Here in New Zealand, wedid not participate intheGEGene Revolution.Farmers like mesee an advantage inmakingsure that we do notmiss the next one.

Youve seen the statistics. Farmers around the world have planted and harvested billions of acres of geneticallyengineeredcrops. Not long ago, we used to talk about GMOs and conventionalcropsas if theybelongedin different categories. Increasinglyand especially in North and South AmericaGMOs arethe newconventional. Theyve become an ordinary part of agriculture.

Some nations, of course have resisted theuseof GMOs, starting withmembers of the European Union. New Zealand has taken its own wait-and-see approach, turning it into a sort of permanent delay. The science on GMOssafety to human health and our environmentmaybesettledbut my country has wanted to preserve its clean-green image in food production, in the belief that this gives us a competitive advantage as we market ourselves to the world.

This is important because as an island nation, were an outward-looking country thatdependsontrade with people in other countries. Our goal is to produce high quality food with an emphasis on ethics and environmental sustainability. Thats how we seeourselves and thats how we want others to see us. Ive always believed that this vision of New Zealand could include a place for GMOs, but others have thought differentlyand so weve remained GMO-free, even as my friends and colleagues who farm across the English-speaking world have come to take GMOs for granted. In developed countries such as Canada and the United States as well as developing countries such as India and South Africa, GMOs are an ordinary way of doing business.The same is true in many countries outside the Anglosphere, such as Argentina and Brazil.

My governments prohibitions on GMOs havent stoppedourfarm from thriving. On the South IslandNew Zealands larger but less populated landmassourfarms focus on seed production and dairy. Onourseed production farm, we grow ryegrass, fescue, hybrid carrot, hybrid radish, and more. About half these seeds will take root in New Zealand, while the rest will sprout under the care of farmers overseas.All of our carrot seeds, for example, gobackto Hollandfor global distribution.Onourdairy farm,wemilk about 1,100 cows. Virtuallyalltheir milk also will ship abroad, wherewehave a reputation for top quality and occupy the higher end of the market.

Craige was honored as 2016 Precision Farmer of the Year.

While, to date, there has been little benefit for New Zealand to have GE technology in the crops and plants we grow, we certainly take advantage of othernewtechnologiesincluding a few that would astonish farmers from just a generation ago. Last summer, for example, I attended a conference of farmers in Minnesota, which is just about on the other side of the world from New Zealand. During a break, I wondered about moisture levels in the soil back home. I didnt have to order anybody into a field to dig a hole or stick a meter into the dirt.Instead, I pulled out my smartphone, looked at its screen, and saw what my sensors were saying.I knew instantly.

This is what modern agriculture looks like in many places, and especially in New Zealand: Its global, its high-tech, and its all about sustainable conservation.But its also about the fundamentals, based on the same set of natural resources, from sunlight in the sky to nutrients in the ground.

Water may be our most precious resource. Although it varies from place to place, about 70 percent of the worlds freshwater is invested in agriculture.Weneed to supply our fields with exactly the right amount, so that we can make the most of what were given. With GPS and electromagnetic technology, we produce detailed maps of our soil. We study the information that we gatherand then plan our water use. Rather than drenching whole fields, like water sprinklers that run for hours in suburban backyards, we customize our delivery. Our pivot-irrigation system sends the right amount of water to the right place.Wespread water like dots on a carpet, and every drop counts.

Were just as careful with nitrogen. Its not about using more, but finding the right match for the land.Were nowheading towardsmeasuring nitrogen in real time, allowing us to understand when and how it reaches root zones.With good data management,including satellite and drone imagery,we can make informed decisions about what the soil needs and what the plants want.

GMOs would help, but even without them, these othertechnologieswill continue toimprove,and well keep on making gains in production and sustainability. Yet now the new Gene Revolution is upon usand I dont want to miss it.

If you havent heard ofgenome editing, you will soon: It holds the potential tocure diseases, improve organ transplants, and defeat bacteria that resist antibiotics. In agriculture, it may help us grow plants that produce more while using only half the water and nitrogen that they consume now. As farmers, we face enormous pressure to increase our efficiency and reduce our perceived environmental impact. CRISPR and other gene-editing methods could well be a key piece of technology that will allow us to continue to grow crops and raise livestock and also meet our conservation goals.The scientists can describe the details. Heres what I know: Its safe, its transformational, and its on the near horizon.

Its alsowhat we might call a leap-frog technology,allowingus toleap over the currentGMOtechnologyand their innovationsand head straight into CRISPR technology which could very quickly deliver real benefits for our production systems, the environment and our global markets.

Craige’s column is part of the Genetic Literacy Project’s GMO Beyond The Science III series.

We have watched as theanti-GMOactivistsseem to worry most about theirtransgenicnaturethat is, the practice of moving genes from one species to another. Although this has helped crops improve weed and pest resistance in safe ways, critics object because they thinkit soundscreepy. This may be an unscientific view, but its also an authentic one, and it has prevented GMOtechnologyfrom enjoying more widespread adoption. It is important that weunderstand the customers beliefs and desires when it comes to the food we produce which will allow us to use the appropriate technology.

As we move toward Biotech 3.0,we maysee the same old battle lines form between farmers, scientists, and educated consumers on one side and political activists on the other. But I hope not.The stakes are high.Gene editing can become a powerful ally of the environment, especially here in New Zealand, where native trees now under threat might find new life. For farmers like me,in a time where technology is moving very fast anda booming world population and fresh demands for environmentalsustainabilityare constant challenges, it is time to have a sensible, science-based debate to select the traits that will be most beneficial and get them into the hands of farmers.

We need this technology, and I cant wait to have it.

 

Aversion of this columnfirst appearedJune 26as part of the GMOBeyond The Science series at Genetic Literacy Project.