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Biotech, farmer associations key for climate adaptation - panel

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 22 Oct 2013 11:00 GMT
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Omar Saez holds a cob of corn on a ranch near the town of Valdes, southwest of Buenos Aires, Argentina, on May 26, 2012. REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian
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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An increasingly extreme climate is presenting new challenges to farmers across the world, and biotechnology and greater collaboration will be two key ways of addressing them, a group of farmers from four continents said during an international roundtable.

“GE (genetic engineering) technology has a positive role to play in fighting climate change,” said Gilbert Arap Bor, a Kenyan farmer, business lecturer at the Catholic University of East Africa and one of five farmers taking part in the discussion in the U.S. state of Iowa, as part of events surround the World Food Prize last week.

But other experts say genetically modified crops are not universally regarded as a vital tool in farmers’ fight against climate change, and that more sustainable methods of farming and traditional breeding may be just as or more effective.

At the Iowa discussion, five farmers from Malawi, India, Portugal, Argentina and Kenya said they were strong believers in using biotech crops to survive and thrive in the face of a changing climate, and said that farmers needed to share ideas and help each other improve farming techniques.

RESILIENCE TO CHANGING WEATHER

Changing weather patterns are a particular concern for farmers around the world. As the Earth warms, climates all over the world are changing and rainfall, in particular, is becoming more erratic.

Santiago Del Solar, an Argentine farmer, agronomist and president of the Argentine Association for Maize and Sorghum, said for most of the last century average rainfall for his farm in Buenos Aries province has been around 820 mm a year. But in 2009, he only got 672mm of rain—a drought. Then, in 2012, it rained 1451mm, creating “a big flood.”

Corn in Argentina is usually harvested in the spring, but last year, Del Solar harvested the last of his crops in December, mid-summer in Argentina. Normally, he said, corn harvested so late would be ruined by insects that destroy the corn’s stalks, literally flattening whole fields.

But he attributes his crop’s survival to his use genetically modified Bt corn that resist insects.

Arap Bor, the Kenyan farmer, sees genetically modified crops as a way to increase efficiency, which he said is especially important in Kenya.

“It’s basically an agricultural country, although only 20 percent of the country is arable. Therefore, we are very frequently food insecure,” he said. As such, farmers need to do all they can to get the most out of the land they have, he said.

LIMITED PROGRESS WITH BIOTECH

But many people don’t consider genetically modified crops a vital tool in farmers’ efforts to adapt to climate change. Doug Gurian-Sherman, an expert on biotechnology and sustainable agriculture, thinks biotechnology gets too much attention, and that “ultimately it has been pretty fruitless” in improving yields and making crops more resilient to climate change.

“The real answers to these problems are sustainable farming and advances in breeding,” he said.

In a 2009 report for the Union of Concerned Scientists, Gurian-Sherman found most of the increase in yields that U.S. farmers have seen in recent decades can be attributed to improvements in conventional crop varieties, though genetically engineered crops have produced slight increases in yields and enabled farmers to reduce pesticide and herbicide use.

He thinks scientists should focus on improving conventional farming methods, which he says have been shown to work better than biotechnology.

Gabriela Cruz, however, disagrees. President of the Portuguese Association for Conservation Agriculture, a fourth-generation farmer and a critic of Europe suspicion of genetically engineered crops, she grows Bt corn—the only genetically modified crop she is allowed to in Europe — and regards biotechnology as simply as the next improvement in a long line of changes to farming over the centuries.

“What we eat now has nothing to do with what our ancestors ate,” Cruz said.

In Malawi, a one issue farmers face in dealing with climate change is the tradition of subsistence farming, according to Malawian farmer Dyborn Chibonga, CEO of the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi.

He tries to get farmers to get out of the mindset of planting only enough to feed themselves and, and hopes to persuade them to instead organize and begin treating their farms more like a business. He hopes this will encourage farmers to share ideas with each other and discuss how to handle the changing climate.

Del Solar, of Argentina, said such collaboration among Argentine farmers has been crucial in developing the country’s agriculture over the last 50 years. He and other farmers travel to each others’ farms, sharing advice and techniques and making suggestions on how they can improve.

“The most guarded secret of farmers in Argentina is farmers’ groups,” he said. “Sharing is the best investment that you can make.”

Jake Lucas is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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