Consumer resistance ‘is not expected’ | Global Institute for Food Security expected to be leader in genetic modification
New genetically modified crop varieties will play an important role in ensuring a secure and nutritious food supply, says the head of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Food Security.
GIFS executive director Roger Beachy said the newly established institute based at the University of Saskatchewan will use genetic modification and other modern plant breeding technologies to produce crops with improved nutritional attributes, higher yields, improved disease resistance, enhanced stress tolerance and improved nutrient use.
Beachy, whose research in collaboration with Monsanto led to the development of the world’s first GM food crop — a disease resistant tomato — said public acceptance of genetic technologies will increase.
“There are challenges, but the reluctance of consumers to accept certain types of technology is not unexpected,” he said.
“The issue about whether or not new technologies will be acceptable in agriculture … goes back almost 60 years to when we first introduced hybrid crops,” he said.
“Farmers didn’t know if they should accept hybrid crops, whether it was a good thing or whether it was morally objectionable.… It took years for everyone to adapt but they did. At GIFS, our goal is discovery and science and the implementation of the safest science to improve the lives of humans around the globe. Genetic engineering will be part of that for some crops and not for others.”
In his first public speaking engagement since being named GIFS’s top executive in January, Beachy said the new institute will be at the forefront of a modern plant genetics and genomics revolution, developing crops that have a greater capacity to use available resources and adapt to changing climate patterns.
He said plant varieties with enhanced nutritional characteristics will not only help meet the world’s future nutritional requirements but will also benefit primary producers by protecting crops against pests, diseases and abiotic stresses such as drought and heat.
“If our goal is to increase nutritional value … then there should be a (corresponding) increase in profitability for farmers and producers … after all this is still an economic situation,” he said.
“The farmer still has to have enough money to pay his mortgage, have a decent lifestyle and to be able to drive the economy.”
Beachy also made a pitch for greater research collaboration between scientists in different parts of the world, citing the opportunity for greater collaboration in the northern Great Plains region of North America.
“I’m not sure why there isn’t a greater level of co-operation between Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and Saskatchewan because you are similar lands,” he said.
“Weather doesn’t have a boundary. As climate variabilities happen and weather patterns change, it affects everybody.”
Beachy said the world will face an increasing number of challenges related to feeding the world’s population, which is expected to grow by two billion people over the next four decades.
The increasing use of grain and oilseeds by the global biofuel industry will affect food consumption patterns, but it should not be viewed as an insurmountable obstacle to feeding the world, he added.
“There are those who would argue that biofuels (detract) from the success of providing food,” Beachy said.
“I would argue that it provides agriculture with an incentive to be more successful in other ways.”
GIFS will not focus on advocating the use of GM food, but hopes to contribute to a greater level of public acceptance by providing science-based solutions that will help feed the world, he said.
“I think the new genomic and genetic technologies, beyond classical breeding or modern breeding and into genetic engineering, are part of this process of letting the public know that we have confidence in these technologies,” he said.
“Separating fear from science is sometimes difficult to do, so the more we can work with the community to share that kind of information, we hope that that gradually will lead to a greater acceptance that science can benefit agriculture..”
Beachy said the institute will work with scientists at the U of S’s Crop Development Centre, which has developed more than 300 new crop varieties for western Canadian farmers over the past 40 years.
The CDC has taken a cautious approach to developing new GM crop varieties, particularly since the discovery of an early GM flax variety, CDC Traffic, in bulk commercial shipments disrupted European markets for Canadian flax.
The centre has been removing all traces of a GM material from the breeder seed of several popular CDC flax varieties.
CDC sources contacted by The Western Producer declined to comment on the cost of that program.