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The promise of biotechnology

The statue of Iowa-native Norman Borlaug at the United States Capitol. FILE PHOTO
The statue of Iowa-native Norman Borlaug at the United States Capitol. FILE PHOTO

Let’s start with a simple math problem. Take your 2017 adjusted gross income, and multiply it by six. When you have your answer, think about this: How would your life be different if your income increased six-fold? What new choices would you make? How would you improve your life? How would you improve the lives of others?

For most of us, a six-fold increase in our income would be dramatic and is hard to imagine. But that is exactly what Bangladeshi farmers have experienced since being able to grow genetically engineered insect resistant eggplant — or Bt eggplant — after its approval by the Bangladesh government in 2014.

Mohammad Milon Mia, and nearly 30,000 other Bangladeshi farmers like him who are now on the official roster of growers producing Bt eggplant, report on average a six-fold increase in income from growing this improved eggplant developed by Bangladeshi researchers to benefit Bangladeshi farmers.

In addition to the economic benefits, access to this technology has led to dramatic reductions in pesticide use. Farmers are spending 61 percent less on pesticides since adopting the engineered eggplant — a significant reduction for farmers, consumers and the environment.

To his dying day, Norman Borlaug was a passionate advocate for farmers’ access to life-improving technologies — including biotechnologies. Bt eggplant in Bangladesh is a game-changing technology — good for the environment, good for families and good for a more food-secure Bangladesh in a time of unprecedented climatic vulnerability.

This agricultural innovation is a remarkable success story. To witness Bt eggplant’s success in Bangladesh is to witness a response to Borlaug’s final call to: “Take It to the Farmer.”

Reducing poverty and moving toward Equity

To see Mohammad Milon Mia’s experience is to watch society move toward equity. When good science is combined with strong political will, the result is reduced poverty and higher agricultural productivity.

The story of Bt eggplant in Bangladesh should be of the textbook variety by now, since it has been 20 years since the first commercialization of genetically-engineered crops.

But Bt eggplant remains a stand-out, a nearly lone example — for science, for scientific consensus, for creativity and especially for political bravery. It is the kind of bravery exhibited by Dr. Borlaug when he pushed to ignite the political will that ended up averting widespread famine in South Asia in the 1940s and ’50s.

It is the kind of bravery needed from food companies in the United States, parliamentarians across Africa and consumers globally, to stand with science and not fall victim to the vocal minority who make a living scaring people about their food choices from Ouagadougou to Waterloo.

Access to new technologies like genetically engineered pest-resistant eggplant provides farming families across the globe a way to improve their incomes and to afford the fees to send their children to school. Education is one of the most effective ways to end the vicious cycle of poverty.

This school year, in my capacity as director of the Alliance for Science, I will continue to fight for access to agricultural biotechnologies that can ensure social justice for the poor. I will continue to help people on local and global levels stand in support of science.

Rejecting the anti-GMO fear mongering

This school year, in my capacity as an American consumer and mom of young children, I will continue to reject food brands that stoke fears about our foods on their packaging in the form of endearing images like monarch butterflies or slogans like “GMO-free.”

This school year, I encourage each of us to reflect on the math and the power of six. We must reflect on equalities and inequalities and ask ourselves: Who is hurt most when we add fervor to the tired debate on genetic engineering? Who is hurt most when we broadly reject agricultural biotechnologies?

Whether it is the decision not to vaccinate a child or the decision to purchase a product marketed as GMO-free, the decisions that each of us make today have broad societal impact. Let us stand in support of the science as Norman Borlaug so firmly did. Let us heed the school bells everywhere as global reminders of our mere six degrees of separation and how interconnected we are in our planetary task to feed the many while sparing the Earth.

Evanega is director of the Cornell Alliance for Science at Cornell University. This column appeared originally in the World Food Prize’s Borlaug Blog.  



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