People eat food every day, but many of them have no idea where their food comes from. Even fewer understand how farmers are challenged to produce it.
That’s especially true here in Uruguay, where I grow a variety of crops and also raise livestock. The population in my country is ‘poorly distributed’: About 60 percent of our population lives on less than 5 percent of our land. For every single person like me who lives in a rural area, 19 live in a city.
Many of the urban population think that their food just shows up in grocery stores, as if it comes from an assembly line in a factory.
This can lead to bad public policies, written by politicians who rarely set foot on a farm—even as they demand food security for themselves and their families.
So I’m thankful that Uruguay and a dozen other counties signed an agreement earlier this month to support farmers who strive to innovate. The title of the agreement is long—the International Statement on Agricultural Applications of Precision Biotechnology. —but the principle is simple. It calls for farmers to enjoy “access to products that increase productivity while preserving environmental sustainability.”
Signatories include our neighbors Argentina and Brazil as well as the United States, Canada, Australia, Colombia, The Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Jordan, Paraguay and Vietnam. The Secretariat of the Economic Community of West African States also gave their support.
They’ve now pledged to support the gene-editing techniques that promise to harness the powers of sound science and revolutionize our farms. The statement encourages countries to cooperate as they begin to take advantage of precision biotechnology, rather than to build the regulatory hurdles and trade barriers that so often get in the way of progress.
I’ve seen what can happen when a country doesn’t embrace safe technologies. In Uruguay, we were slow to accept GMOs. Meanwhile, Argentina and Brazil adopted them quickly, right across the border from us. They reaped immediate rewards. All we could do is watch.
The problem wasn’t with farmers: From the start, we wanted to plant GMOs. We hoped to gain their special ability to fight weeds and pests. Yet we faced opposition that came from urban residents and their tremendous misconceptions about farming.
Some of them assume that all farmers are millionaire landowners. Nothing could be further from the truth. I happen to be a farmer who doesn’t even own a farm: I lease the land I work. I also help out my father and participate in a couple of societies that raise crops.
Not a single acre of this land is mine. I’m an excellent example of how technology can help farmers of all types. Just as it can help the large landowners who depend on massive sales, it can also help the smallholders who simply want to feed themselves. Then there are the ordinary farmers, like me, who are somewhere in between.
We all need technology—and now that includes access to precision biotechnology.
Uruguayan farmers have been planting Roundup Ready soybeans and Bt corn since 1998 but, a government change in 2008 brought a moratorium on all new GMO traits. That ban on new technology was finally lifted in early 2017. We missed out on all the new technologies for 8 and a half years! Today, I can’t imagine growing corn and soybeans without this technology. They’ve transformed our business. Yet in many ways we’re still catching up to our competitors—and we’re still fighting the old myths and misinformation that drive skepticism about GMOs.
We can’t take anything for granted. Lots of countries continue to ban GMOs, even as their safety is proven and their advantages are obvious.
Uruguay simply can’t suffer the same fate with gene editing. We need it as soon as we can have it. Perhaps because our government has joined the statement on precision biotechnology, we won’t have to wait.
Rather than watching our neighbors and other countries with envy, I’m looking forward to a series of remarkable advances that will make farming less risky and more predictable. We need crops that can withstand drought, crops that can survive degradation, and crops that can thrive in acidic soils. And that means we need what gene editing can deliver.
I’m hopeful about the future of farming in Uruguay and elsewhere—but only if we stick to the values of the International Statement on Agricultural Applications of Precision Biotechnology.