Biotechnology Advocates Argue Science Vital for Small Farm Livelihood

DES MOINES, Iowa — Smallholder farmers’ success is permanently intertwined with science, Julie Borlaug, vice president of communications and public relations for Inari Agriculture Inc., said. She has made it her mission to continue her grandfather’s legacy by advocating for science literacy.

Specifically, Borlaug referred to fear regarding agricultural biotechnology and genetic engineering. She cautioned that misconceptions around this technology affects progress, and even worse, affects the day-to-day life of Africans.

“When we’re communicating, let’s talk about the realities of the smallholder farmer,” Borlaug said. “You can’t be anti-hunger and anti-innovation.”

Motlatsi Musi, a maize farmer outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, approves of innovation and advocates for genetically modified crops. Profits from his maize sent his son to school and helped purchase updated equipment for his farm.

“People change opinion based on experience,” Musi said and credits scientists and distributors that encouraged him to view farming as a sustainable profession.

Jim Gaffney, global regulatory strategy lead of DuPont Pioneer, said that subsistence living is sometimes romanticized but the reality is that technology makes farming a more sustainable profession. In Western culture, some think of a quaint raised bed with a chicken coop, but in Africa, climbing the prosperity ladder is different, he said.

Borlaug admitted that communication from scientists and biotechnology advocates still needs work.

“We’re still only talking to ourselves,” she said. “We need to tell our stories differently.”

Robert Bertram, chief scientist at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Food Security, said the full narrative about biotechnology includes farmers and  researchers in active partnership.

“We start by building a robust social science component,” Bertram said. For example, this means that farmers are asked for input on food traits such as color and cooking time.  Characteristics such as higher yields, climate and pest resilience that biotechnology is commonly known for are not the only emphasis.

Getting biotechnology to be accepted by farmers is only one of the barriers of implementation. The public at large is influential. This “social license,” Borlaug said, is influential in policy decisions. Biotechnology advocates like Gaffney hope that more regulations will benefit farmers in the future.

“What we ask, and all we ask,” Gaffney said, “is for objective, science-based, evidence-based regulation.”