Jan 23, 2009
Barack Obama promised to bring change to the United States. Will this son of a Kenyan who is a former resident of Indonesia also bring change outside of America’s borders? Last summer, at his speech in Berlin, this self-proclaimed “citizen of the world” suggested that he would try.
As a Portuguese farmer, I’m hoping that he will--specifically with respect to Europe and GM crops.
Mr. Obama has the ear of Europeans. Pre-election polls in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia showed him trouncing his rival, John McCain, by huge margins if they had the opportunity to choose. What these supporters may not realize is that Obama is an advocate of agricultural biotechnology--a field of innovation that many in Europe have snubbed.
Obama has never farmed for a living, but his home state of Illinois is one of America’s great food-producing states. As a senator, he became intimately familiar with the men and women who work the land. He has corresponded with Norman Borlaug, the geneticist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in sparking the Green Revolution, which led to large increases in food production in developing countries.
Last year, a U.S. political website called Sciencedebate2008.com published this statement by Obama: “Advances in the genetic engineering of plants have provided enormous benefits to American farmers. I believe that we can continue to modify plants safely with new genetic methods, abetted by stringent tests for environmental and health effects and by stronger regulatory oversight guided by the best available scientific advice.”
Europeans would do well to study these words. Since the commercial introduction of biotech seeds more than a decade ago, farmers in Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere have planted nearly 2 billion acres of genetically improved soybeans, corn (maize), canola and cotton. As a result, they’ve enjoyed significant yield increases, which are essential if we hope to feed a global population of 7 billion people.
GM food is no longer the fruit of a cutting-edge technology. Instead, it’s a proven form of agriculture. I’ve grown it on my farm for three years, though EU regulators place severe limits on my access to all of the opportunities that biotechnology holds out.
Those who oppose GM crops are motivated more by unfounded fears than scientific understanding. The truth is that GM crops possess a greater ability to fight off pests and disease. They require fewer chemical sprays – a social and environmental benefit that is important to me.
Biotech crops produced for food and biofuel carries an added environmental benefit as we deal with climate change. They allow farmers to use conservation agriculture practices that leave crop residue on the surface to reduce water and wind erosion. They also reduce pressure to convert wilderness into farmland and allow a significant carbon sink in the soil. All are very important to Europe and the US and certainly of concern to President Obama.
For small resource farmers, especially in developing countries, the benefits of biotech crops are obvious. Increased yields per acre and/or increased efficiency and lower input costs are all on the table. Any of them might mean increased income. In addition to more food, the extra money would support education and health spending and allow farmers to spend more time with their families.
Most important, GM food poses absolutely no threat to human wellbeing: It has never caused as much as a minor allergic reaction in anybody.
Many Europeans haven’t even heard these arguments. Others have simply doubted them, preferring to listen to professional protestors who have sworn undying hostility to biotechnology.
But what if Barack Obama were to make a high-profile case for GM crops? Europeans certainly would pay attention.
“We must extend the Green Revolution throughout the world to ensure greater food security,” wrote Obama to Borlaug last June.
The way to extend the Green Revolution, as Obama well knows, is to transform it into the Gene Revolution--and to unleash the full potential of GM crops. This task is especially urgent in Africa, where malnutrition and famine remain constant threats. Unfortunately, Africa has been slow to take up agricultural biotechnology because many of its governments look to Europe for guidance.
Every year, the United States passes out billions of dollars in foreign aid. Much of this support is put to good use helping poor people in impoverished countries. Yet an even greater gift is in offing, if Obama only will use his popularity in Europe to promote a serious debate between credible scientists, farmers and environmentalists about the importance of biotech crops. The science is on his side, and so is everyone who grapples with the serious problem of feeding a hungry planet.
The world has great expectations for the new American president, and he faces many daunting challenges. Food production is one of the most critical. His response in both word and deed will tell us much about what kind of leader he hopes to be.
Maria Gabriela Cruz manages a 500 hectare farm that has been in their family for over 100 years. Growing maize, wheat, barley and green peas, they use no-till or reduced till methods on the full farm. She has grown biotech maize since 2006. Ms. Cruz is President of the Portuguese Association of Conservation Agriculture, a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network and a participant in the 2008 Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable.