Science vs Brainwashing – Climate change a challenge also for plant breeding

BIO is in Chicago for the 2010 BIO International Convention.  Visit this space for updates direct from our food and ag sessions.

By Jens Katzek

Policy decisions should be made on the basis of three principles:  Science, science and  – no surprise – science. This was the primary take home message from the “Leadership Summit on Climate Change” on Monday afternoon May, 3rd.

The speakers came from a thrilling mix different experiences. Roger Beachy, now Director of the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) at USDA, was previously Director of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. Under his leadership the Center became one of best known institutes trying to improve plants for the developing world. 

The second speaker was Jose Fernandez, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Economic, Energy and Business Affairs, previously a partner with Latham & Watkins. As a lawyer, he has handled complex environmental litigation issues in Latin America.

Both see plant biotechnology as an important tool to meet the challenges of climate change. The question was, however, how to translate potential into reality. Beachy’s answer was first to restructure USDA research policy. His clear intention: To get answers on complex questions by looking on them from a holistic point of view and provide politics with clear data to guide decisions. 

Beachy knows that science often does not give simple answers to complex questions. Therefore, the leading spirit of USDA research programs should be, “interaction, interaction and – surprise again – interaction.” Climate change will bring not only new pathogens and pests. In parallel we have to increase the production, which requires not only improving the efficiency of photosynthesis, but also to increase nitrogen use efficiency and carbon fixation. For asking the right questions and for sharing the answers The Global Research Alliance (GRA) was recently established in New Zealand to ask the right questions and share answers.  It is so far supported by 29 countries.

Jose Fernandez’ motivation is the simple fact that 25 percent of all agricultural land will be impacted by 2050 by climate change and there is “therefore no alternative but to produce more with less” – if we want to leave any wild forests for our children.  The State Department is especially concerned with trade barriers, which impede biotechnology solutions to pressing problems. 

The State Department action plan is based on four rocks: (1) emphasis on science (2) confront critics (c) establish alliances (d) anticipate and preempt problems. The first and the second sound good – but Fernandez was challenged on how to implement these ideas based on the experiences of the last twenty years. Scientific facts have been published again and again – but to little impact.  Especially in Europe, where self-named prophets could fill beer tents crowed with 400 farmers easily, no one seems to care about science.

Beachy supported Fernandez by highlighting that scientists are not speaking up enough – though he acknowledged their dilemma: scientific credibility is measured in scientific publications, not in public speeches.  It is surprising to see that you can still easily find institutes with several hundred scientists where the management is complaining when the PR department should double the staff – from one to two.

Jens Katzek is Managing Director of a biotech development consortium in Central Germany.  He has 25 years of regulatory, media, and policy experience.   He has been a scientific advisor to the European Commission, and worked for an environmental organization, a seed company, and was Managing Director of the German BIO, DIB.  He can be reached at katzek@biomitteldeutschland.de.

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