Where do they stand on feeding the world?


The presidential debates get underway in just two weeks, when Senators John McCain and Barack Obama square off at the University of Mississippi. They’ll meet two more times, for a total of four and a half hours of give and take.

Here’s a question that somebody needs to pose: What role should biotechnology play in addressing the global food crisis?

Believe me, there are a lot of questions that I’d love to ask these guys. What would your administration do to open new export markets for U.S. agricultural products? What role should farmers play in creating alternative forms of energy? When can I spend a night in the Lincoln Bedroom? ( I and others toured it with Barbara Bush)

Unfortunately, the odds of their meeting around my kitchen table to discuss these matters are about as great as my receiving an invitation to a state dinner at the White House.

Yet Americans deserve to hear what McCain and Obama think about biotechnology and food.

Poll after poll indicates that although voters have many concerns–war, terrorism, social policies–pocketbook issues trump them all. Nothing else even comes close. A couple of weeks ago, a USA Today survey found that 43 percent of adults said “the economy” was the topic that mattered most. The “situation in Iraq” came in a distant second, with just 15 percent.

That’s why we can expect the two candidates to spend a lot of time discussing taxes, spending, jobs, trade, gas prices, and so on.

But they should also address the cost of food, an emerging issue whose pinch is just starting to make itself felt here at home. For a variety of complicated reasons, commodity prices are on the rise and consumers are going to foot the bill. Many of them already have noticed that a gallon of milk now costs about as much as a gallon of gas.

Rising demand around the world accounts for much of the price hike. More people continue to want better food–a remarkable challenge for food producers, but also a great opportunity for them to adopt cutting-edge technologies.

Because population and prosperity continue to grow around the world, we aren’t going to fix the demand side of the food equation. Nor should we want to: It would require a population crash, a global depression, or both.

Instead, we need to boost our supply. That’s where biotechnology comes in–and why the next president must take affirmative steps to guarantee that farmers both at home and abroad have access to it.

The genetic modification of crops has boosted yields everywhere it’s been tried. Research promises to do even more, adding new traits such as drought tolerance that will continue to enhance crop production.

Some researchers say they can double the yield of corn, soybeans, and cotton by 2030. The next U.S. president should emphasize the importance of this goal, and also encourage the spread of biotechnology so that it touches farmers in developing countries.

The United States can continue to give away billions in foreign aid, but it would be much wiser to help small resource farmers help themselves through access to biotechnology. It would make a huge impact on their quality of life.

Their hurdles aren’t scientific but political. European objections to biotech food are as stringent as they are ridiculous. It will take a skillful diplomacy to solve this problem–but the next president shouldn’t shy away from it.

I’ve scoured the Internet to learn what McCain and Obama have said about biotech food. A website called Sciencedebate2008.com has this statement from Obama: “Advances in the genetic engineering of plants have provided enormous benefits to American farmers. I believe that we can continue to modify plants safely with new genetic methods, abetted by stringent tests for environmental and health effects and by stronger regulatory oversight guided by the best available scientific advice.”

That’s a good start, though it reads a bit like a statement prepared by staff. I’d prefer to hear these words in Obama’s own voice. And I’d like to hear McCain say something similar.

Now that I’ve said my piece about food and biotechnology, it’s up to the debate moderators to make sure the candidates say theirs.

Over to you, Tom Brokaw, Jim Lehrer, and Bob Schieffer.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org

Dean Kleckner

Dean Kleckner

Deceased (1932-2015)

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