As global agriculture faces the challenge of feeding another two billion people over the next four decades, the need will be even greater for widespread adoption of herbicides, insecticides, and GMO crops — particularly in developing countries, says Leonard Gianessi.
But, he said in a seminar at Mississippi State University, opponents of ag chemicals and transgenic crops, are determined to thwart proliferation of those technologies.
“The anti-GMO, anti-pesticide movement is basically a marketing effort by various well-financed groups and organizations that are skilled in public relations, fund-raising, and lobbying,” says Gianessi, who is consultant for the CropLife Foundation In Washington.
To offset that, he says, will require a concentrated effort by ag communicators “to educate the public about the critically important benefit of these technologies.”
The foundation’s research and outreach activities are supported by CropLife America, CropLife International, and member companies. Gianessi, a former researcher at the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, where he led studies on the potential impacts of biotechnology on U.S. and European crop production, has been extensively involved in the issues of world hunger and the use of technology to meet the needs of a growing population.
In the U.S., Gianessi said in a question-and-answer session following his presentation, “There is a huge economic interest associated with organic agriculture. Those who are selling organic products want to see their market grow.
“And one way you grow your market for organics is to bash GMOs, bash the farmer, try and convince the public there’s something wrong with GMO crops and with herbicides and other crop chemistries. It’s a well-financed campaign, with the goal of bashing U.S. agriculture to increase sales of organic products.”
Among the questions directed to Gianessi:
Is the U.S. on the road to a situation similar to the European Union, where many ag chemicals are banned and getting new materials registered is difficult to impossible?
“The cost of bringing just one new molecule all the way from R&D to the marketplace is $250 million. Farmers bemoan the fact that there aren’t many new modes of action coming to market.
“It’s not so much a chemistry issue — we’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the brainpower to develop these materials. It’s the costs. A company has to invest $250 million before it can begin to try and get a return on that investment in a crowded marketplace.
“I think the industry works really well with the EPA — the EPA says, ‘Here are the rules that you have to go by,’ and as long as a company is willing to make that big investment and follow the EPA rules, they can bring new products to market.”
A key role for ag communicators
One drawback in this scenario, Gianessi says, “Because of the high cost involved, I don’t think we’ll see a lot of new materials for specialty crops. For example, there hasn’t been a new herbicide for carrots in many years. Crops like that will suffer. But the big crops — soybeans, sugarbeets, canola, maize, cotton — will continue to see new, more effective products.
“And grower groups have learned what they have to do to get and keep registrations. Even before soybean rust ever appeared in this country, soybean growers had about a dozen emergency exemption requests for fungicides to use against that disease.
“So long as we’ve got strong agricultural organizations in the U.S. — and the major crops have those organizations — I think we’ll be OK in terms of new technologies for those crops. Politically, it’s going to be up to ag communicators to make sure the public understands how critically important these technologies are and what we would face without them.”
What about the adoption of pesticides and GMOs in developing countries, where crop yields are low and the need for additional production is great?
Right now, there is a significant adoption of GMOs in a number of countries — India, for example, in cotton production, and in China. The Chinese will do whatever they have to do to feed their people.
“The real crime with GMOs is in sub-Saharan Africa, in countries that are former colonies of European nations, which have very negative opinions of GMOs. European countries won’t support any research in Africa on GMOs. They have tremendous influence over regulatory agencies there, so you can’t get approval for GMO maize.
“A lot of this is driven by the fears in Europe about GMOs,” Gianessi says. “The Norwegians, for example, give Malawi large amounts of money each year for agricultural research, but they won’t even talk about using herbicides. Their vision of what Africa should be is not chemicals, not GMOs; they’re using their money to drive anti-GMO/anti-herbicide research.
“For the last 30 years, scientists at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture have received funding by USAID, by the Norwegians, and others, and that money has been conditional on not using herbicides. They’ve got excellent weed scientists who’ve been researching all manner of non-herbicide techniques for 30 years — and it’s been a waste of 30 years. They don’t have anything to show for it.
“It’s all being driven by NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and activist groups that put pressure on organizations like the World Bank . They say, ‘Don’t fund anything that has to do with pesticides and GMOs.’”
But can farmers in subsistence countries afford these technologies?
“One of the reason they are subsistence farmers,” Gianessi says, “is because they’ve never been able to achieve yields high enough to do anything other try and feed themselves.
“Rice is being imported now into sub-Saharan Africa. They could grow the crop productively there if they adopted these technologies. The cost of growing crops with herbicides is one-third that of labor for hand weeding, the bulk of it done by women and children. Herbicides are an inexpensive, effective tool for increasing yields and freeing up labor.
'Africa will be transformed'
“There are 100 million small farms in Africa. That is going to have to change. Farms will get bigger, more efficient. We’re going to see Africa transformed. They’re not always going to be subsistence farmers. Right now, young people are are moving off the farms in Africa — they don’t want to do farm work that involves the drudgery of manual labor.
“There is a need for more professionals in crop protection. There are more weed scientists in the state of California than in all of sub-Saharan Africa.
“Weeding has traditionally been thought of as women’s work in Africa, and if you went to university administrators and government officials with proposals for weed control studies, you were laughed out of the room.
“The challenge is to change these attitudes, and I think the big push needs to be at the university level. They’ve got 40 years of catching up to do, and there is so much expertise and knowledge in the U.S. that we could share to help them use these technologies to become self-sufficient.”
Many developed countries have leapfrogged in telecommunications. They didn’t have the wired infrastructure that we have in the U.S., and went directly to cell phones. Everybody there has a cell phone. Can they do the same thing with crop protection technologies?
“The problem in Africa is that they didn’t begin adopting these technologies 30 to 40 years ago, as we did in the U.S.. What little crop protection they’ve had has centered around 2,4-D, atrazine, paraquat, and compounds that are generic, cheap, and widely available.
“The challenge is how are they going to leapfrog from older generation pesticides to transgenics? There is tremendous push by the biotech industry to get approval for GMO crops in Africa. But new products are more expensive. How do you sell this to 100 million farms?
“Ag dealers may be the key,” Gianessi says, “ because that’s where all the farmers go for seed and supplies. The biggest part of African agribusiness is seed. All the lobbying/regulatory efforts are on the GMO side. When an organization like the Gates Foundation gets involved, they don’t want to wait 30-40 years to achieve meaningful progress —they want to see it in three years. And they know GMOs can deliver that kind of progress.”
Given the bias of government aid organizations against crop chemicals and GMOs, how can this be overcome to achieve crop progress?
“A lot of the aid to Africa is tied to not being able to use chemicals or GMOs,” Gianessi says.
“We were in Malawi, trying to convince farmers to use herbicides and set up test plots. Because of what they had heard, farmers were concerned chemicals would kill the soil, that nothing would grow there the next year.
“We showed them that was not the case — that the weeds came back the next year where herbicides had been used. Demonstration plots are a part of the answer — to get enough of them out there, near agri-dealers, so the farmers can see what can be done.”
And things are changing on the aid front, Gianessi says. “The Chinese are a factor in this. When they provide funding, there are no rules, no strings attached; they say, ‘ You do it, you figure out how to make it work for you.’ The British aid agency does it the same say — they say, ‘Here’s the money, you do it your way.’
Too many rules attached to aid
“World Bank loans are declining because there are too many rules, too much attitude of ‘You to be like us.’ One African research leader said of these loans, ‘We’ve wasted 30 years by playing it your way — we’ve got to use this technology to feed our people.’
“In the U.S., we have so many organizations and NGOs that watch how USAID and the World Bank spend money, and if there’s even a single dollar for research with these technologies, the NCGOs are complaining to their administrators and to Congress — and the administrators of these programs are worried about their budgets being cut.
“We have the example of ‘golden rice,’ a GMO variety that could reduce blindness in thousands of kids in tropical areas, but activist groups are opposed to its use because they’re opposed to the technology. And they’ve been very successful with their campaigns. It’s unconscionable.”
With the costs involved for entry into agriculture — a big farm in the Delta recently sold for $60 million, and sprayers can run $400,000 and cotton pickers $500,000 or more — how do we convince young kids in the U.S. to consider agricultural careers?
“We’re going to have to change our views of how farming fits in society, if we’re going to keep bright kids in agriculture. They’re leaving agriculture now,” Gianessi says.
“We need to make agriculture interesting to them, whether it’s in FFA, 4-H, or on YouTube. There’s an agricultural high school in Chicago (http://www.chicagoagr.org), inside the city limits, with about 1,000 kids attending. They have 185 openings for the freshmen class each year, and over 3,000 applications from kids wanting to learn bout agriculture.
“Agriculture is exciting; there are a lot of great job opportunities for ag students — as we meet the challenges of feeding the world, agriculture is going to be the place to be. I think FFA and 4-H are great organizations, and we need to capitalize on them to bring more young people into agriculture.”
What about the current unrest in Ukraine, a major crop-producing region? What impact will that have on world food production?
“Ukraine has great potential for crop production, if they can get their yields up,” Gianessi says. “The Chinese went into Ukraine and said, ‘We want to import your maize, but your yields are terrible, so we’ll give you millions of dollars each year to increase yields and send that corn to us.’
“With the unrest there now, that may not happen. But the Chinese will do whatever they need to in order to feed 1.3 billion people. They’re securing vast plots of land in Africa to grow crops; they’re in there building roads and opening up areas for crop production.
“Don’t underestimate Africa in terms of crop production — it has lots of water, lots of very fertile land that’s never been in agriculture. But there are problems of political strife, and not much infrastructure — so you’ve got to solve those problems somehow in order to realize that potential.
“And they’ve got to overcome the political bias against herbicides, pesticides, and GMOs. Fewer hungry people, and improved lives for women, who’re now the major source of weed control, are pretty good arguments in favor of these technologies.”