Using Appropriate Technologies to “Feed the Future”

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By Alex Tung

This is the final post in our series of blogs about the Oversight of the Feed the Future Initiative. This post discusses the speaker’s recommendations on the direction the initiative should take regarding agricultural research and technologies.

In his opening statement, Chairman Carnahan of the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight mentioned “unfair trade restrictions” of the European Community on agricultural products grown using biotechnology. But there are concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that go well beyond trade restrictions, including seed ownership, unintended harm to beneficial organisms and the loss of biodiversity when GMOs contaminate indigenous crops.

Concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) go beyond trade restrictions and include seed ownership, unintended harm to beneficial organisms and the loss of biodiversity when GMOs contaminate indigenous crops. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The experts who offered their insight on appropriate technology use included Dr. William H. Danforth, Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center; Mr. Gerald A. Steiner, Executive Vice-President, Sustainability and Corporate Affairs, Monsanto Corporation; and Dr. Hans Herren, President of Millennium Institute, who is also a member of the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group.  While they all encouraged more investment in agricultural research, they offered different approaches in “Feeding the Future.”

“We want to encourage everything and stop nothing,” said Dr. Danforth. He believes that “plant science” has great potential to “feed the hungry.” He talked about the Danforth Center’s success on improving nutrition content of maize varieties through biofortification as an example of sound biotechnology application. He expressed his confidence in applying this technology to other products such as chickpeas and sorghum.

Mr. Steiner recommended the use of technologies that help farmers get more yield out of every acre.  He explained that from Monsanto’s experience, the approach of focusing on “what the farmers want,” and engaging them in dialogue has worked best. When farmers had the opportunity to choose, they have seen quick changes and success. They are “very excited” about the potential of their technologies, and “could not imagine” anyone “fighting” technologies that reduce the use of pesticides.

Chairman Payne voiced his skepticism of using GMOs, and Dr. Herren shared his sentiment.  Dr. Herren believes the current role GMOs play is “minimal,” and more research is needed.    He recommended focusing on soil “fertility and “retention” as the “first issues,” and making agriculture not a problem but part of the solution for climate change. He pointed out the big “yield gap of at least four-fold” in African agriculture, and called for a whole system approach and “site specific” solution.  More specifically, “crop diversification,” is necessary and requires a local approach.  He warned against “quick fixes” and “silver bullets.”

Dr. Herren also stressed the importance of making sure existing solutions get implemented.  “Farmers, women in particular, need information” on technologies they “don’t have to pay for,” such as composting, growing sustainably and biological control.

To learn more about use of appropriate technology in agriculture, read  What Is an Appropriate Technology?, Building Knowledge About Biotechnology in Africa, Traditional Food Crops Provide Community Resilience in Face of Climate Change and Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group: Chuck Benbrook.  To learn more about innovations that nourish the planet, follow our weekly blog posts on agricultural innovations.

Visit the Feed the Future Initiative website to learn more about the initiative. To gain more in depth understanding of the hearing, read official statements from speakers on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ website.

Alex Tung is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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