Forests and agriculture | Opinion

What’s the acceptable use of tech in agriculture?

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Steady hand required

Food production needs to increase but the apparent boundaries of consumer acceptance around agri-tech are distinctly blurred

In the face of rampant population growth, the World Bank suggests cereal production will have to increase by 50% and meat production by 80% in the next 14 years if we are to carry on consuming food in the way we have always done. Finding more efficient ways of farming and improving yields is the order of the day. And use of new technology fuels the most fervent debate.

Take CRISPR crops – clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats – for example. The ability to edit genomes and play around with the genetic make-up of certain plants is getting chemicals, biotech and food production companies very excited. The US firm DuPont believes CRISPR-edited corn and wheat, that will require much less water and make farmers hugely more efficient, could be just five years away.

However, the use of genetically-modified crops (GMO) is rarely without its detractors. The US National Organic Standards Board has just voted unanimously to ban GMOs from certified organic products – a move that delighted campaigners such as Friends of the Earth.

“This proactive stance on synthetic biology will both help preserve the integrity of organic standards and raise awareness about this virtually unregulated and unlabelled form of genetic engineering,” according to FoE food and technology policy manager, Dana Perls. She says that organic standards should treat new forms of genetic engineering just as stringently as they did the first generation of GMOs.

Data cherry picking

The line drawn between what is deemed to be an acceptable use of technology in agriculture, and what is not, is blurred. “Those on both sides of the debate are equally guilty of a shocking use of dramatic narrative to make their points, such as cherry picking data,” says Hilary Sutcliffe from innovation consultants Matter For All. She argues that it is hard to be impartial and objective because it is tough to “distinguish the reality from the nonsense”. Inevitably both sides fall back on their default view of technology based on the past.

While the degree to which it is applied will vary, technology clearly has a role to play in the future for the agriculture sector. And what sticks and what is rejected will still largely depend on the public mood. Despite a domination of negative media coverage of the subject during the past 15 years, new research suggests that around 70% of people are either pro or undecided about GMOs.

If people have confidence that technology is helping to solve a real issue, they are much more likely to accept it. So, NGOs and campaign groups have a responsibility to communicate more effectively and boost consumer education.

Mixed messages and half-truths also create uncertainty in defining the “food crisis”; just how much the world needs technology to solve the global food challenge is unclear. There is an environmentalist argument for complete system change as opposed to bolt-on measures to boost farming yields, for example, and disregarding World Bank predictions. Just increasing production of something because there is a demand for it is not sustainable, the argument goes

Detail focus

Rather than focus on the pros and cons of specific technologies, there is a real need to explore the problems demanding solutions in more detail, Sutcliffe says – how we feed people, use land, boost productivity, maintain economic sustainability for rural communities, mitigate the impacts of climate change and sustain employment, for example.

As for the public, would they rather be engaged in these choices and their consequences, and not frightened, pandered to or bamboozled with data? As the Nuffield Council on Bioethics says in its latest report, the use of genomic technologies “must be seen in the context of possible alternatives: each has opportunity costs, with varying degrees of predictability, that involve people in collective acts of evaluation and moral reasoning, leading to societal choices that have further consequences”.

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