Europe hesitates to support the use of genetically modified (GM) crops in agriculture. While 46 GM crops can be imported and used in food and feed, only one GM crop is commercially grown in five European countries on a small acreage. European farmers can hardly make use of the technology to improve their productivity and they lose competitivity. Europa already depends for 75% on protein import. This year the World Food Prize honors the pioneers of agrobiotechnology, a technology with a safe use status for 17 years that increased food security and agricultural productivity. GM crops are not the miracle solution but being part of a holistic approach, GM crops can help to overcome future agricultural hurdles and could increase European farmers' productivity.
This year, the pioneers of agrobiotechnology are awarded the World Food Prize. Dr. Van Montagu, Dr. Chilton and Dr. Fraley receive the prize because of the benefits that plant biotechnology is bringing to humanity and will do so in the future. The World Food Prize is financially supported by several foundations, governments, NGO's, private donations and companies, including those active in the field of agrobiotechnology. However the sponsors have no vote or say in the selection of the laureates. The World Food Prize is not the prize of the industry as can be easily illustrated with the lineup of the World Food Prize laureates of previous years. In 2005, the Indian scientist Dr. Gupta was honored because of his instrumental role in freshwater aquaculture that increased rural incomes and overcame nutritional deficiencies of millions of rural farmers. In 2009 the World Food Prize awarded Dr. Gebisa Ejeta of Ethiopia, whose drought and pathogen resistant sorghum hybrids enhanced the food supply of hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, the prize went to Dr. Hillel from Israel for his role in conceiving and implementing a new technique to irrigate crops in arid and dry land regions.
An integrated agricultural model to face the challenges
Today, agriculture occupies about 40 percent of the earth surface, uses 70 percent of the water resources and is responsible for 30 percent of the CO2 production. During the coming decades, production of food, feed and fibers will be challenged on several levels. First, as a result of population growth, the arable land per capita will decline further. Second, climate change and water scarcity will threaten crop productivity. Third, more and more chemical crop protection agents will be banned leaving farmers with fewer tools to secure their harvests. To overcome these huge challenges, we should move to an integrated agricultural model that combines the best features of conventional and organic farming with the adoption of the latest (bio)technologies.
Clear benefits for environment and society
The efforts of hundreds of scientists led by Marc Van Montagu together with the late Jeff Schell, Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert Fraley, have led to an important new tool for improving crops; faster and more precise than conventional breeding tools. 30 years after the proof of concept, more than 170 million hectares of GM crops are grown annually. Although more complex and specific traits are yet to come, the GM crops in the field today already have clear benefits for the environment and society. Herbicide tolerant GM crops have stimulated the adoption of no-tillage farming, while insect resistant GM crops protect harvests while reducing insecticide sprayings by more than 25%. Virus resistant GM papayas have saved the local papaya industry in Hawaii while India evolved from cotton importer to cotton exporter thanks to insect resistant GM cotton that almost doubled productivity while reducing insecticide use several fold. In developing countries, as Burkina Faso the use of GM crops that offer better harvests with less labor and/or financial inputs have a significant impact on households. Farmers get higher incomes leading to an improved financial comfort which enables them to send their children to school.
Risks associated with misinformation
In contrast to what anti-GM movements may communicate, GM cotton is not responsible for the suicides among Indian farmers, GM crops are not responsible for the 'oligopolisation' of the seed market, GM crops do not harm bees or other beneficial insects and are not dangerous for human health. However by misinforming the public anti-science movements spread fear that leads to political hesitancy. The results can be observed in Europe. The last step in the European deregulation process of GM crops is taken by undetermined political representatives of the member states; a situation that leads to undue delay and even more strict requirements. In Europe, the current regulatory process puts the developmental costs of GM crops out of reach of public institutes and mid-sized companies. Anti-globalist movements should realize that their actions push the development of GM crops in the hands of multinationals, a situation that they fight against. The hostility towards the technology is also preventing development of innovations that are essential for food security and prosperity of agriculture-based economies in less developed countries.
Marc Van Montagu hopes that this year's World Food Prize will bring public awareness on the value of plant genetic engineering. Innovations that contribute to food security in developing countries and that support sustainable intensification of global agriculture should be embraced, not banned.