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Technological convergence, sustainable intensification and inequality

From left to right, the speakers of the panel discussion, F. Reguant, A. Caño, C. Ribas, A. Prat, X. Duran, M. Martí and C. Fernández

From left to right, the speakers of the panel discussion, F. Reguant, A. Caño, C. Ribas, A. Prat, X. Duran, M. Martí and C. Fernández

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How will future agriculture be to feed the world's population with a minimal impact to the environment? Which are the steps to undertake this clean agriculture? What are the main problems that make this change difficult, if not impossible?

These three questions were the theme of the round table " The ménage à trois of agriculture, biotechnology and the environment. Fact or Fiction?", held in room Pi i Sunyer of the Institute of Catalan Studies (IEC), in Barcelona, that brought together experts from the three parts of the love triangle to offer their perspective and discuss it with the public .

It addressed several critical global problems from an environmental, social and economic perspective, such as hunger, energy, water supply and arable land management for food, inequality, political controversies and public opinion.

Technological convergence is not the only answer to problems like hunger or environmental erosion. All the participants in the round table noted that responsibility rested more in social change than in technological convergence, especially demanding solutions at a stroke swept of social inequalities and economical policies.

The interventions began mostly with the details of a FAO report that prospects that in 2050 we will need twice as much food as we produce today, while year after year the productivity and quality of arable land decreases. This context is not very encouraging unless it offers solutions for agriculture to increase both features, ensuring that we get to 2050, and that we have stopped or minimized the impact of human activity on the environment and consequences such as climate change or the depletion of energy and water resources.

A panoramic view from agricultural biotechnology

Carolina Fernandez, Director of the Department of R&D and Regulatory Affairs of Futureco Bioscience spoke from the perspective of an agricultural biotechnology that respects the environment, especially in reference to the development, marketing and trade of biopesticides and bio-stimulants, clean solutions for the environment but whose registration and approval process for commercialization is complex, expensive and long, and still needs to be optimized in order to compete with agrochemical fertilizer products with a worst impact to the environment but a 10 to 20% cheaper. In turn, there is a big difference in the regulation and marketing in different countries or regions, being Europe one of the regions with greater exigencies and slowest approval for commercialization of these products.

The use of bio-pesticides and bio-stimulants is closely linked to Integrated Pest Management (IPM), whose meaning lies in using diverse cultural and biological techniques to reduce the use of pesticides to maintain the level of the pest below the economic risk of loss. This was the area that addressed Montse Marti, technician of the Federation for Plant Defense SELMAR that focuses on horticultural and is based on various experiences with associations of farmers in Catalonia and Spain who perform their activities with a minimal impact to the environment. These practices do not always require highly specialized or innovative techniques, and change is more in the mind of the farmer than in the deployment of new technology.

Furthermore, and as later would point Amaya Prat, Head of the Group of Sustainability certification of Casa Ametller, "the main problem to settle clean agriculture practices is competing with agrochemicals and conventional fertilizers that though they leave residues on the environment, are faster. There must be an increase in research to equalize and compete at the same level of profitability for the farmer." 

Ana Caño, CSIC researcher of the Genomics Research Center (CRAG), presented her view from research in genetic modification of plants, their regulation and commercial implementation in the food chain. "While in Europe people eat every day refuse GMO crops, a few thousand miles below malnutrition due to the scarcity of arable fields by adverse conditions such as drought and poor soils, which makes entire communities suffer malnutrition and hunger. One solution to this problem is the development of plants resistant to water stress that can be done through genetic modification." She set a real example of agricultural communities in Senegal that span adverse weather conditions such as drought.

“This is the symptom of European political cynicism. The problems to make change possible are ethical. Europe also has ethical complexities with a huge variety of idiosyncrasies, and while refusing GMO crops, countries like China, India or USA grow them, sell them to us and we eat them. The 50 % of what we eat is imported from countries with open transgenic policies". In closing, she called for the commitment of the scientific community saying, "Scientists can only listen, work honestly, inform and ask society".

In short, both parties of agricultural biotechnology for food were represented, both the management and biological control of pests and diseases (not necessarily requiring Genetically Modified Organisms, GMOs) as the development of transgenic crops, but also enunciated the exploitation of arable soils with crops for biofuels, an issue of agricultural biotechnology, since the soil used for biofuel crops is not used for food crops, though there is a growing need for food production to feed a growing global population. 

Beyond technology solutions for food and environmental crisis

The cultivation for biofuel production has other controversial views as explained Xavier Duran, science journalist and director of the TV3 program "El Medi Ambient", who offered an approach from economic and political management, such as Francesc Reguant, expert in economy and agriculture and vice-president of the Catalan Institute for Agrarian Studies (ICEA) of the IEC.

For Duran, there is a lot of hypocrisy resulting from misinformation and not placing things in a real context to evaluate all the pros and cons of one technology or another, and even their combination and convergence. He described his surprise at how certain groups that have not shown any sensitivity to hunger in the world, come on biofuels as if they were a threat to animal health, for example. "Humanization loses land to engage agriculture and livestock because of land degradation, increasing and improving production sustainably needs to profit today’s resources without compromising those for future generations. "

“There are technological or scientific challenges that research can overcome, but the most difficult problems are political, socio-economic and of social justice. External debt, for example, for development. Increase of the debt on developing countries causes them to reduce investment in education or health because they have to pay that debt, and farmers tend more to growing crops not intended for local food, but to be consumed by other developed communities. While there isn’t a clear interest to reduce external debt, unless there is an equitable distribution of food, malnutrition will not be eradicated, and we can debate about science and technology, when the problem is political, economic and social."

Reguant’s exposure was on the same line, with more references to a favorable technological present, where solutions already exist or are missing just for a bit from the scientific arena to provide food for the world population. The crisis in our species is relative to the planet that we cohabit "that has spent millions of years to develop, and we just took 200 years to damage", and are energy, food, climate change and above all: social inequality.

Technologically, the solution is to be more productive, more efficient and kinder to the environment. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) actually provide new ways, with sensors and monitoring applications. However, "if the FAO states that we must increase food production, and the 80% has to come from intensification and increasing land productivity, the effort has to be invested in sustainable intensification. What are the steps to make this possible? For starters, water management, ensuring the most efficient irrigation and technology that favours them."

For Reguant, the main problem is economic, based on growth at all costs. We have a problem of concentration of power, technology and distribution. Four big tech companies control how technology is distributed and applied, while we are in an individualistic society with a crisis of values. The solutions are to organize the system into a democratic basis of solidarity with a responsible culture."

Going down to the individual, the end consumer, Reguant requested a best distribution management of shorter chains, cleaner and more adapted to the rhythms of consumption of quality products, environmentally friendly.

This last point was addressed by Amaya Prat, who showed the case of Group Casa Ametller, a production company with a short chain of marketing and distribution, which means less expenditure on food distribution and not use of intermediaries, that favours responsible and proximity consumption. Casa Ametller uses IPM techniques for production that is limited to responsible agriculture and organic farming, and certifies that its products have no chemical residues. Casa Ametller is an example of the future and environmental friendly supermarket.

In turn, Amaya Prat noted that hunger is not only a third world problem; in the first world there are many children who have nothing to eat. This is also abiding projects of surplus distribution to poor families with children at risk of malnutrition. 

Josep Lluís Vives, ICEA’s president, spoke in favour of the European policies and regulations that have been taken off the market several agrochemicals that pose an environmental risk, while promoting and forcing environmental friendly products from January 1st of 2014, with the new sustainability directive which requires that all farmers will need IPM advisors.

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