Is science being taken hostage? The “killer canola” example

August 11, 2010

In the debate between environmentalists and industry, science is a word that comes regularly in their arguments. However, scientific “evidence” seems to be used to support an agenda instead of making us all wiser.

The recent example of the “killer canola” that has been widely spread in the media over the past week illustrates the concerns we should have about the use of science for non-scientific purposes.

To sum up the story about canola, researchers from the University of Arkansas found herbicide-resistant genetic traits included in the plants through genetic engineering in canola growing in the wild in North Dakota. They even found traits from two different GMO producers. This does not exist in commercial varieties. They claimed that they demonstrated these GMO escaped into the USA.

Of course, all media, internationally, with a bias against GMOs jumped on the occasion to make their point about the risks of genetic engineering.

Very quickly, media favourable to the GMO industry, actually funded by that industry reacted to undermine the finding of the researchers. In particular, I enjoyed this column in AG Network. To counter the results of the researchers, the author claims that most scientists reject their theory. He names only two, one in the UK and one in Canada. Is a sample of two scientifically representative? I think not. He does not review the protocol of the research. Does that mean it was in order? I would tend to think so; otherwise, he would surely have attacked it. His main argumentation is about canola not being able to thrive in the wild; therefore, the “gene escape” is about a non-event, so let’s not talk about it anymore. Case closed.

What really disappoints me in this process is the bias. The opponents of GMO see this research as a proof of their point of view without really looking into the research and challenging it, or at least asking a few questions to the researchers. The proponents of GMOs, at least this one, elude the conclusions of the research by shifting the debate to the survival chances of wild canola. The real questions that arises from this survey is to find out how a genetic trait introduced by people (therefore, not the result of natural evolution and selection) can spread outside of our control (nature does not care about intellectual property), and what can be done to have more control on this. What all participants in this debate should do is to join their science and collaborate. It deserves the necessary attention.

The purpose of science is to help us understand our world so that we can take the proper measures to stay in control of what we created. If science tells us something that we do not like, that is too bad, but what we can learn is for our best interest. In the end, it would serve nobody to take chances with food security. The long-term interests must come before the short-term ones. The example of the canola is just one out of many. I could have chosen other food production sectors with similar cases.

Selectively picking the science that suits one’s agenda is not scientific. It does not serve anyone on the long run. On this blog, I posted a poll asking what should come first between morals and science. Although, this poll has no scientific value, it shows an interesting trend that I had not expected.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The next agricultural revolution

February 19, 2010

(Excerpt from my upcoming book, Future Harvests)

The next agricultural revolution to feed nine billion people will be different from the previous one. After World War II, agriculture advanced thanks to chemistry and petroleum. This time, biology and renewable energies will lead us to progress. It will not be just a revolution in science and technology. It also will be a different way to think about the economy and the environment. Knowledge and communication will become increasingly important, even more so than today.

Agriculture is a life science. Biological solutions will gradually replace chemical applications. All sorts of organisms will be involved to improve the way farmers and the food industry will produce.

Bacteria and viruses will help fight pests and diseases. They will help us reduce our use of chemical herbicides and pesticides dramatically. Genetic engineering will evolve and, as a business, it will mature. DNA science will focus on eliminating flaws and on increasing the metabolic efficiency of living organisms. Genetic engineering cannot continue to be about intellectual property and patents. Soon, seed companies all over the world will know how to do the same. Competition and market forces will determine which model will survive. Governments will not allow a select few to control food. They will get involved in genetic engineering programs and they will break monopolies. Genetic improvement will become collective property again.

Ecology will be a part of food production. Agriculture will manage ecosystems, and economy will become the management of the planet. Living organisms on land and in water will assist us. Farmers will think in terms of systems and cycles. Instead of isolating the field, they will integrate environmental parameters as well.

Organic matter will become central in the future agriculture. Farmers will recreate the cycles to improve the structure of the soil and its fertility. Agriculture will help fixing carbon. The use of mineral fertilizers will decrease sharply.

The economics of agriculture will be different, because the economics of energy will be different. New technologies will come. Solar power and wind energy will become common sources of energy. The economics of water will change, too. The management of water will reshape our food production. Water will become substantially more expensive and only systems that save and preserve water will survive.

Information technology will help make decisions faster than ever before. Portable computers will give the farmer the ability to get data almost instantly about the status of the crops, markets, health status and conditions of production. It will allow them to optimize inputs and outputs better and faster. It will save time, inputs and money. Knowledge and information will be our best tool to act efficiently and to improve our food production.

Transparency will become the rule. There will be no secret because consumers will be better informed and because there will be nothing left to hide.

The most critical part of the next agricultural revolution is leadership. Having a responsible long-term vision is critical, but it will not be enough. The world will need leaders that will make the right things happen. In all sectors of the society, there will be a need for such leaders who can muster the energies and who make the general interest and the long-term come first. The need for food security will alter our governance systems, in government as in business ethics. A challenge will be to manage greed and fear. First, there will be greed. Then, there will be fear. Until this day, humans have done a poor job of feeding the world. Famines have come and have gone and there still are hungry people. Humans have done a poor job at preserving their environment, too. With nine billion people, such a poor performance will have much heavier consequences. Procrastinate or being sloppy are attitudes the world cannot afford anymore. The proper leadership will come, but the change will not happen per accident. There will be a heavy crisis first.

Agriculture will regain its place in the economy as the most important activity. A change in the attitude towards funding and investments will also be part of the revolution. More players will engage in agriculture because returns will be higher for all.

The revolution will not just be for farmers and the other players in agriculture to carry out, but consumers will have their share to deliver. A change in mentalities is necessary. Wasting food is not acceptable. Selfishness will not work anymore. Food security is not a given, it is work in progress.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Future approach of genetics in agriculture

July 30, 2009

Where we will decide of our future...

Genetic engineering, that we just mentioned, and traditional breeding and will be increasing intertwined in the future, as they will join their respective areas of expertise into combined genetic improvement programs. Actually, we can expect that these two disciplines will be merged into only one unified science of DNA. We can expect to see an increased number of joint ventures and mergers between genetic selection companies and biotech companies in the future.

So far, genetic engineering has been mostly known to the public opinion thanks to the development of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and this has been a very controversial area. Genetic engineering will move from a support activity to, for instance, herbicides, to address much more real problems and bring much more real solutions to the challenges of the agriculture of tomorrow. GMOs have served the sales of herbicides produced by the same companies quite well, but of course, this will plateau rather soon, and there will be a need for something else to impress the financial markets. It should not be a surprise to see these corporations specialize in biotech completely, and divest their chemicals “heritage” at some point in the future. The real problems to solve include a broad range of topics. They include technical performance and yields of plants and farm animals. Genetic engineering will help increase the efficiency in the conversion of nutrients and water. It will help plants and animals to have a stronger resistance to diseases, in order to avoid severe production losses. It will provide alternatives to antibiotics, to herbicides and pesticides. It will find ways for plants to absorb or fix the nitrogen of the air to reduce the use of mineral fertilizers. Another area of research will be influencing the quality of final agricultural products, in particular producing healthier foods, and have plants produce medicines.

To solve such problems, the people in charge of such programs will have a very heavy moral responsibility towards society, as the choices they will make will affect the longer term and our ability to survive. The success criteria will go much beyond the financial performance of these companies. This will be translated in the type of bonus packages that the executives will receive. One can wonder whether the correct structure for such companies is to be publicly traded, since stock markets tend to induce a very strong preference to the short-term financial performance. The reflection on such programs will need to go through a serious test of “what ifs”. As per now, money still is the main driver, especially in the arguments of the producing companies and countries. For instance, they reiterate that the decision of the European Union to limit the production and use of GMO will make food more expensive in these countries. Then let’s ask ourselves what if the EU is wrong in their decision? Well, production systems and agriculture would not change much; their food might indeed be more expensive than somewhere else. The people will buy smaller cars and travel less far for their vacation. This is not a very threatening situation if you ask me. What if the ones in favor of GMOs are wrong and the EU is right? The debate is indeed very emotional and political, but this is simply because we lack long term testing of the effects of GMOs to have certainty. This is why the GMO producers have such a hard time convincing their opponents.

More than one species, a whole ecosystem

A better understanding and predictability of long-term effects is paramount in agriculture and food production. Agriculture is not just about producing a particular crop, it is also about managing the total ecosystem that a field is. Actions in genetics need to guarantee the long-term balance of these ecosystems (in which weeds, although of no economic interest, are a part of), because once an ecosystem has been altered, it has been changed forever. Genetic improvement programs must ensure to preserve, in whichever form, genetic diversity and survival of vegetal and animal species, because once extinct, they are lost forever. Long-term fertility of soils is another highly critical part of the protection of our food supplies, because once sterile, the land is lost forever.

So, as you see, we are facing many challenges and genetics is a key element of our food systems. By shifting away of rather superfluous projects, even though they have been quite lucrative for the producers; and by focusing more on true improvement and sustainability of production systems thanks to technical breakthroughs, a combined breeding and genetic engineering will bring constructive solutions. All it will require from the stakeholders is vigilance.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.