Occasionally, it is good to take a step back from issues and concerns about Ontario agriculture from look at the calling of farmers from a much broader perspective. Collectively, farmers have the incredible task of providing things that people need, whether it is food, fuel or fibre and to do it in the most sustainable way possible. While attending a conference on global food security, keynote speaker Calestrous Juma, who has been named among the 100 most influential Africans, spoke about agricultural biotech and whether it will be an opportunity or a threat to global food security from an African perspective.
Juma focused on a number of different key issues. First, Juma’s believes that biotechnology and genomics is at a stage that is comparable to the evolution in mobile phone technology. 50 years ago only military or diplomatic operations could afford a cart sized mobile phone. 25 years ago “the brick” could only be purchased by the very rich. Today, smart phones are shaping the world we live in, and most people depend on them daily as a key means of communication.
If we look at genomics, the cost of gene sequencing in 2001 was $100 million dollars and today is in the $7,000 range. We are sitting at “the brick” stage of biotechnology. Juma argued that each generation inherits 20 times the information of the previous generation and in genomics that means that affordable gene sequencing and biotechnology options for the masses is just a few years away. The opening up of this knowledge will form the foundation of new economic opportunities. For agriculture these possibilities include breakthroughs in renewable fuels and industrial biotechnology.
Juma looked at the real world example of how genetically modified cotton has unexpectedly improved the nutritional quality of life for those growing it in Africa. The additional profits that these farmers earn led to having more disposable income. And in the hierarchy of needs, improve diet quality ranks very high on the list of things to take care of first. He also sees other more direct examples such as the golden banana - a vitamin A enriched banana – as a huge boon for the developing world. Finally, he sees transgenic varieties as essential in fighting bugs and blights in Africa.
He noted that the current regulatory regime around biotechnology makes it very difficult for scientists to do their work and is ultimately throttling innovation. He believes that Africa may be able to make huge gains over the next twenty years if they can move towards a science-based decision-making regime, encourage more private sector involvement and focus more investment in research and development.
The biotechnology debate in North America often lacks the perspective offered by Juma. Our affluence allows us to say “no” to technology that could make a real difference for millions of people. As the opportunities in biotechnology and genomics continue to emerge there is the need to focus more strongly on how it will help provide things that people need globally, and improve the sustainability of our food systems.