“This house believes…” The Economist facilitates debate on biotech & sustainability

GM and organics have, for the most part, been viewed as being at opposing ends of the farming production & practice debate. 

To that end, I was pleased to see that The Economist is hosting a debate on this very important matter.  The Economist puts forward the notion that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are symbiotic and complementary, not at all contradictory.  Moderator, Tom Standage*, looks beyond the ‘crude stereotypes’ and observes that these opposing sides have something in common”

“Both camps are looking for new techniques to produce food sustainably: in other words, methods that minimise environmental impact, maximise farmers’ welfare, can cope with climate change and can be scaled across the developing world. The two camps agree on the ends, if not the means…the idea of a rapprochement between these two approaches is not totally out of the question.”

Professor Pamela Robert (UC Davis) defends the notion of symbiosis between GE and sustainability: “The number of people on Earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. How will we feed them? Genetically engineered crops will play an important role.”

Opposing the motion is Charles Benrock of the Organic Center: “Biotechnology is not a system of farming. It reflects no specific philosophy nor is it guided by a set of principles or performance criteria. It is a bag of tools than can be used for good or evil, and lots in between.”

The online forum (scheduled from November 2 to November 12) allows users to vote or provide input into the debate.  Here are a few of the viewpoints that have been put forward – some are the same ol’, same ol’ while others are thought-provoking and intriguing…

“‘…If we continue with current farming practices, [quoting P. Robert]..’, why does it have to be that we have to choose between one bad over the other? The type of farming that would be sustainable not only for the environment but also for the people would be traditional farming.”

“…when I hear about national research institutions that provide the government with information, allow me to have the benefit of the doubt regarding the truth of the scientists’ statements. When scientists are not independent and get paid from the government, (whose decision is lobbied by multinational companies,) how much trustworthy can the research institutions be?”

“…to increase agricultural output on the scale needed, not only must we rely on biotechnology for crop re-engineering and pest control, but we also need it for optimal fertilising…agricultural biotech therefore represents a key tool for smart feed and fertilising which by helping us to close the phosphate loop, will make an important contribution to sustainable agriculture.”

“The thing to be constantly vigilant about in this debate is stewardship. Modifying plants genetically is old hat, when level heads prevail we agree it’s something that requires a regulated environment. Creators of GM crops must act as good stewards of their products and ensure safety for people as well as the environmental.”

“What about the loss of bio-diversity in planted crops or that GM crops cross-pollinate with non GM crops then making them produce GM crops? Natural selection has worked for millions of years so why tamper with it. It is all about making corporations money not feeding the worlds hungry.”

“It is important to remember that GE seeds developed through biotechnology by itself won’t increase productivity. Its part of a technological package that includes the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and heavy machinery and the more vital of all, water. But is an expensive and brutal system that requires education and experience to be sustainable.”

“There is one simple fact about GMO that many politicians and some irresponsible scientists do not seem to be willing to accept: “GM crops cannot coexist with conventional crops.””

“If you ask what the value of the industrial food is, you must deduct the taxpayer money supporting it. We lose something whenever we artificially prop one company up with taxpayer dollars that destroys competition.”

“If the scientific knowledge required for the manipulation of plant genetics is available, then it would be foolish for us not to seek to employ that knowledge for the betterment of mankind simply because of slippery slope concerns.”

“The question is wrong. All sustainable farming is not ecological farming.Considering the limitations of organic farming, it could even be asked if organic farming is sustainable. A wholesale shift to organic farming would lower the world’s food output dramatically, causing famine on a large scale. I am not convinced that GM can make up for pesticide and especially fertilizers. Organic farming may be sustainable for the soil, but it is not sustainable for us.”

“Back in the 70’s, when the world’s population was 2 billion, we developed GM agriculture to prevent a growing problem of starvation. We suceeded so well that now we have more than 6 billion people. Now, faced with the threat of 9 billion people, we need to again step up the technology. When does it end? The term sustainability needs to incorporate population stablity to make any sense at all.

As of today (November 3rd) there were 60+ comments posted to The Economist’s online debate.  This is a very important dialogue – engage in it!

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*Tom Standage is a journalist and author from England. A graduate of Oxford University, he has worked as a science and technology writer for The Guardian, as the business editor at The Economist, has been published in WiredThe New York Times, and The Daily Telegraph, and has published five books, including The Victorian Internet.

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