After twenty years has biotechnology really lived up to its promise?

The benefits of biotechnology have been undeniable to farmers, in spite of challenges from resistance

Farmers were practically guaranteed that we were entering a whole new era in agri-food production. Because of something called transgenics, we were going to have higher yields, lower costs, and all sorts of unimagineable farm efficiencies, not to mention that, thanks to this technology, we’d be able to feed the world.

But 20 years later, have all those promises been kept?

To be fair, world hunger isn’t a simple target. Who knew in the mid-1990s that 40 per cent of the U.S. corn crop would be going to ethanol production?

Nor, perhaps, did we understand in the early days that it would take so long to get biotech traits into the hands of the world’s subsistence farmers so they could benefit too.

By 2012, for instance, Dr. Chris Mallett of Cargill was arguing that it would have to be not only enhanced technology, but also cheaper credit, better access to nutrients, and better agronomic expertise that would need to come together to help the farmers of the world’s developing countries do their part to end global hunger.

Meanwhile in North America, after two decades of planting biotech crops, most growers are grappling with uncertainties. Yes, farmers have seen tremendous advances in yields and weed control thanks to biotechnology, but they are also facing the downsides, such as the spectre of weed and pest resistance.

And we haven’t even mentioned the sometimes vigorous consumer demand for greater food safety, accountability and traceability.

Are these mere bumps in the road? Or should we be re-evaluating the biotech record?

A little of both?

Ken Nixon, a farmer from Ilderton northwest of London, Ont., is a long-time advocate of biotechnology, and he agrees that in the early days, the return on investment with the science was simple and obvious.

Bt hybrids blazed a trail for insect control, and there was also herbicide resistance in soybeans and then in corn, providing an open door for no-till farming. It had been easy to justify the benefits. But then weed resistance began creeping into the picture.

“The flip side comes on two issues,” Nixon now sees. “How quickly we became dependent on them (biotech traits) is alarming, and secondly, how quickly some of these advancements were essentially rendered useless by overuse.”

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photo: File

Push back also came from further up the food chain, but it was met with a failure to acknowledge that biotechnology was bringing little or nothing for the consumer.

Indeed, a jaded public might even resist traits that are for the public good.

A recent example of this can be seen in reports from the Florida citrus industry, where production has fallen to its lowest level in 50 years because of greening disease (huanglongbing).

It appears that biotechnology could produce an answer, yet growers in the state are reluctant to use it out of fear of a consumer backlash, raising the possibility that the market may run out of oranges and orange juice in five to 10 years, despite the possibility of a biotech solution.

“Both the developers of these innovations and the primary users of them (i.e. the farmers) maybe got the cart before the horse,” says Nixon. “How we promoted this down the food chain wasn’t the healthiest either, basically saying, ‘The government has approved it, and you’re going to take (it) and you’re going to like it!’”

“You can’t scroll back time, but in some respects, I wish we would have been a bit more accommodating to the concerns of people,” Nixon says. “Maybe we’d be having a little less of a hard time trying to have people accept these now.”

OK, …but —

Then there’s the prospect that consumer acceptance won’t come unless there’s a certain amount of give on the part of agriculture.

As much as farmers and stakeholders may denounce consumers for being scientifically illiterate, there’s a case to be made for farmers and the industry as a whole ignoring the concerns of consumers.

Trish Jordan, director of public and industry affairs with Monsanto, has spent years trying to undo the damage of informational stonewalling by the agri-food industry. What she’s learned is that a far more effective strategy is to search for shared values.

That approach, she says, creates opportunities for dialogue and for learning — on both sides.

“We’re not just talking to farmers, who really are our only customers, we’re actually reaching out and reframing our story and telling that story with new audiences, which are consumer audiences,” says Jordan. “Clearly, they view us as a significant player in the whole food business or food chain… that was a learning process for us as well.”

When Genuity launched its Roundup Ready Xtend technology at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in 2015, it offered an extensive information-based strategy to avoid resistance issues, another sign of change in the industry.

When Genuity launched its Roundup Ready Xtend technology at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in 2015, it offered an extensive information-based strategy to avoid resistance issues, another sign of change in the industry.
photo: File

Even with farmers, Monsanto and its competitors are doing a better communications job. Monsanto, for instance, tried to be much more transparent when recently releasing its Roundup Ready Xtend system.

At its exhibit at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in 2015, for example, Monsanto’s Genuity division not only introduced the technology, it also went into detail about the many aspects of stewardship that go with growing crops in that system. From ground speeds to nozzle types and even rinsing procedures, Genuity talked about how the entire package needs to come together in order to delay resistance.

As for the suggestions that more of this sort should have been done for earlier technologies, Jordan refuses to get too regretful about the past.

“Here’s the thing — everybody gets super smart in hindsight, and I have always said that I will never apologize for Monsanto focusing on its customers,” Jordan says.

“The tools we brought to those farmers do have a societal benefit in terms of sustainability, the environment, and a varied plate of high-quality, affordable food,” Jordan says. “Those all have benefits, but what we didn’t do is, we didn’t understand that we had to reframe how we talk about it.”

Jordan also points out that it can be a challenge to communicate about new traits in a context where consumers often don’t understand that for farmers, sustainability must be both environmental and economic.

At the same time, though, farmers may not have understood that consumers want more transparency. There has been a sea change in attitudes about food, and consumers want to know more about how their food is grown and processed.

Stating that non-farmers just don’t understand what it’s like on the farm, and getting into arguments and telling consumers that they have no right to tell farmers how to farm, just didn’t help get the dialogue going.

“People started asking questions and they wanted to know more about their food,” Jordan says. “We’ve really embraced that. All we’re saying now is that we’re going to engage in these conversations, we’re going to show up in places we haven’t shown up before, and please, welcome us to have a conversation about food and agriculture and the environment. We want to be part of that conversation versus having an argument all the time.”

She knows the conversations won’t always be simple. For many consumers, “big” is bad when it comes to food production, while small is good, just like “high tech” can be a term that comes with a lot of baggage, while “natural” seems too good to question.

Amid those red flags, however, Jordan and others are seeking to start the conversations.

“The key is to help consumers understand that the tools that we offer to farmers to help them have a better harvest or to feed better-quality ingredients to their animals really do contribute to making a balanced meal, with lots of choices and more accessibility,” Jordan says. “What we’re trying to help consumers understand is that this isn’t a choice of food scarcity versus food quality. We want everyone to have both, and so do farmers.”

Education mixed with inevitability

Having those discussions with consumers is essential to biotech’s continued success, biotech insiders says. But so is helping farmers understand the need for that dialogue, and most companies are getting involved, says Collin Phillip, business director for Eastern Canada with DuPont Pioneer.

“We’re definitely interested in helping consumers understand where their food comes from and how it’s produced, and we support a number of initiatives to do that,” Phillip says. “Our experience has been that the more people know, the less fearful they are of biotech.”

Asked about where the world of biotech applications will eventually find its balance with consumer concern, Phillip is uncertain just how things may play out. Like Jordan and Nixon, he agrees that the seed, trait and chemical companies were a little late coming to the table to take part in those discussions.

Even so, Phillip says he’s encouraged by the support the technology is receiving from science advocates, editorial boards and consumers who have done their homework.

“The ag biotech industry has grown rapidly in the last 20 years, and I think it’s going to continue to grow, with biotech products that do a better job of increasing a farmer’s productivity, sustainability and meeting challenges consumers care about,” says Phillip. “Growers have seen tremendous success with ag biotech products, and that’s helping them sustain and grow their farm. I don’t think that’s going to change.”

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