Refuting GM accusations: Canada must embrace agtech innovation, eschew EU scepticism - expert

By CM Tay

- Last updated on GMT

Refuting GM accusations: Canada must embrace ag-tech innovation, eschew EU scepticism - expert © Getty Images
Refuting GM accusations: Canada must embrace ag-tech innovation, eschew EU scepticism - expert © Getty Images

Related tags Gm foods agricultural sustainability

Canada’s agtech sector should continue investing in innovation and avoid the scepticism prevalent in the EU towards topics such as GM, says University of Saskatchewan Professor and Agri-Food Innovation and Sustainability Enhancement Chair, Dr. Stuart J. Smyth.

In a recent op-ed​ published by Ottawa-based national public policy think tank, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI), Smyth highlighted the challenges in global food production, including inflation, geo-political disruptions and misguided policies that hinder the availability and affordability of food for the world's growing population.

He also emphasised that crop breeding, efficient fertiliser and chemical use and investments in farming technology were proven strategies to increase agricultural production while promoting sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

However, he added, the EU has rejected these proven strategies by implementing counter-productive, overly precautious policies that significantly reduced fertiliser and chemical use and banned modern crop breeding technologies. These policies could be detrimental to production and sustainability and as such, Smyth expressed concern that Canada's federal government was considering the EU's approach as a model for its emissions reduction plans, and called on Canadians to reject these policies.

Comparing agricultural sustainability between the EU and Canada, he emphasised that Canada's approach is more sustainable and as such, it should not follow the EU's path of reducing food production to cut emissions.

With this in mind, AgriTechNavigator ​spoke to Smyth on the EU’s scepticism of modern agriculture, the main challenges and upcoming innovations in Canada’s ag-tech sector and his projections for the industry.

The issue with the EU

Regarding the EU’s tendency towards scepticism of modern agriculture, Smyth thinks it is largely the fault of misinformation campaigns by environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

He told AgTechNavigator​: “For over 20 years, these groups have relentlessly campaigned against genetically modified (GM) crop and food. 30 years of scientific research has refuted every single claim these environmental NGOs make but they aren’t held accountable, so they continue to deliberately spread disinformation and misinformation about the safety and benefits of GM crops.”

He added that according to European consumer surveys, there were higher levels of trust and confidence in environmental NGOs in Europe than in North America, where trust in such groups had fallen from around 50% range 15 years ago to closer to 30% today. The result of lower trust levels in environmental NGOs in Canada and the US means people in the region tend to have more confidence in GM crops and foods.

In order to foster innovation in its ag-tech sector and drive sustainable agriculture, Smyth said, the EU must end its split approval process. “The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) conducts science-based risk assessments and has concluded that all GM crops are safe for consumption and production but the political approval committee doesn’t allow for commercial production,” he said.

“The EFSA needs to be given the mandate to make approvals for production. This way, the risk assessment and crop approval process is all within one organisation and is based on science. This change would allow for GM crops to be adopted by farmers.”

As expressed in the MLI op-ed, he believes that if the EU had adopted GM crops, it could have reduced agricultural GHG emissions by 7.5%, equivalent to 33 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. In contrast, Canada allows all plant breeding technologies and relies on science-based regulations for fertiliser and chemical use.

Progress, innovation and sustainability

In the op-ed, Smyth also wrote that innovations in crop breeding technologies (including GM crops) and increased industrialisation of farming have led to significant increases in agricultural productivity and sustainability. This underscored the importance of innovation in modern societies and economies, and how governments encouraged and incentivised research and development (R&D) for sustainable products and processes.

Defining sustainability in agriculture as maximising efficiency by producing more crops per acre of land while minimising input usage (e.g., seed, fertiliser, pesticides and labour), the professor used examples

from Saskatchewan, where efficient weed control and GM crops have led to reduced soil erosion, increased carbon sequestration and greater sustainability.

Regarding upcoming ag-tech innovations and their potential impact on Canada’s ag-tech sector, he told ATN​: “One technology that holds the great potential is the development of robotic or vision technology for sprayers. A few years ago, John Deere bought Blue River Technologies for about US$300 million; Blue River had developed a technology that put sensors in each sprayer nozzle, so it only switched on when its ‘eye’ saw a weed.

“The computer is trained to know what crop is being grown and sprays everything that isn’t that crop. Some estimates indicate that this will reduce herbicide use by 80% to 90% — this will result in significant financial savings and further reduce the environmental impacts of herbicide use.”

What’s next for the Great White North?

Smyth pointed out that a key challenged facing Canada’s ag-tech sector was how to demonstrate new technologies and productsto farmers in a way that would help them understand their benefits, thereby increasing adoption of such technologies and products.

He said, “Farmers are used to seeing crops grow or looking at cattle and they don’t have as much confidence in the increased use of computers and their related technologies. Informing farmers in ways they can relate to will be a big challenge (for the ag-tech sector).”

Still, he maintains an optimistic outlook on ag-tech in Canada and its ability to contribute to meeting global food demands over the next three to five years. He attributes this to the significant advancements in the sector over the last few years, which he expects will continue.

“Farmers continue to use these technologies to be more efficient in terms of seed, fertiliser and chemical use. The increased efficiency of fertiliser and chemical use benefits the environment, as well as reduces soil erosion,” Smyth said, adding, “Canadian agri-food exports have risen significantly in the past few years, meaning that Canada is making excellent contributions to improving food security. The continued adoption of new technologies will only increase crop production.”

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