In the years since biotech crops were first commercially planted in 1996, farmers worldwide have been enjoying their numerous agronomic, economic, and environmental benefits. To celebrate 20 years of biotech successes CropLife International is organizing Table for Twenty events around the world throughout the year. These dinner dialogues are bringing together leading voices in agriculture, food policy, and science to reflect back and consider the future of farming.
The Council for Biotechnology Information and GMO Answers convened their Table for Twenty event in San Francisco on Monday, June 6th. A diverse group of thought leaders in biotech, agriculture, science, research, and food discussed a variety of topics related to the evening’s theme of “Around the Table: The Future of GMOS & Their Role of Sustainability.”
To mark this occasion, we sat down with Frank Terhorst, Global Head of Seeds at Bayer, and Naomi Stevens, Global Head of Market Acceptance for Seeds at Bayer, to discuss the past, present and future of ag biotech, along with the role GMOs play in helping the environment and promoting sustainability.
What is Your Educational and Work Background?
Frank Terhorst (FT): I am the head of Bayer’s seeds and traits business. My educational background is in economics. I’ve been with the company now for 25 years and right from the beginning of my career, I’ve worked in the agricultural area. What I love about my work is the passion of our people, as well as the passion of our customers for agriculture.
Naomi Stevens (NS): I am from Australia and studied agriculture all through school, from secondary school all the way through university. I’ve been working in the ag industry for the past 25 years. My role at Bayer is looking after global stakeholder engagement initiatives, everything from dealing with farmers and customers through the value chain and the association activities that we do and finally through to the consumer. I reach out in particular to lots of students and retail grocery companies as well.
What Do You Think Has Been the Greatest Biotech Success in the Past 20 Years?
NS: Well, 20 years ago in Australia, I saw the decimation of the cotton industry. In particular because of the huge pest problem, there were multiple applications of pesticides that were no longer effective. The cotton industry in Australia was really at the edge of falling over and fortunately, there was this great opportunity for GM cotton to come into the country. To see that actually revitalize the whole industry was amazing. It was down to almost nothing. GM cotton gave it a breath of life, and for me that was quite a significant milestone in history. To see that and look at how cotton was treated through the political phases was interesting as well. In a lot of cases, cotton is not seen as a food product and therefore it was not seen to create some of the issues around consumer acceptance that you see with other crops. It was very clearly seen as supporting optimization of crop protection and crop production in the end. It delivered some very clear benefits, and it’s continued to do that rather well.
FT: Well, I think the other area that needs to be mentioned is weed control. Herbicide tolerance technology has really transformed the entire way we farm today. It has allowed farmers to grow crops more sustainably, and has absolutely changed the way we grow crops like soybeans and corn today. Probably 20 years ago, we never would have imagined the success of this technology and how it really improves sustainability of farming of today.
Q: What are some of the biggest issues that the field of plant biotechnology faces today?
FT: Adding to what I said earlier, what we see today is that nature is constantly adapting, and this is also true with biotechnology. We see that we need to change constantly, just as with any part of agriculture. We also have the need to further invest in new solutions, which is both a challenge and an opportunity. At the same time, we have a regulation system globally, which is not as effective as it could be. We have relatively long approval times. Bringing those two dimensions together and improving them to allow us to quickly innovate would greatly help us in addressing current challenges.
NS: I think there’s a number of considerations in terms of the plant breeder’s toolbox. Fundamentally, regardless of how many innovations we add on, we have to come back to the basics of plant biology and plant science. We need to help to explain to consumers and to markets around the world what is happening with innovations in plant breeding. That’s quite an important challenge, and it doesn’t go away. After thousands of years, the key objectives remain the same: to make plants better and to continue to use new tools to do that in an optimized way. That’s definitely a big challenge for us.
And the other thing I would mention is choice. It’s the choice of the farmers to optimize the food production in their fields. They need to be able to use all the tools that have been developed, and not all farmers have access to all these tools. Not all of them are in markets that accept some of the biotech crops, which limits their choices to do their jobs in the most sustainable way.
Consumer choice is important as well. Consumers need to make informed choices. So having information about where their food comes from, how it’s made in an optimized way, and how it benefits society and the environment is key as well.
How do you see GE crops having a positive impact on the environment, and on sustainability?
NS: I mentioned cotton at the beginning as a significant milestone 20 years ago, and I want to come back to cotton because through biotechnology and plant breeding, we’ve managed to continually improve the fiber properties of cotton. We’re also able to trace cotton supplies. When we bring a sustainable cotton product, say, a pair of jeans, to the marketplace, we’re able to trace it back to a farmer’s field. I think these are key parameters where we can talk about the benefits to the planet, to society, and to farmers as well. So this is a great example of where we’ve been able to blend the new technologies with the basic need to produce a better fiber and help the environment.
FT: Feeding off of what Naomi just said, I think what we have with cotton, not just in Australia, but also in the United States, is a fantastic example of how new technology has helped rural communities to not only survive but also to rebuild their economy. This is exactly what new technology has done in areas of Texas, for example, over the past ten years. New products have brought higher quality crops and also higher income for farmers and their families, while at the same time, reduced the environmental footprint that the production has. A new study from the National Academies of Sciences on GE crops that has just come out supports this concept as well.
How do you see this technology progressing in the next 10 or 20 years?
NS: Well, I mentioned the plant breeding innovation before. Clearly, we’re now on another cusp of a new 20 year dialogue that is just beginning around precision breeding techniques. And again, plant breeders want to optimize plants and make better plants faster. So I see us moving along from the traditional gene technologies into this area of gene editing and precision breeding. It’s an incredibly exciting path to look forward to, but it’s also going to have challenges. What we’ve learned from the past 20 years is that we need to bring the public along, and we need to bring the right sort of political context to that debate as we move forward into an appropriately regulated situation, so that the public can get access to better food crops and fibers and biofuels.
FT: It’s really amazing how these new technologies accelerate our ability to understand what happens in the plant and in the soil. I think that we are only at the beginning right now of really understanding what impacts the plant and how it interacts with the environment. Personally, I’m very excited by some of the new products that we are currently developing in the areas of crop efficiency, making plants stronger and using fewer resources like water and fertilizers. These new technologies really accelerate our knowledge about these issues, and soon I think you’ll see a lot of new and exciting products on the market that take advantage of this new knowledge.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
NS: I’d just like to comment quickly on the issue of safety. Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a discussion around the safety of plants and around the safety of this technology. Even through GMO Answers, we see this constant reflection back to the issue of safety. That’s something that we can’t forget. It’s something we have to keep up the drumbeat about. It’s something that we can’t just set out and not come back to. I think that’s a key thing to keep in mind as we move forward, bringing communities along with us, so there’s a lot more acceptance and support of these products.
FT: I would really like to underline that of course biotechnology in agriculture isn’t the only solution, but it is indeed a very important element in a mix of innovations and technologies that we need not only today, but even more so in the future. Science-based decisions on which tools we utilize in the future is urgently needed, and the combination of all available tools will be crucial for us to master the challenges of the next 20 years.