I met Luiz last week in Des Moines while participating in the events surrounding the 2006 World Food Prize Celebration and Symposium. We were part of a day-long, farmer-to-farmer roundtable–about two dozen of us from 17 different countries gathered to discuss our common challenges and a shared vision for the future of agriculture.
It was a unique opportunity. By their very nature, farmers tend to be private people. Sometimes we’re happiest when we’re left alone to mind our own business.
Yet there’s a fine line between minding your own business and sticking your head in the ground, ostrich-like. In our era of global economics, we need to grapple with the world around us as we never have before.
At the farmer-to-farmer roundtable, for instance, I learned that I share something in common with Diasso Dramane of Burkina Faso: We both want access to biotechnology for our staple crops.
On first glance, you wouldn’t think that Diasso and I are much alike. He’s a cotton grower from West Africa; I’m a wheat farmer from North Dakota. He lives in one of the poorest countries in the world; I live in the very richest. He wears brightly colored dashiki garments and speaks French; I wear blue jeans and talk like a cast member of the movie Fargo (at least that’s what people tell me). And I’ll guarantee you that Diasso has no concept of a North Dakota winter.
So we aren’t exactly peas in a pod. But we both have observed the amazing benefits of GM crops and wish we could take advantage of them in our daily work. The hurdles we face aren’t scientific–biotech cotton is widely available right now and biotech wheat could be commercialized in a short amount of time–but rather political.
For reasons that continue to mystify me, anti-biotech activists want to deny us both a tool that’s improving agriculture all over the planet. I’m jealous of corn and soybean farmers who can plant biotech crops every season. They’re lucky to have been early adopters: Their foes didn’t have time to organize before these crops were in wide use – accepted because they were safe and made economic sense.
I can’t help but conclude that biotech’s foes are like those opponents of fox hunting: They aren’t for farmers at all. How on earth could you lobby against the desire of Diasso, living in a country where the life expectancy is less than 50 years, to have access to technology that’s used routinely in the United States and other nations? Unless Burkina Faso is permitted to enter the 21st century, it will remain hopelessly poor.
The source of many problems for Diasso is anti-technology pessimists, especially in Europe, who have planted the seeds of fear about biotechnology all over Africa. As a result, many nations have refused to take up the technology that can offer them so much. They worry that if Europeans close their markets to biotech products grown in Africa, their situation will turn worse than it already is.
Many European farmers are even more frustrated than Diasso. I talked to several of them at the farmer-to-farmer roundtable and they’re deeply concerned about their ability to compete with growers who can make use of what biotechnology offers. Paradoxically, Europe is on the forefront of scientific research. Just last week, a team of Germans announced the possibility of a biotech fix to the problem of tomato allergies. Wouldn’t it be ironic if EU farmers couldn’t take advantage of this home-grown ingenuity?
Yet the problem extends far beyond Europe. Last week, Mexico delayed approval on seven applications for field tests of biotech corn. This is a de facto extension of a moratorium that’s been in place for eight years. Although it was supposedly lifted last year, the government–which is perhaps trying to placate an opposition movement that very nearly was elected into power this summer–has done absolutely nothing to help farmers who would like to make use of biotechnology.
We farmers may be at the mercy of the weather–that’s another thing that we like to talk about–but we don’t have to be at the mercy of governments that could care less about our prosperity. If we recognize our common challenges, we may be able to band together and solve them.
Terry Wanzek grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his family farm in North Dakota.
A former ND state legislator, Mr. Wanzek serves as a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)