Matin Qaim, Professor of Agricultural Economics, University of Goettingen: Better science communication could support public acceptance of new plant breeding technologies

17 December 2020

The transition to a bioeconomy is a potential game changer that may have a large impact on food and nutrition security, as well as on the ways in which agri-food systems are designed and operated. Large-scale farms are contributing to this process by increasingly implementing modern biotechnologies. Are these investments efficient and environmentally responsible? Do biotechnologies have the capacity to both increase productivity and make agriculture more sustainable? Are there any potential risks from introducing bio-based solutions?

To answer these questions, we interviewed Matin Qaim, Professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Goettingen, Germany. Prof. Qaim is one of the keynote speakers of the upcoming IAMO Forum 2021 that is dedicated to the development of bioeconomy in transition countries. In his interview to IAMO, Prof. Qaim outlines the role of plant biotechnologies in particular and bioeconomy as a whole on the way to sustainable agri-food systems.

The world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. Accordingly, global food demand will grow substantially. Meanwhile, sustainable agriculture is considered as a driver towards global food security. In your opinion, what are the main prerequisites for a successful transition to bioeconomy in the agri-food sector? What is the role, if any, of biotechnology in this process?

We will still need substantial food production increases to feed and nourish the growing world population at a time when the natural resources for agricultural production – such as fertile land and water – are becoming increasingly scarce. Promoting the bioeconomy means using some of these natural resources for non-food purposes, so there will certainly be competition between food and non-food uses. This competition can be relaxed only when we develop and employ new technologies that help us to increase crop yields and productivity while reducing the use of environmentally-harmful inputs. Biotechnology in all its forms has a very important role to play here. I do not believe that technology alone will suffice to make the necessary transition towards sustainable food systems and economies. Reducing global losses and wasteful consumption styles are also important leverage points. However, I am convinced that without modern biotechnology the sustainability transition will not be possible.

What is the importance of new plant breeding technologies for developing and transition economies? What is needed for these countries to play an active part in the development of new varieties that suit the interests of their farmers best? Are there any public policies that improve the position of these countries in these regions?

New plant breeding technologies – such as genetically modified and gene-edited crops – can play important roles for making agriculture more productive, environmentally-friendly, and climate-resilient. Developing and transition economies could benefit the most from these new technologies, because they depend a lot on agriculture, economically and socially. In developing countries in particular, most of the poor live in rural areas where they largely depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Some emerging countries, such as China and India, have strong research systems that can develop needed technologies for their own farmers and for farmers in neighboring countries as well. Poorer countries depend more on international support. The International Agricultural Research Centers of the CGIAR do a lot of important work in this direction, but the public funding for these efforts could and should still be increased, given the large challenges ahead.

Do you observe any differences in the acceptance of biotechnologies between transition/developing countries and OECD countries?

We see a lot of public opposition against new plant genetic technologies. Many believe that genetically modified or gene-edited crops are inherently dangerous for human health or the environment, but this is just not true. All the evidence from 30 years of research tells us that these crops are as safe as conventionally-bred crops. There are a lot of public misconceptions, which are fueled by a few environmental NGOs that hate modern biotech and believe that organic farming is the paradigm for sustainable global agriculture. The opposition against plant biotechnology is particularly fierce in Western Europe, but from here it also spread to many other parts of the world, including developing and transition countries. We need better science communication, locally and globally, because pushing technologies against the will of the broader public cannot be successful.

What is the role of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research for the development of the bioeconomy? Do you know any good examples?

Interdisciplinary research is certainly extremely important, because all economic sectors are directly or indirectly involved in the bioeconomy. We also need close cooperation between various life sciences, natural sciences, social sciences, and economics, as development of the bioeconomy needs to consider all sustainability dimensions, including the social acceptability of new types of technologies. We see more and more research happening in large interdisciplinary consortia, and this is a very good and important trend.

Currently, there is a global trend toward farmland consolidation and agricultural intensification. At the same time, a growing number of large-scale farms move toward sustainable production, e.g. introduce energy-saving and waste treatment technologies, implement digital solutions, launch bio production. To your mind, can bioeconomy and large-scale agriculture coexist sustainably?

The appropriate scale of farming depends on economic, social, cultural, and environmental conditions in a particular context. Hence, there is no global answer to this question. The question is also where exactly we see the difference between large-scale and small-scale farming. I do not think that large farms are a problem for sustainability as such, but very large fields grown with the same crop year after year and without any natural landscape elements can certainly be a challenge for pest control, soil health, and biodiversity. We need crop rotations and productive but diverse landscapes. Whether these are then managed by large or small farms will depend more on the economic and social context. New digital technologies of precision agriculture and smart farming can help to manage diverse landscapes even in fully mechanized large farm enterprises.

Thank you for your time!

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