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Farm tech in a warming world

DANIEL LOOKER 10/17/2013 @ 12:32pm Business Editor

Farmers from Africa, Argentina, India and Europe said Wednesday that they will need all of the technology science can offer to feed a growing population as the world's changing climate intensifies bad weather.

Santiago del Solar, an agronomist and farmer from Argentina, said during a panel discussion that no-till farming has helped his country adapt to swings between drought and flooding. So has the use of Bt corn, he said. It allows farmers to stretch out the planting season.

"Before, if it didn't rain by Christmas--no yields. Now we can diversify risk because of Bt corn technology," del Solar said.

Unlike his counterpart from Argentina, Gilbert Arap Bor of Kenya cannot yet grow genetically modified (GM) crops.

Only 20% of Kenya's land is arable, he said, and the country has food shortages. GM crops will help farmers adopt no-till in a climate that may be getting drier.

"With shorter rains, less moisture, you don't have to disturb the soil," he said.

"Genetic engineering will lead to the development of crops that will adapt to the changing climate," he said.

Kenya already has field trials with GM crops, he said, and he's optimistic that the country will soon approve their use.

Other farmers have partial use of the technology. V.K. Ravichandran of India, who grows rice, sugarcane and cotton said that Bt cotton has been approved and 96% of India's cotton is now genetically modified. Gabriela Cruz of Portugal can plant only GM corn for use by livestock.

Cruz said that Europe's Common Agricultural Policy wants growers to reduce water use by 20%, as well as making reductions in nitrogen and phosphate use and carbon emissions. She has already switched from flood irrigation to center pivot irrigation, adopted integrated pest management, and is using no-till and strip-till. But she could reduce inputs and adapt better to a drier, hotter climate if she could plant other GM crops, she said.

"I need the genetics to reduce water consumption," she said.

'What does Europe expect of me? To be superwoman, which I am already just because I am a farmer," she said, drawing laughter from her audience.

In return, she would like European authorities to base decisions on the use of genetically modified crops on science, she said.

After the farmers spoke, Tanzania's Deputy Minister for Agriculture and Food Security, Adam Malima, told the panel that in Africa, adoption of biotechnology "is no longer about science. It's about political science."

Irrational fears, including a belief by some that exposure to Bt Cotton harms male virility, makes politicians afraid to approve the new technology, he said. And local scientists aren't speaking out to defend the technology.

"We Africans are not ready to bring in GM crops, not because we are taking arguments from ourselves, but because we are taking arguments from the Europeans," he said, referring the the activists who have also made Cruz's farming in Portugal more difficult.

The panel, organized by Truth About Trade and Technology and CropLife International, was moderated by Julie Borlaug, the granddaughter of Food Prize founder Norman Borlaug.

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