According to David Lawrence, biotechnology, like all technologies, is not in itself good or bad. It’s what we do with it that decides

The way we human beings behave can be strange. For at least 30 years I used to give talks which included a slide showing how population increase was reducing the land available to feed an individual, pointing out that unless we changed something, at some point we would run the risk of not being able to feed everyone on the planet. Every few years I would update it, and while the trends continued as predicted, no one seemed to want to pay any attention. Historic stocks were depleted, the rich ate more, and more people fell into hunger.

It was really only in 2008, when food prices rose, that it caught the attention of policy-makers and the general public. This resulted in detailed analyses of the challenge such as the United Kingdom Foresight Team, and scientists pointing out that years of declining funding for agriculture, even in countries with a large agro-economy such as the United States, needed to be reversed if the challenges were to be overcome.

However, even though it is widely accepted that we will need to produce about 50% more food to feed the predicted population of more than 9 billion in 2050 – arguably more, if Asia moves more to a high-calorie, high-meat diet such as that of the United States – much of the debate has become highly polarized. This can only hinder us in overcoming the challenge. Single-interest groups almost deify their own technical approach and demonize other approaches. Regrettably this is also true of many scientists, who seek to obtain funding and support for their own work by denigrating alternative approaches.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than with genetically modified (GM) crops, where the spectrum of views runs from a threat to destroy the natural world to the only solution to the food crisis. Scientists who support GM all too often lay aside their science-based risk assessment in arguing that this technology can replace chemical controls, which are “bad”.

What we know is that intensive agriculture has been amazingly successful in providing better quality food, at lower cost, year on year. However, this has come at a price. We are losing soil structure and soil carbon, and these are associated with reduced yield. In addition, food production is a net energy consumer and greenhouse gas emitter. However, we must find ways to reduce the net energy inputs and greenhouse gas emissions, and restore soil health if we are to produce enough food for everyone over many generations.

The solution pushed most fervently is to move to organic agriculture. There is certainly evidence this can improve soil carbon, but when lower yield and the associated greenhouse gas emissions of manure are taken into account it often has a higher carbon footprint.

We need much more informed discussion – rather than mere dogma – on output, energy use and environmental impact and whether technology can satisfy these needs best. This has proven difficult, as there is no satisfactory mechanism of global governance of agriculture, but there are some promising initiatives, including the World Economic Forum’s “New Vision for Agriculture” and the Keystone Alliance “field to market”.

Unhelpful polarization is also visible in the debate on biofuels, industrial biotechnology and the non-food uses of agriculture. It is not as if it is a new phenomenon. Over millennia people have used plant fibres as a source of clothing, burned plant material for cooking and heating, and used plants as building materials. The oldest example of industrial biotechnology must surely be brewing, using yeast to convert plant sugars.

Over time humans have learned to find ways of carrying out these activities in places and ways that do not directly compete with food. We need experimentation to find out which biofuel approaches produce the best energy return and least impact on food – surprisingly, perhaps, this is not at all obvious. It is highly unlikely that we could ever produce even all of our transport fuel needs from biofuels, but the chances are, given time and innovation, it will be possible to satisfy a significant portion of our energy needs through solar radiation intercepted through plants, and at the same time reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Biotechnology, like all technologies, is not in itself good or bad. It is what we do with it that decides. We have the opportunity, through recently acquired knowledge, to greatly expand our use of biotechnology to address some of our main challenges. Success will require innovation and clever application: fear and dogma will lead only to failure.

Author: David Lawrence is Non-Executive Director of Syngenta AG, Member of the Corporate Responsibility Committee and Chairman of the Science and Technology Advisory Board and Member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Biotechnology

Image: A stalk of wheat is pictured at the Nebraska University in Lincoln REUTERS/Carlos Barria