Presented by the Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP (UK), former Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the United Kingdom (2012-2014), at the annual press conference of the South African Agricultural biotechnology industry and the ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech) in Pretoria on Tuesday, February 24, 2015.
Click to download the full speech here.
We live in a time of extraordinary opportunity. Progress in plant sciences is opening up the promise of a new agricultural revolution, one that can not only feed the 9 to 10 billion people that will inhabit our planet in 2050, but feed them well. No place on Earth is better placed to take advantage of this opportunity than Africa.
With its vast, and as yet underutilized resources of land, soil, water and sun, Africa is wonderfully situated to match or exceed the success of Brazil – a nation that agricultural development helped catapult into the front ranks of world trade. This revolution will only occur, however, if African countries embrace farming systems that include the use of modern biotechnology.
Biotech continues to be the most rapidly adopted agricultural technology in history. Genetically modified (GMO) plants and seeds are transforming agriculture: increasing yields, boosting farmer incomes and reducing the need for toxic pesticides.
Last year 18 million farmers, of which 90 per cent were smallholders and resource poor, planted a record 181 million hectares of biotech crops in 28 countries. During the 19 years GMO crops have been commercialized, we have seen a more than 100 fold increase in the area planted.
South Africa is the leader on this continent, with 2.7 million biotech hectares planted. But other nations are catching up. In Burkina Faso, 70% of all cotton in the country is now insect-resistant Bt cotton, a GMO. Farmers who plant Bt cotton have seen at least 66 per cent less pesticide applied, 20 per cent increase in yield, and at least $87 per hectare increase in their profits. Field trials are underway in Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda on a broad range of new crops, from biotech bananas to maize to cowpeas.
This time of great opportunity, however, is also one of great mischief, with environmentalists and bureaucrats in the rich world waging an ideological and anti-science propaganda war against agricultural biotechnology.
Not since the original Luddites smashed cotton mill machinery in early 19th century England, have we seen such an organised, fanatical antagonism to progress and science. These enemies of the Green Revolution call themselves “progressive,” but their agenda could hardly be more backward-looking and regressive.
They call themselves humanitarians and environmentalists. But their policies would condemn billions to hunger, poverty and underdevelopment. And their insistence on mandating primitive, inefficient farming techniques would decimate the Earth’s remaining wild spaces, devastate species and biodiversity, and leave our natural ecology poorer as a result.
There are many impediments standing between the vision of agricultural progress and Africa, of course, but none is more pernicious than these anti-progress groups. They are supported by massive funding from the European Union, as well as numerous misguided church and humanitarian agencies. They have undue influence in the media, government and international institutions.
They have put forward many myths, the most glaring of which is insistence that biotech crops are somehow unsafe to eat. It’s a claim they continue to make in the face of hundreds of studies testifying to GMO safety and the universal opinion of every independent scientific institution globally that GMOs are as safe as any other food. In fact, Americans have been consuming GMOs for over 15 years, without a single documented adverse health effect.
Another myth put forward is the implication that farmers, especially smallholders in the developing world, are somehow stupid or easily fooled by biotech into paying more for GMO seeds when they would be far better off without them. This myth is not only offensive to farmers, but is also dead wrong. Since their introduction almost two decades ago, biotech crops have, on average, increased crop yield overall by 22 percent, increased farmer profits by 68 percent, and reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 per cent.
The anti-GMO groups like Greenpeace, with its combined war chest estimated to exceed $500 million, not only conduct sophisticated scaremongering. Greenpeace uses another tactic all around the world – that of violently attacking and destroying agricultural research they oppose. Anti-biotech groups in 2013 destroyed a field trial of golden rice, a GMO crop that could save millions of lives of young children affected by vitamin A deficiency.
The question that must be asked is: when did so many of our ‘humanitarian’ organizations become so disdainful about the lives of the desperately poor, whom they are supposed to be helping? The greatest offender is the European Union itself, which in a twisted version of neo-colonialism has imposed its affluent organic affectations and anti-scientific policies on Africa. When I was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with the UK government I saw this at first hand.
Europe’s retreat from science is one reason why the technologically advanced EU, which boasts fertile soils and extremely friendly climates for agriculture, cannot even feed itself and has been reduced to becoming a net importer of food. European livestock farmers now import millions of tonnes of GMO feed crops annually – without these imports Europe’s livestock market would collapse.
We stand today at the beginning of a second agricultural revolution – a period of extraordinary breakthroughs that could lift millions out of poverty. We need every possible tool available to meet this challenge. We simply cannot afford to take the most promising plant technologies off the table and keep them locked away while children continue to go hungry.
Despite the propaganda of the anti-GMO groups, we must all push forward and ensure that science overcomes superstition. I commend African nations for showing Europe the way.
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