Fischler: ‘New technologies’ to increase food poduction

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Amid increasing global demand for food, new technologies to increase land fertility are part of the solution to make arable land more productive, Franz Fischler, a former EU agriculture commissioner, argued in an interview with EURACTIV.

Franz Fischler is a former EU agriculture commissioner and currently chairs the 
RISE Foundation
. EURACTIV interviewed him alongside John Atkin, chief operating officer for crop protection at Swiss biotech company Syngenta, a strategic partner of the RISE Foundation.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

If the main challenge is producing more food at a time when there is a lack of accessible quality land, how can food security be ensured in an environmentally sustainable manner? 

Fischler: I think that it is important to see whether it is possible to increase the available land, which is limited, especially in Europe. However, there is also the question of what availability means. There is some potential in Africa, for example, but you can use this potential only if you find ways for EU cooperation with many of these African governments. And as long as this is not possible, it is pure theoretical potential and nothing else. 

Therefore, the main question will be further intensification to produce more per hectare. And in addition, we need to do it without harming the environment. That is the fundamental challenge we are facing. 

How can we contribute to that? First, there is the question of technology, and new technologies used to increase the fertility of soils to increase production. Then there is the question of biotechnology in the strict sense of the word. 

And it is not only about GMOs. If you look at the past five-ten years, the corn yields per hectare increased considerably every year, while the wheat yields no longer increased. And you should not forget that the increase in demand in the last 20 years was broadly covered by the yield increases only. 

Therefore, if we are no longer able to continue such a policy well, then we will be in big trouble. What seed companies are doing is of outmost importance for the future, for example.

Atkin: I agree with all of these points. In the CIS or Russia, for example, there are areas of land which have been marginally produced on; and even areas of quality land in the south of Russia, where the yields have been quite low because they have neglected to use technology the way it can be used. And we can do a lot to improve production; there is no doubt about that. Something can really be done in areas where there has been under-investment. 

We can double wheat yields and have seen such tangible results from the work we have already done and continue to do. You can double wheat yields from one year to the next, so there is certainly great potential to work with and maximise yields. 

When you look at Brazil, they have some more land to work with, but you have to be very careful not to penalise biodiversity and natural habitats by disrupting and taking it away. 

I therefore think that the answer is to produce more from the existing land, and here technology plays an absolutely fundamental role. It is better seed varieties, it is biotechnology in all its forms, and it is also chemicals. 

Pesticides is not a popular word, but plant protection is one of the most remarkable things you can do. For example modern seed treatments help to increase root size which enables plants to absorb more water and therefore withstand drought stress better. 

This technology has moved forward in an unrecognisable way in the last 20 to 30 years. It is absolutely fantastic to do more with the land we have, but to do that, we need these products to be properly registered, governments must be open to them and we need people to recognise the value and offer these products bring. There are many NGOs who do not want to agree with the technology approach, but it really can work. 

Fischler: We must also be clear that when we are talking about yield increase, it usually means something different in highly-developed agricultural systems than in developing countries. As an example, if you think about yield increases of corn in the United States or Europe, we talk about increasing yield beyond, for example, ten tonnes. But in Central Africa, you find situations where the yield is one tonne. And clearly you cannot increase the yields everywhere with the same measure, so you must also adapt the situations, taking into account the starting point. 

Atkin: That is correct. But what we’ve learned in Western Europe, for example, can be transferred to Eastern Europe. This we can do, as there are a lot of commonalities. The average wheat yield in Russia is two tonnes, but you can increase Russian wheat yields to four tonnes and even higher. So there is certainly a lot you can do by just using techniques we have learned in the West and transferring them to the East. This also applies to parts of Latin America and the United States, where wheat is intensively grown, yet through the help of technology levels can be increased even further. 

How could Africa profit from this technology as they do not have money? 

Atkin: Smallholder farmers are an important part of global agriculture, and we do work closely with them. If you take some simple technology and apply it to smallholder farmers, you can actually increase their income considerably by two or three times. And every farmer is a business, so if they can increase their incomes, then it becomes a sustainable process. But there is a lot to do. Many African governments are not very open to this and the political and governmental environment has to be right for such developments to happen. But, it is possible to do. 

Fischler: About the resources for doing that, I think it is absolutely necessary that we analyse whether our approach in development cooperation in this respect is correct. It is a matter of fact that nowadays less than 4%, according to some analysts only 2%, of the total global amount of development cooperation money goes to agriculture. And here I think we have to organise a discussion to get the priorities right. 

Atkin: That is a very important point. We clearly need more investment. 

When are so-called second generation GMOs, including plants resisting drought, acidity or salinity, for example, expected on the market? 

Atkin: We will see two things happen with drought tolerance. One way is native traits. This is not GM, but a process where we use biotechnology to mark the genes that can produce better tolerance to drought. Then it becomes a natural plant, but one that is enabled by biotechnologies. This will come to market in the next three to five years. The other way is through genetically-modified seeds, which is on a similar time horizon. 

But it is not only improved traits that can help. We also have a very exciting sprayable chemical product called InvinsaTM, which will be the first product to offer protection for field crops during periods of high temperature or drought. This product will be on the market within the next 24 months. It is a fantastic technology enabling plants to survive stress. 

We are facing many challenges, such as water scarcity, but our industry is working very hard to address them. They are very difficult, but I believe we will see some breakthroughs within the next three to five years. 

Fischler: To make a crop drought-tolerant, you need to change several genes, and genetic engineering is much more complicated. 

So, genetic engineering takes more time? 

Fischler: Yes, more time, but also more money and investments, and this is my second point: It is not only an obligation for the private sector to invest in new plant varieties. I think there is also something to do for the public sector and publicly-financed research and development. In my view, it is also important to find new ways for the public and private sector to cooperate better in this research field. 

Atkin: I agree. 

What kind of global institutional framework could help ensure food security? An IMF for food? 

Fischler: For the time being this is an open question, but I think whether we go for a specific organisation to deal with these problems or whether we enlarge the portfolio of FAO: this is more a question of practical adjustment. There is no question of principle. More important is the fact that global cooperation is more and more needed. And without it, we will face major problems. 

How does trade management affect food security? 

Atkin: What we saw as a reaction to the crisis last year, was that some countries simply stopped exporting. This had a very negative impact. It depressed prices in that country, while also increasing prices in other places. Free trade is a really important factor in avoiding food crises. 

Fischler: For me, it is absolutely clear that the introduction of, for example, export taxes or the limitation of imports or increasing tariffs and all these things mean managed trade. All these things are counter-productive, and will not ease the situation but worsen the situation. 

How about developing countries? Should they still be granted preferential trade agreements to give them time to develop their agricultural systems before opening trade fully? Should the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) address the EU’s Economic Partnership Agreements with ACP countries, and are EPAs fair? 

Fischler: First, on our partnerships with ACP countries. Basically, the Commission is dealing with the ACP cooperation and trade agreements within these agreements. They have tariff quotas and all these things. Clearly, to some degree, this has a consequence to the CAP, and one can expect that there will be further developments with the ACP, and this has to be taken into account in the discussion on the future reform of CAP. 

But we should not forget that more important in my view is that we come to a new general agreement in the Doha round, as I still personally prefer a multilateral approach compared to bilateral agreements, and there are some tensions – this is true – because of the past agreements. For example, if you think about sugar and the EU sugar reform in the CAP, the consequence for ACP countries was that the privilege was reduced. 

Some ACP countries, for example, the Mauritians, who decided more or less to base their agriculture sector on sugar cane only, now have some troubles and are asking for some compensation. So, it seems to me that we need to find some transition measures, but this cannot serve as an excuse to go ahead with the reforms. 

What could non-trade-disturbing subsidies be? 

These are decoupled payments, in other words defined in WTO rules as the most compatible. 

How do oil prices affect food prices? 

Atkin: Oil prices play a role, in particular in fertilisers and nitrogen, and they also play a role in transport costs and in the cost of farmers running their machinery. But they were not the primary reason why we saw an increase in food prices in 2008. 

The primary reasons were all the factors that Paul Krugman talked about. Clearly, there has been a very strong increase in demand over the past years and food production has not quite kept up. And in fact, only in two of the past eight years has production equalled consumption. So stocks have been eroded. As Paul Krugman mentioned, these are structural problems. 

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