Farming’s anti-science challenge
The issue for global agriculture is not whether it can feed nine billion people but whether it will be allowed to feed nine billion people.
This was the theme of an address to the GRDC Grains Research Update in Perth earlier in the year by prominent Canadian agrologist and agricultural consultant Robert Saik.
Mr Saik said a serious issue facing growers was the extent to which people were trying to take from them the technologies needed to do the job. He said it was partly an ignorance stemming from urban consumers having a romanticised view of agriculture that had not been a reality for more than half a century.
“So the question we face is ‘know science’ or ‘no science’: know wheat or no wheat,” he said.
“For example, 0.7 per cent of Americans are coeliac, eight per cent think they are.”
Similarly, when it comes to the GM debate, he said the response was visceral, not informed. “It’s just a straight out ‘no’.”
Mr Saik argued that the anti-GM sentiment was part of a broad anti-science sentiment that needed to be addressed by the community, and the farming community in particular.
“Because GMO is a meaningless term, we should stop using it,” he said. “Food manufacturers label it as though it is an ingredient. There is no such thing. It is a process and all foods grown today, all animals we breed today, have been genetically modified in one form or another.”
He made the point that even carrots, a vegetable staple, had been orange only since the 17th century when beta-carotene was expressed via a mutation in Holland and the orange colour became an instant hit in a country for which this is the national colour. Growers were able to retain the new colour and it was the traditional white and purple carrots that were soon the oddity.
“So we have to stop using the term GMO and use the term genetic engineering. If someone says they are anti-GMO you need to ask ‘do they mean they are anti-genetic engineering.’ They will say ‘of course’, to which you should ask if they would prefer to drive on a modified bridge or an engineered bridge?”
He said the point to be made was that engineering is a discipline based on precision and that agriculture needs this and other technologies if it is to feed the world in the years ahead.
Mr Saik said agriculture was on the brink of major disruptive technologies (technologies that replace existing science) in the fields of genomics and genetic engineering.
He said these were areas of science readily embraced by people in human research, which made the resistance to their use in agriculture all the more irrational.
“It is ‘food paranoia’ and it is almost exclusively a first-world issue. It seems the more money we spend on food the more we want to complain about how it was grown.”
Mr Saik is now making a film in a personal quest to try to change the conversion from ‘no GMO’ to ‘know GMO’. The film is in production.
Mr Saik put the non-science sentiment in the community at the head of his top 10 influences on agriculture over the next decade.
Behind ‘anti-science’ he nominated:
- bio-synthesis (for example, new nutrient-dense foods, biofuels);
- market segmentation (trait-based markets, more value-add niche markets, local production for local consumers);
- sensor technology (both in-field sensors and remote monitoring);
- 3D printing (parts replaced locally and in real time, for both machinery and human body parts);
- robotics (driverless/automated machinery and integration with artificial intelligence);
- water (continuing advances in plant water use efficiency);
- precision agriculture (variable-rate technology for all crop inputs and crop protection);
- artificial intelligence (analysis of large, connected datasets through to human–digital integration);
- data (exponential increase in data use for decision-making).