Miracle Plants: Fallacy or New Frontier

As occurs each year, the Norm Bourlag World Food Prize Lecture was accompanied by a poster session. There were posters on a variety of subjects but one in particular caught my eye. A student had a literature review presented as a poster on the subject of whether genetic engineering can help meet food needs in Africa, titled Miracle Plants: Fallacy or New Frontier (despite being a literature review, though, she didn’t have any references listed). Her conclusions were unsurprisingly mixed, finding that genetically engineered traits would have some positive impacts but that they won’t solve all problems.

One of her conclusions concerned me greatly, and actually upset me to the point that I spoke with her and tried to gently correct her. That conclusion was that genetically engineered crops would not help with problems such as increasing food prices and decreasing food security. When I asked, she said that genetically engineered seeds were too expensive. She hadn’t encountered the NGO-corporate partnerships to provide low or no cost seed to low income farmers. She hadn’t encountered traits being developed with government funding that have the potential to be released at low or not cost. This young person could only think of traits that were developed by corporations that are too expensive for low income farmers to purchase, and could only find evidence to support this conclusion.

This says to me that we are failing to counter misconceptions about genetic engineering and that we are failing to develop and deregulate traits that can be made available at low or no cost. What can we do to remedy the situation? Scientists can continue with research that is government funded and can continue to apply for grants to fund that research, even when the granting agencies are non-responsive. However, as the World Food Prize Laureates both pointed out, it takes more than scientists to help fight hunger. It takes individuals, and in the case of genetic engineering, it arguably takes partnerships with companies who are willing to help fund research as well.

Are we really committed to getting traits like water and nitrogen efficiency, improved nutrients, and insect protection out to the farmers who can use it, the farmers for whom even a small yield boost would make a big difference? If so, what can we do? Do we need more letter to the editor? More blog posts? More positive comments to the USDA to counter negative comments that were mobilized by anti agricultural technology organizations? More calls for companies to commit to helping small farmers? More scientist-advocates working to change public policy at the national level? What do you do, and what would you encourage others to do?