Agriculture is a man-made activity that has for millennia changed many forms of plants and animals to suit our needs. Today there is a strong lobby calling for a return to organic agriculture. This affluence-centered ideology can not effectively support the less fortunate or future pressures of a growing human population. It was the science and technology of the green revolution that helped feed the population as it rose from 3 billion to 6 billion.
With great promise the international community began a multiyear project designed to evaluate the role of agricultural science and technology with the goal to help reduce hunger, malnutrition and poverty. This International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) brought together people from many different walks of life. The first meeting was held in 2004 with 185 different groups represented. They included 45 governments, 86 NGO/civil societies, 29 co-sponsoring agencies (World Bank, UNESCO, UN-FAO, WHO etc) and representatives from international biotechnology companies.
The mission statement of the IAASTD promised to evaluate the relevance, quality and effectiveness of agricultural knowledge, science and technology (AKST) in reducing hunger, improving sustainability, improving nutrition, health and livelihood of the world rural populations.
The interim report of their findings was recently published . In the four years since the inception of this project, the science of agriculture seems to have taken a backseat to ideology.
The IAASTD claims the report on AKST is: “an evidence-based guide for policy and decision-making.” However the suggestions of ‘perceived risks’ and ‘potential harm’ are in many of the paragraphs dealing with biotechnology even though the evidence of risks and harm are lacking.
The International Council for Science is likely the world’s largest collect of scientific opinion with most National Academies of Science and over 150 scientific organizations. In 2003 the ICSU published a very extensive review  of genetically modified (GM) crops and food.
The ICSU review looked at the following pertinent questions:
- Who needs GM Food?
- Are GM Foods Safe to eat?
- Will GMO’s affect the Environment?
The opinion of this truly global scientific organization is very clear when it states:
“... there is no evidence of any ill effects from the consumption of foods containing genetically modified ingredients”
“There are also benefits [eg. vitamin content of rice] to human health coming from GM foods”
“Pest tolerant crops can be grown with lower levels of chemical pesticides, resulting in reduced chemical residues in food and less exposure to pesticides.”
And with respect to the environment the ICSU report states: “there is no evidence of any deleterious environmental effects having occurred from the trait/species combinations currently available.”
Nevertheless the IAASTD report states: “As the general public has become increasingly interested in the linkages between agricultural production systems and human health, the list of food related health concerns has continued to grow. It includes uncertainty with regard to the effects of GMO’s on human health.”
In fact there is very little uncertainly. The science is very clear. However, a massive international anti-GMO campaign by many NGO’s has planted the seeds of doubt in the public. There is no evidence to support these ‘perceived risks’ and therefore they have no place in the “evidence-based” IAASTD report.
The IAASTD review also states: “Emerging evidence indicates that organic farmers are able to sustain their livelihoods…” This may be true in some places, but certainly not on a global scale with a world population of over six billion. Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug said it well when he said organic agriculture can only feed four billion people and he does not see two billion volunteers [to starve to death].
On average, organic agriculture produces only 70 percent of the yield of conventional agriculture. If we were to increase organic agriculture on a global scale as suggested in the IAASTD report we would have to put the remaining wilderness under the plow just to produce the same amount of food we do today. What would we do when the population reaches 7-8 billion? Clearly such a massive increase in organic agriculture at the expense of other forms of agricultural production would severely threaten global biodiversity and have profound negative impact on the environment world-wide.
Although North America has accepted GM crops and biotechnology the same can not be said for Europe. However it is not a difference in scientific opinion that blocks widespread adopt of biotechnology crops in Europe. In 2001 the European Commission released a report  on the safety of GM crops and food. Research over 15 years involving 81 projects and over 400 scientists concluded: “GM plants… have not shown any new risks to human health or the environment, beyond the usual uncertainties of conventional plant breeding. Indeed, the use of more precise technology and greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them safer than conventional plants and food.”
There has been a misinformation campaign against genetically modified crops and food by NGO’s that spans the past 15 years. No amount of positive research mattered to their campaigns. Statements made to the British House of Lords by the head of a large international NGO made it clear that this NGO’s opposition to genetically modified crops and food is permanent regardless of any future scientific safety evaluations. This type of blind ideology does not fit anywhere in a scientific assessment. However, this particular NGO is very active in the IAASTD.
Every year millions of children suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Lack of this key vitamin in the diet causes 500,000 cases of blindness a year and up to 6000 deaths a day in the developing world. Researchers created a type of genetically modified rice with elevated levels of beta carotene (vitamin A precursor). International attempts to freely distribute this rice to subsistence farmers in the developing world have been blocked with overly cautious regulations.
There is no doubt that some of the NGO participants of the IAASTD have been very active in helping to create and implement regulatory road blocks to the free distribution of Golden Rice which is in direct conflict of one of the stated outcomes of increased nutrition by the IAASTD.
The authors of the IAASTD report are absolutely correct when they say: “choices we make at this junction in history will determine how we protect our planet and secure our future.”
Yet there is no mention of the UN-FAO statement: Biotechnology would provide powerful tools for the sustainable development of agriculture and food production .
“Success [including alleviating malnutrition, reducing hunger and improving health] would require increased public investment in AKST, the development of supporting policy regimes.” This IAASTD statement is completely opposed by the continued expansion of overly cautious, onerous regulations.
One estimate has it costing 20 million dollars to gain commercial certification of a single GM crop. This is far in excess of the abilities of public-funded research. The end result of these costly regulations is that biotechnology crops which would help the poor are not developed. Drought tolerance, salt tolerance and insect resistance are just three examples of genetically modified crops that could help farmers in developing countries. But extremely high costs of regulatory compliance keep these beneficial crops from being developed by public-funded research.
There is public-funded research in agricultural biotechnology programs in over 70 countries. This global research community was very disappointed with the draft IAASTD report. After reading the report the Public Research and Regulations Initiative stated: “ We believe that the chapter [biotechnology] is written from a perspective that is so fundamentally different from what we believe should have been the perspective of such an evaluation, that a submission of comments on the many technical omissions and errors would not be meaningful.”
The unbalanced nature of the IAASTD report becomes even clearer when it states: “some long standing problems such as mycotoxins continue to significantly add to the health burden, especially of infants”. It is very difficult to reconcile the statements of desire to improve nutrition and health with the complete omission of any statements of peer-reviewed data that consistently showed insect resistant GM maize has much lower levels of mycotoxins than either conventional or organic maize.
The IAASTD claims to want to reduce pesticide use but then refuses to acknowledge the massive reductions in pesticide use afforded by growing insect resistant GM crops. Interestingly, nowhere in the report is there any mention of the widespread use of highly toxic copper compounds in organic agriculture. It is very clear modern synthetic fungicides are far less harmful to the environment than these copper compounds which persist for decades.
Over 8 million farmers in the developing world now grow GM crops and each years sees a 20 percent increase. This adoption rate indicates there are real benefits of biotechnology crops for these farmers.
Scientific evidence shows substantial benefits of growing biotechnology derived crops. Yet the IASSTD warns against increasing education and training of farmers in the use of GM crops. It is hard to understand this position in light of the overwhelming scientific data in support of genetically engineered crops.
One of the most striking examples favouring organic agriculture in the IAASTD report is the suggestion that organic certification is threatened by pollen flow from GM crops. This is pure rhetoric directly from the organic food industry. During a time of unprecedented growth of both GM and organic agriculture there has not been a single case of loss of certification of an organic farmer as a result of pollen flow from neighbouring GM crops. In fact the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements does not advocate any testing for GM content.
The executive summary of the IAASTD report repeatedly advocates increases in organic agriculture without similar endorsements for biotechnology. This seems very strange as in the body of the report it states an alternative pathway forward with less biotechnology would mean “humanity would likely be more vulnerable to climate and other shocks and to increased natural resource scarcity”.
Most of the 6000 year history of agriculture is by definition organic. This type of poor yield agriculture is exactly why we have significant problems with hunger, malnutrition, soil degradation and poverty in much of the developing world. To suggest organic agriculture is the best way to improve this defies logic and demonstrates how the reported “science-based” assessment of the IAASTD has been completely over-ridden by ideological based green-washing. It is very clear why those who work in the fields of agriculture biotechnology are so disappointed by the non science-based IASSTD report.