March 31, 2009
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Amid increasing global demand for food, new technologies to increase land fertility are part of the solution to make arable land more productive, Franz Fischler, a former EU agriculture commissioner, argued in an interview with EurActiv.

As quality arable land becomes limited, especially in Europe, Fischler says the world is facing a "fundamental challenge" to produce more per hectare without harming the environment.

"The increase in [food] demand in the last 20 years was broadly covered by yield increases only," Fischler explained, warning that if this policy can no longer continue, "we will be in a big trouble".

To help increase productivity, Fischler said "there is the question of technology, and new technologies used to increase the fertility of soils to increase production," and "the question of biotechnology in the strict sense of the word. And it is not only about GMOs".

Fischler was speaking to EurActiv in a joint interview with John Atkin, chief operating officer for crop protection at Syngenta. The former EU agriculture commissioner is also co-founder and chairman of the RISE Foundationexternal for rural development, which lists Syngentaexternal as a strategic partner.

The former EU agri chief said investing in new plant varieties was not just a private sector thing, as "there is also something to do for the public sector and the publicly financed research and development." He further stressed the need to find "new ways" for the public and private sectors to cooperate better in this field of research.

John Atkin agreed, adding that technology plays "an absolutely fundamental role" in the debate about food output.

"It is better seed varieties, it is biotechnology in all its forms, and it is also chemicals," Atkin said. While acknowledging that "pesticides is not a popular word," he underlined that "plant protection is one of the most remarkable things you can do," as modern seed treatments can help increase root size, for example, enabling plants to absorb more water to withstand drought stress better.

The biotech way forward includes two options – genetic engineering of plants, consisting of improving the natural traits of a plant, or genetic modification (GM). While genetic engineering is more complicated than GM technology, Atkin believes both technologies should see "some breakthroughs within the next three to five years," helping plants to resist drought and acidic and high-salinity soils, for example.

Atkin underlined that Syngenta already has "a very exciting sprayable chemical product called Invinsa™," which will be on the market in 24 months and will help field crops survive stress during periods of high temperature or drought.

Fischler also argued it is "absolutely necessary" to analyse whether the world’s approach to development cooperation is correct as regards helping developing countries and their smallholder farmers to increase production. "According to some analysts, only 2% of the total global amount of development cooperation money goes to agriculture. And here I think we have to organise a discussion to get the priorities right," he noted.

Atkin lamented that not many African governments are open to helping their small farmers acquire even simple technologies to increase their income and make agriculture a sustainable process. "The political and governmental environment has to be right for such developments to happen," he said.

As for a global institutional framework that could help ensure food security, this is an "open question" with two options, said Fischler. Either "we go for a specific organisation to deal with these problems, or we enlarge the portfolio of the FAO [the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation]," he said, concluding that it is not a question of principle but one of practical adjustment.

To read the interview in full, please click here.


Business & Industry

* Syngenta and the European Landowners’ Organisation (ELO): 2nd Forum for the Future of Agriculture in Europeexternal (17-18 March 2009)
* 2nd Forum for the Future of Agriculture in Europe: Speech by Franz Fischler: Fighting food scarcity and environmental degradation in times of economic crisisPdf external (18 March 2009)
* 2nd Forum for the Future of Agriculture in Europe: Speech by John Atkin: Expanding our capacity to produce efficiently: the role of science & technology in farmingPdf external (18 March 2009)
* Rural Investment Support for Europe Foundation – RISE Foundation: website