Late last month, European farm ministers gathered to discuss the possibility of letting national governments set individual policies for growing genetically modified crops.
It remains to be seen what they’ll do, though anything that allows farmers to break through the anti-GMO gridlock that dominates Brussels is a step in the right direction--not just for those of us here in Europe, but for farmers almost everywhere.
It’s not a hard principle to understand: Farmers should have the freedom to choose the technology and tools that are best suited for their farm, allowing them to safely increase their yields, productivity and profitability. And that includes the millions of women who operate smallholder farms in developing countries.
Unfortunately, the European Union doesn’t afford us this basic right even as farmers in many other countries enjoy it. Throughout North and South America, farmers grow biotech crops as a matter of routine. Over there, GM corn and soybeans are conventional food products.
In Europe, however, we’ve seen only two new GM crops approved for commercial planting in the last 12 years. When it comes to agricultural technology, we’re literally living in the 20th century.
I’m doing my best to stay in the present. I started to plant GM corn in 2006. Ever since, I’ve been growing it with my sisters on our family farm in Portugal. We’d like to grow more, but regulations keep us from realizing the full potential of this important tool.
This makes no sense. Governments should empower farmers to do their best, not deny them the ability to produce as much food as possible.
If the enemies of biotechnology prevail, humanity will pay a dear price. The challenges of feeding the planet’s people are swelling, not shrinking. World population is expected to expand by 50 percent between now and the middle of the century. That’s about 3 billion new people.
Global warming may make the task of feeding these extra mouths even more difficult. That’s especially true for farmers in my part of the world: The International Panel for Climate Change has forecast increasing dryness for the Mediterranean region. Some areas of Portugal already have seen water prices rise by 40 percent.
Biotechnology offers one of the most promising solutions to this emerging problem. Scientists can generate crops that make more efficient use of water, which allows them to tolerate drought conditions. Glyphosate resistance is another characteristic that allow us to fight off the weeds that suck water and nutrients from the soil. Nitrogen efficiency is also on my and European policy makers wish list of biotech traits. I practice no-till and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) on my farm today. That practice will become even more sustainable when biotech crops can be planted, providing additional environmental benefits
Yet these innovations will remain fantasies as long as misinformed activists and journalists dominate the European debate over biotechnology and crowd out the responsible views of scientists, Nobel Prize winners and farmers.
Perhaps it’s time to turn agricultural biotechnology into an issue of women’s rights. My sisters and I know from personal experience how GM crops have improved our quality of life. We want more of it for ourselves and more of it for women who farm in other countries.
Around the world, women involved in agriculture outnumber men. Yet many of them can’t take advantage of biotechnology. Europe’s hostility is one of the main reasons why. Because so many developing countries export food to Europe, they’re reluctant to approve GM crops that they know European regulators will reject. African farmers may fare the worst: They’re not only strikingly poor, but they’re also unusually dependent on trade with Europe.
The fact that EU regulators are responding to unfounded fears rather than actual science is beside the point. The reality is that European markets remain closed to many biotech products. The trickle-down effect is to deny economic opportunity and stifle innovation among some of the planet’s poorest people, including women who would benefit from even a small amount of uplift.
This is ironic because so many Europeans treasure their worldly sophistication. The EU’s policies on agricultural biotechnology, however, are just plain backwards. They deny opportunities to me and my sisters here in Portugal. Abroad, they condemn millions of subsistence farmers to chronic poverty. Women arguably suffer the most because they’re directly involved in food production.
Policies that keep women destitute are the opposite of enlightened progressivism. They are downright illiberal.
Maria Gabriela Cruz manages a 700 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 will receive the Kleckner Trade and Technology Advancement Award in Des Moines, IA on October 13, 2010. 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 and 2010 TATT Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable.