Speaking of Ag-biotech

Posted on September 03, 2013

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by Janice Tranberg

canola-flowerI am passionate about agricultural biotechnology and the opportunities it provides and I feel we need to open the conversation and encourage people to apply critical thought and reasoning before making decisions on whether the technology provides us with opportunity or is a risk.  

If we use the most basic scientific principles to analyze an issue, the five steps of scientific analysis are:

1. Question
2. Research
3. Hypothesis
4. Test
5. Conclusion

The first step, the question, is:

“Is ag-biotech the scary life-threatening technology some would lead us to believe OR the future for agriculture and feeding a growing world?”

Let’s put some thought or research into this question.

There are 1.2 million people involved in Canada’s agricultural industry. There are researchers in universities and public institutions, private companies, farmers, grain handlers, food processors and so on.

Likely you know someone in this industry. It could be your family, friends, or a neighbour. Many of these people spend their lives working in a field they honestly think will make a difference to the world. Can these people who are experts in their line of work be completely wrong? Or want to do harm to people and our environment?

And when we hear information on this issue, isn’t it our responsibility to question the reliability of the source? Who are the experts?

Would a celebrity take acting advice from a scientist?

Would an information technologist take advice on coding computers from an actor or a talk-show host?

Why then do people put so much credence in what others say about ag-biotech when there are so many people in the industry with expertise?

And if the experts in the field attest to its safety, why do so many believe what they hear or read on “Twitter,” “Facebook,” or Oprah?

If I were to create a hypothesis it would be:

“The products of plant biotechnology currently on the market are safe.”

“They are the most highly regulated foods ever.” AND

“The benefits we receive from these products far outweigh any potential harm.”

Now let’s test this hypothesis.

First, Canada has one of the strictest science-based regulatory systems in the world. Companies submitting data to Canadian regulators for safety evaluation undertake studies up to 10 years in the making and spend $100 - $150 million from research to commercialization of a biotech product.

If we think about the large amount of resources (dollars, infrastructure and employees) a company spends to determine safety, and the millions of dollars lost if the products were not safe, companies have to go above and beyond to assure safety.

Also, our regulatory agencies hire highly skilled employees whose sole job it is to review the data and make sure the products are safe for humans, animals and the environment before they are released into the environment.

Other countries around the world using a science-based regulatory process have come to the same decision as Canada. The products on the market have been reviewed and found safe by countries including the US, AU, Brazil, Argentina, China and so on. Even the World Health Organization and the European Food Safety Authority have found the products safe.

Finally, there have been trillions of meals consumed with no documented reports of harm.

Is there a chance new data might present questions of safety? Yes.

But as new data becomes available, regulatory agencies examine the product in light of the new evidence to ensure continued safety.

So with the growing global population and the need to feed them without bringing more land into agricultural production, we have a responsibility to continue to innovate and advance science in agriculture.

This leads me to the second part of the hypothesis on the benefits outweighing the potential harm.

Biotech has helped increased the amount of nutritious food available. In the 1980s, one hectare of land produced approximately 1.8 tonnes of food. Today, one hectare produces 2.5 tonnes of food.

And it allows us to do it in a more sustainable manner. We can plant seed into stubble and control weeds without tilling. This greatly reduces soil erosion and moisture loss and increases the buildup of organic matter important for plant growth.

It allows us to make fewer passes over a field significantly reducing greenhouse gases. It is estimated that no and minimum tillage practices are equivalent in CO2 reduction to taking 10 million cars off the road per year.

In conclusion, from my perspective we have a responsibility to develop this technology and bring its benefits forward, as long as we do everything we can to ensure its safety - to humans, to animals and to the environment.

I am passionate about this! I truly believe in the safety of this technology and the promise it can bring to feeding our growing global population!  

Janice Tranberg
is VP, Western Canada for CropLife Canada