Less than two weeks after my trip to visit farmers in the Philippines, the typhoon struck: It ripped through the heart of this island nation, with sustained winds of 160 miles per hour. Thousands of people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands more lost their homes.
It was one of the most violent storms in history.
Details of the destruction are still trickling in, but the United Nations’ food agency estimates crop damage at $110 million, and total damage to agriculture at twice that amount.
Fortunately, the farmers I met at the 9th Philippine Corn Congress last month are safe. We had gathered on the island of Luzon, north of the typhoon’s path.
Yet their country is reeling.
This was a natural disaster—an act of God, and impossible to prevent. Farmers everywhere must contend with the challenges of weather, from fast and ferocious storms to the slow-motion hurt of droughts.
What we can avoid, however, are unnatural disasters—and manmade calamities were a major concern at the meeting of Filipino corn growers. I had traveled from my farm in Iowa to be with them, spending the first four days on a tour of farms and facilities and the next four in meetings with producers.
I was struck by how much agricultural biotechnology matters in this developing country—as well as how much it’s imperiled by ignorance.
Many farmers in the United States take genetically modified crops for granted. They’ve become a conventional part of our work and an important factor in sustainable farming that allows us to grow more food on less land.
In the Philippines, however, farmers benefit even more than we do from biotechnology, due to their country’s unique conditions.
The Philippines are hot and humid. The average year-round temperature is about 80 degrees. Large amounts of rainfall partnered with high humidity sunshine causes challenges for grain storage.
The moisture poses a special problem for corn farmers, who must dry their crops in this damp climate. Due to the wetness and lack of post-harvest facilities, their corn is much more susceptible to fungus and disease. Fungus is the catalyst for mycotoxins. We sometimes see problems with mycotoxins in the United States, but not on the same scale—not even close. It’s the difference between living in a temperate climate and a tropical climate.
The best way to stop fungus and disease from infecting corn is to make sure that pests don’t open pathways for them—and this is precisely what hybrids of biotech corn help prevent. By thwarting only pests that prey on corn, they hold off fungus and disease growth. Non-GM crops, by contrast, require multiple applications of insecticide. If infected, these grains are rendered useless.
This important benefit of biotechnology is on top of the advantages we already see in Iowa and the rest of America’s corn country: better yields, higher grain quality, and less need for herbicides and pesticides.
Yet biotechnology is under assault from the forces of scientific illiteracy—and that’s the manmade disaster that Filipino farmers fear more than typhoons, if only because it’s so unnecessary.
Urban populations everywhere—from Manila to Seattle—are increasingly removed from the problems of food production. This is a wonderful luxury, allowing them to contribute to our cultures and economies in new and creative ways.
There’s an unwelcome side effect, however: People in cities often fail to understand how food moves from farm to fork, and they fall victim to misperceptions and ideologies. And so political movements blossom, and they try to deny farmers access to safe technologies.
Maybe an analogy will help. Farming is susceptible to exogenous functions, like weather, pest and disease unlike a controlled environment of a factory. However, much like a successful company expands and renovates that factory for higher production and lower cost; agriculture shares this need for new technology. Farmers need new tools to help them keep up with the appetite of changing times.
We should applaud biotechnology and how it contributes to the smooth operation of food production—perhaps most especially for the people in countries not as resource rich as the United States.
Natural disasters always will be with us. We can’t divert typhoons.
Unnatural disasters—the manmade ones such as fear of biotechnology—are a choice made not on sound science. The facts don’t lie. We must not stand in the way of beneficial technology simply because we are ill-informed or afraid.
Tim Couser farms with his parents on a family farm in Central Iowa where they grow corn, soybeans, hay, seed corn and seed soybeans along with a cattle finishing operation. Tim is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.