Biotech advances not helping poor: breeder

RED DEER — Proponents of genetically modified crops often say such crops are needed to help feed the world’s poor and expanding population.

They should stop using that argument, says a Cornell University plant breeder, because so far it hasn’t proven true.

Margaret Smith told those at the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar March 8 that portraying GM crops as a food supply saviour is misleading and could hinder public acceptance of the technology.

“Let’s not use this sort of red herring argument that doesn’t appear to really stand up to examination because that just gives people an easy target to shoot down,” Smith said in an interview after her presentation to about 700 dairy farmers.

“I think it’s a bit of a bogus justification at the moment, and that just gives people who are against the technology the material to say, ’well, don’t be ridiculous, none of those people are benefiting from it.’ And to a certain degree — not 100 percent — they are correct.”

Smith is a corn breeder who uses traditional plant breeding in her work and speaks frequently about GM crops.

She said the problem with the “GM crops helping feed the world” argument is that most of the world’s starving people are in Africa and Asia, where biotech crops are either too expensive or not yet developed for regional crop needs.

“(GM crops) have not touched those areas partly because the farmers that are in the most food insecure position don’t have a lot of money, so they’re not really a strong seed market,” she said.

“So who is going to develop the kind of products they need? You can’t just take Canadian or U.S. products and have them grow in Africa. They won’t for a whole array of reasons — because they’re not adapted, they have the wrong diseases and insects resistances and everything else.”

GM crops have touched some aspects of the developing world, however.

Stuart Smyth, research chair in agri-food innovation at the University of Saskatchewan, has outlined the benefits of GM cotton in India.

In an article on the Ag-West Bio website, Smyth said GM cotton has improved farmers’ income in India, China and Burkina Faso. GM corn has also been a positive factor in some developing countries, he added.

In her talk, Smith outlined the widespread North America adoption of GM crops, most of them developed to be resistant to either herbicides or insects: corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets and alfalfa.

Those developments have indirectly resulted in yield improvements through reduced losses from insects and weed competition, but higher yields strictly as a result of modifications for that trait are less clear.

Smith said U.S. corn yields have been rising by about 1.8 bushels per acre per year for the last 30 years. GM crops reached the market in about 1996, but average yield continued to increase at the same pace.

As the U.S. National Academies of Sciences said in a 2016 report, “the nationwide data on maize, cotton or soybean in the U.S. do not show a significant signature of genetic engineering technology on the rate of yield increase.”

Genetic modification to increase yield is “a tougher nut to crack,” said Smith, because it is a function of many different variables.

In any case, farmers in countries where people do not have sufficient food are not yet reaping the benefits of GM crops to address that problem, Smith said.

“Someone needs to actually de-velop varieties that people there need, and that’s a costly process, doing genetic engineering, and if you have a market of people who don’t have much money, where’s the business opportunity there?

Traditional plant breeding might also provide some solutions, “but again, who is going to do that work,” said Smith.

“It has to be done either as a public good or in the private sector, but those people have to then be a seed market. So the equation, no matter which technology you pick … the fundamental economics of having an investment in a product the farmer can afford and can buy, and it actually reaches those farmers, is still a challenge.”

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