FAO official: GMOs not needed but we should be open to biotechnologies

Gustafson: "The total food production of the planet, it is huge: it is a question of access." [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

The requirements of food production can be met without GMOs but we should not eliminate the broader benefits that biotechnologies can provide, Daniel Gustafson, a senior United Nations official, told EURACTIV.com in an interview.

Daniel Gustafson is the Deputy Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos and Paola Tamma, highlighting the following:

  • EU-FAO cooperation should step up especially after US backtrack on climate change
  • Precision farming can be affordable to smallholders
  • Agricultural biodiversity is one way of increasing resilience
  • Future food production will require a lot of innovation
  • Agroecology has to be part of a successful long-term agricultural strategy

There is an ongoing EU-FAO Strategic Dialogue on future cooperation. What are the initial results and what do you expect out of this partnership for the future?

A lot of our longest standing contributions have come from collaboration with the EU, as the work on food security and nutrition information in crisis has been going on for a long time. But now we’d like to step that up. It’s particularly important the EU is very strong in recognising multilateral organisations, but the global context for multilateralism is not entirely conducive but still necessary. How do we work together as partners? There is funding from the Commission to the FAO. They are our largest voluntary contributor. But the dialogue is looking at the area where our agendas are most aligned.

Climate change and natural resource management is a very big area where members of the EU, and members of the FAO (the EU is a member of the FAO), where all countries have made commitments in Paris on illegal and unregulated fisheries, on forest cover, on soil degradation and so on. Countries need a lot of help on this to understand how to implement those commitments. A lot of technical work. This is the most technical area.

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Food crisis and information and analysis. It has been strengthened recently and it has got a lot of traction. The report that came out earlier this year was used as a benchmark for discussing this. How many countries have declared a famine, what does this mean, how bad is it? That methodology has been going on for a long time but we need better, more regular data.

Nutrition and food systems. Every country has got problems – obesity, antimicrobial resistance, malnutrition, and ways of reducing food losses in some places at the farm level, and food waste where it is more on the consumer side.

The external investment plan (EIP) of the European Union looks at how they would leverage their funding to enhance private sector investment in agriculture and food security in the third world, and how we would contribute to that – we have offices, policy officers that would be cutting red tape – how do you encourage private investors in areas that they’re not investing in right now?

What countries and what kind of investments?

There is an identified number of countries, mainly in Africa and the Near East, but in terms of what the investments would be, we are open-ended. The EU wants to figure out how to leverage blended finance so that private sector would invest in agriculture and food security in ways that would be beneficial. From our end, we want to work with governments to streamline regulatory things that protect farmers using, for instance, voluntary guidelines on land tenure, responsible agricultural investment and other things that protect indigenous rights and farmers’ rights. It could be small scale or medium scale. I think the big players don’t need our help, it is more small and medium that we would be targeting – actions that would encourage them to invest more.

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Given the stance of the Trump administration on the Paris Agreement, do you believe that there is a need for cooperation with the EU now more than ever before?

Very much so. Not only due to the US but the idea that there is value in working together around global issues – we would not have expected it some years ago to be questioned as it is now. Working in a multilateral context around shared objectives where each country sets its own path on global issues – it’s what we do and what they do.

The introduction of new technologies in farming is on the rise around the world. The discussion of precision farming has just been launched in Europe for the post-2020 CAP. Does the FAO believe this can make farmers more resilient?

Agriculture is the science of the local. And what works in one field is different from what works in next field. A lot of the farmers we work with have very tiny farms. In the control of pests and disease, you have to know your field. The more you understand what’s going on in that local environment, the better. In sustainable agriculture, especially for small farmers, this is the key.

Fertilise here, don’t fertilise there. It is, in fact, the same concept of precision farming, except applied to more extensive farming. Before it was about huge fields and one common application for fertilisers or pesticides, causing soil corruption. You need a lot more data and knowledge. What we have been applying to small farmers in developing countries can be applied, if you can do it in a cost-effective way, at a much larger scale. Globally, precision farming is a higher tech application of what we’ve been advocating.

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Is it affordable for smallholders?

Precision can be affordable. It can’t be satellite driven. What they’re doing is understanding their local conditions, whereas what we would be doing here is much higher tech, so the high-tech precision is not going to apply, but the low-tech precision they can, because their area is small.

Do we see the topic of resilience for farmers as a key global issue?

Yes. Especially with climate change resilience – being able to withstand shocks, extreme weather events, low prices, the ability of farmers to not go bankrupt – how the system allows households to grow and lower their risk of calamity is what resilience is about. How do we make families more resilient within a rapidly changing environment? This is a huge challenge.

What are the lessons from third world countries for EU farmers?

One of the lessons that we take from elsewhere is diversification, including in terms of agrobiodiversity. Agricultural biodiversity is one way of increasing your resilience and that for sure would also apply in Europe. Another key area is how communities work together, in terms of support to members of the community that they don’t fall off the edge in a bad year. There are a lot of similar approaches that would build a greater ability to withstand shocks.

You need to be prepared and have a level of diversity that you’re not going to wipe out your whole production.

Should agroecological practices and more diversified production be part of the future of EU agriculture and the CAP?

I won’t venture in the CAP but it has to be part of a successful agricultural long-term strategy.

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The question of how to feed the world in the long run, in view of the rising population, takes centre stage. What is the FAO’s standpoint on that and do you see food security as linked to other big challenges for the future (migration, security, climate)?

If you look at total food production of the planet, it is huge: it is a question of access. Who has access to nutritious, safe food year round?

But it is different when you look at the question of production: you have to look at households, you have to look at countries and unquestionably food production has to increase between now and 2050 and any other year. We don’t see any impossibility to that. 40 years ago we would not have thought possible the level of productivity increases that we have had. The question is not necessarily to replicate that, but can we continue on a path of sustainable production increases, given climate change, soil degradation, increasing population? And from the FAO’s point of view, we can but it takes work. You have to invest in a lot of things – farmers and businesses have to invest, you need research, infrastructure, and investment. But there are a lot of risks. If you look at food crises, the countries with the most severe food crisis right now have conflict – Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, Syria are the ones on the radar.

Do you agree with development organisations like the Gates Foundation, which says GMOs are needed to guarantee food security?

You have to look at it in two ways. You certainly can meet the requirements of food production without GMOs, it can be done without. Nevertheless, we don’t want to eliminate the benefits that biotechnologies in the broad sense can provide.

GMOs are a particularly thorny issue. The FAO has not really gone into it, except that we want to support countries to make the best decisions in a regulatory sense. The issue that gets a little buried in this debate is that when you look at poor farmers that need to improve their productivity, the majority of those are not using improved varieties of seeds. They are using hybrids obtained through open pollination. It could be that they are too expensive, there is not a good network of distribution and so on… there is still a lot that can be done for those farmers to boost their productivity levels before you need GMOs. Nevertheless, we are open to biotechnologies.

Are innovation and agriculture a key factor in meeting global challenges? And if so how can the EU and FAO help?

Food production is particularly given to soil degradation, water scarcity – it is going to require a lot of innovation. Including social innovation. How do you do things differently, how do you get the private sector to invest in ways that benefit small farmers, how do you link up banks, the internet or mobile phones to help small farmers?

Innovation at all steps of the value chain is going to be a huge factor

Are you concerned about EU mergers in the agrifood business globally?

We don’t really follow that. You would never want concentration to stifle innovation. In some industries, you need a certain size in order to innovate. But for the clientele we are most interested in, farmers who are most vulnerable and with low productivity, there is, of course, a level of concentration that would not be healthy – but we don’t really have a view on it.

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