Based on its plentiful natural resources, Nebraska farmers are in an enviable position to embrace the future of agriculture, according to an early pioneer in biotechnology. But Roger Beachy said that agriculture is vulnerable to volatile changes in weather patterns and to the public’s mistrust of science and corporations in this country.
Beachy was the first speaker at the Governor’s Ag Conference in Kearney this winter. A plant pathologist who was instrumental in developing genetically modified tomatoes, Beachy is semi-retired now and the president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
His speech during the conference addressed “Investing in Research to Secure the Future Success of Agriculture.”
The world’s discoveries, large and small, are the result of sound science, but scientists and the private sector must do a better job of informing consumers of the benefits of advances, such as genetically engineered plants. He stressed the need for more transparency upfront in explaining why genetically engineered crops are produced and their benefits to society. As an example, Beachy said that insect-resistant corn has reduced pesticide applications and led to higher corn production.
Beachy is heavily involved in seeking more public funding for agriculture research with a focus on genetic advances for crops and livestock. He is a board member of SOAR (Supports of Agricultural Research). The private sector provides the bulk of that funding today, but Beachy said the U.S. must enhance research at universities through a competitive grant approach. He acknowledged that states are limited in funding sources and the federal government is heavily in debt.
Without more public funding, the United States stands to fall behind other nations which are gaining the same technologies. He cited Indonesia, which has a goal of planting 6 million acres of corn. “It is much closer (in distance) to China than we are.”
He quoted World Food Prize winner Norm Borlaug who said “Brazilian agriculture by the end of the decade will be more successful than it is in the United State.”
Beachy added, “I have great respect for our universities, but I have a concern about our regulatory agencies. Other nations, to determine the safety of a product, conduct a risk-benefit analysis.”
He suggested that a labeling on a genetically engineered seed could read: “This corn grown as a way to use less insecticide." But that type of labeling is not allowed, he added. He suggested that a newer model for approval of ag discoveries, particularly for genetically modified crops, is needed in this country.
He pointed to the U.S. consumer and media, both of which are conditioned to attack science and to spread the distrust of genetically engineered products and vaccines, for example. “The media are trained to listen to the science and then find someone who disagrees with it, whether that person has the facts or not. Mistrust is propagated by a well-intentioned media.”
In the realm of research funding, produces through their checkoff programs ought to provide more research dollars he added. “The biggest share of those dollars now goes to market development.”
The future holds promise in new markets and new value-added food, fuel and feed products that are derived from yet-to-be discovered processes. But the path is littered with challenges,” Beachy says, referring to regulatory agencies, funding, consumer acceptance and volatile weather due to climate change.