes longer.”


Canada is investing in research on longer-term projects such as climate change and food security, nutrition and health.


Perez del Castillo also said that while there likely is no way to turn back the move to government support of grain-based biofuel production, it must be recognized that it contributes to higher grain prices that hurt the world’s poorest people.


“I think we might have to look at some kind of code of conduct with some flexibilities,” he said. 


“At least for the poorest of the poor, I think there should be some exceptions so they will not be affected by increases in prices.”


He also said part of the answer to food security is research on how to reduce the food wastage and spoilage that happens in many countries. 


“If we are looking at how to meet supplies needed for 2050, this is an issue that should seriously be re-searched because there is so much waste at the moment at production as well as consumption levels, and that adds to hunger.”