Her comment came at a remarkable gathering this week in Des Moines: the second annual Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable, sponsored by Truth About Trade and Technology and in conjunction with the World Food Prize. The event brought together 21 farmers from all over the globe–everyone from Douglas Mbano of Malawi to Iowa’s agriculture secretary, Bill Northey. I was at the table as well.
The diversity of the group was incredible. We came from six continents. Our background and circumstances were literally worlds apart. We communicated in English–much of it heavily accented–and included a Spanish translator in our proceedings.
For all of our differences, however, we had much in common–most notably our shared desire to farm the land to its fullest potential, using the best available practices and technologies.
Sadly, not all of us are able to achieve this goal: In many countries, farmers don’t have access to the same tools of biotechnology that we enjoy in the United States.
“Sitting here, I’ve come to realize how fortunate we are,” said Alanna Koch, a farmer from Canada, another nation that has accepted GM crops.
Koch had heard several of her fellow farmers describe massive resistance to genetically improved crops. In Europe, the opposition is especially fierce. “A small number of people who don’t understand agriculture control our agricultural policy,” said Jim McCarthy of Ireland.
David Hill of the United Kingdom expressed envy for Carlos Font of Spain, whose country has taken the lead in biotech acceptance in the European Union. It still has far to go to match the United States, Canada, and Argentina, but it’s breaking through in a difficult environment. “The rest of us are just trying to catch up,” said Hill.
He added that misinformation is a key factor. “In Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, we’re going up against multinational public-relations companies, and when they talk they aren’t encumbered by a need to tell the truth.”
Against the fear peddlers, farmers who appreciate the promise of biotechnology can have a hard time conveying their message of hope.
“Hope is a hard sell,” said Koch, “because it always must overcome skepticism. Fear, by contrast, spreads like a virus–and it can infect a whole society and everybody in it.”
Today, however, we stand on the brink of a great time of hope–a period that could be more exciting for agriculture than anything in a generation. We’re going to see big changes in food production, driven by the growing wealth of developing countries and high market prices for farm commodities.
As countries become richer and their middle classes grow, their people will demand better diets–three meals a day, with lots of calories.
Moreover, today’s high crop prices will force a massive shift in how technologies develop. In the recent past, when prices have been low, farmers have focused on keeping their own costs down. With prices going up, new investment dollars will become available that will concentrate on boosting yields.
Farmers feed the world–a world that’s still growing, and which is placing ever greater demands on agriculture. It’s an incredible challenge, and we must take pride in what we do. We are our own best advocates and have wonderful stories to tell. We must move beyond our circle of concern and begin to tap our circle of influence. Our personal experiences with biotechnology are our best allies.
At our meeting, one of the most powerful witnesses of the promise of biotechnology was Ken Kamiya, who grows papayas in Hawaii. He told of how GM papayas saved his industry–and how he and other farmers had to overcome opposition from anti-science extremists in order to preserve their livelihood.
His was just one story. Together, however, all of our stories will help biotechnology reach its tipping point.
“I’m just one little candle,” said Rosalie Ellasus. Even the tiniest flame can light a fire.
Bill Horan, a Board Member for Truth About Trade and Technology, grows corn, soybeans and grains in Northwest Iowa. This fourth generation family farm has been involved in specialty crop production and identity preservation for over twenty years.