In early October, some of the world’s brightest minds came together at TCU Place in Saskatoon to talk science at the Agricultural Bioscience International Conference (ABIC 2014). Timing was perfect, as October is Agriculture Month in Saskatchewan!

Topics varied widely, from the link between the sustainability of water and agriculture, to new, safer approaches to controlling insect pests and plant diseases. 

An underlying theme wove its way through the event: The importance of a secure the food system for developing countries, and the capability–and responsibility–for science to help make this happen.  

As an example, one of the speakers, Ingo Potrykus, is a pioneer in plant biotechnology who has worked tirelessly since 1999 to get beta-carotene enriched Golden Rice to people in Africa and South Asia. Their current diet consists almost entirely of rice and barely keeps them alive. Many (especially children) end up with night blindness due to vitamin A deficiency. Golden Rice is a solution to this tragic situation, but 15 years after being proven safe and effective, it still hasn’t reached the farmers. This is thanks to groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, who are opposed to genetic modification (GM) and have created political hurdles to stop such crops from reaching those who would benefit. It is difficult for Potrykus, who is now 81 years old, to hide his frustration and sadness.

Public acceptance of genetic modification was a recurring topic at the conference. Scientists see genetic modification as an important tool for developing crops with beneficial traits, like drought and cold tolerance, or with enhanced nutritional properties. Globally, GM technology could be a huge asset as we face the challenge of creating sustainable, secure food systems. In North America, such crops have been safely used since the mid-1990s, with wide acceptance by farmers, who find the technology beneficial in the production of corn, soy, canola and cotton because it allows them to use less-toxic pesticides and increases soil health by retaining organic matter. 

Most people living in the developed world have never experienced hunger. This is not an accident: One hundred years of advanced agricultural science has led to increased production, to the point where today the quantity and variety of food available would astound our ancestors. We should not take this for granted, and we should share our technology with the developing world in order to help them become food secure. This is the goal of such organizations as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, who were represented at ABIC 2014.

Years of peer-reviewed, independent research has proven that crops developed using genetic modification are as safe as conventionally produced crops. We as a society must stand up for science and embrace technologies that will reduce the human footprint on this planet.  

Related links:

ABIC 2014

Golden Rice still awaits approval (StarPhoenix)

International science organizations on crop biotechnology safety (Genetic Literacy Project)

GMO Answers


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