Innovation important in agriculture

A number of articles have recently been written by opponents of modern agriculture, such as Paul Hanley’s article, GM crops not all they’re cracked up to be, (Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Tuesday, April 9). They are misleading, to say the least. While critics generally associate GM technology with agriculture, this technology has been widely adopted in other fields, including human health.

For example, insulin, a drug essential to the health of millions of diabetics, is a GM product obtained from microbes carrying a human gene for the production of insulin.

Until this medical breakthrough, insulin was derived from beef or pork pancreases retrieved from slaughterhouses.

Hanley links GM crop technology to increased use of agricultural chemicals.

The responsible application of herbicides remains an important practice for producers, which results in yield increases of up to 10 percent.

However, data gathered by Saskatchewan canola producers shows that GM canola has actually reduced the chemical load applied to canola. GM corn and cotton developed with resistance to insect pests has greatly reduced the need for chemical pesticides in these crops.

Examples of GM traits not directly linked to the agricultural chemical industry include GM corn with enhanced drought tolerance and the recent commercialization of Golden rice rich in vitamin A. This GM rice should have a major impact in preventing the devastating effects of night blindness in millions of Asian and African children.

Hanley’s article implies that GM technology is linked to, and may even be the cause of, the emergence of large farms and the “corporate takeover” of agriculture.

However, census data clearly shows that the growth in the size of farms and associated decrease in the number of farmers has been an ongoing trend in Saskatchewan over the last 50 years. To imply that these trends are somehow rooted in the advent of GM technology is totally wrong.

The “corporate takeover” of agriculture implies corporate ownership of farms, and yet 98 percent of our farms are family owned, well managed businesses with carefully considered, sustainable production practices.

Through these practices, Saskatchewan has been established as a world leader in the production and marketing of a range of high quality crop products, including 61 percent of the world’s lentil exports, 57 percent of the world’s pea exports, 55 percent of flax exports and 34 percent of canola seed exports.

Modern crop management systems have resulted in the storage of millions of tons of carbon in our soil and dramatically decreased soil losses by wind erosion.

Saskatchewan producers carefully invest in agriculture inputs such as herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. To imply that they do not need such inputs should be viewed as an insult to their intelligence.

We have good reason to embrace innovation in agriculture. It plays a key role in feeding a hungry world, improving the quality of our natural resources and enhancing the quality of life of our citizens.

In 2012, our province exported more than $11 billion in agricultural products, which is a major benefit at home and abroad.

We should be concerned about the misleading messages promoted by opponents of GM technology. The positive impact of modern agriculture is a tremendous success story that is unfortunately not well communicated.

GM technology is an important part of the story but not the entire story. High stability frying oil from canola, locally grown red and green lentils, rust-resistant wheat and high quality malting barley are just a few of the many traits that plant breeders have developed by employing new scientific information.

Saskatchewan citizens have every reason to be proud of our agricultural industry, and especially of our producers who have played a pivotal role in the responsible adoption of a wide range of new practices.

Wilf Keller is president and chief executive officer of Ag-West Bio Inc.

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