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Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture,
(515) 450-2330
Laura Miller, Leopold Center communications, (515) 294-5272
Teddi Barron, News Service, (515) 294-4778


AMES, Iowa -- New technologies that raise yields or rid crops of pests cannot overcome the complex challenges facing agriculture in the 21st century, said the director of Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

In a speech presented Monday at the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council (NABC) annual conference in Seattle, Fred Kirschenmann said the research agenda for agriculture needs to shift from a steady stream of new, single-tactic technologies and move to a multi-dimensional systems approach.

"Focusing at least part of our research agenda on the development of technologies and management practices that enable farmers to understand and take advantage of the inherent strengths in ecosystems instead of continuing to have to buy technologies that address only one-dimensional components of the problem for only short durations seems like a reasonable way to get a head start," Kirschenmann said.

The conference, "Science and Society at a Crossroad," brought together NABC scientists and policymakers to address central questions of agricultural biotechnology from multiple perspectives. NABC is a nonprofit consortium of leading agricultural research and teaching governmental agencies, institutions and universities formed in 1988 by the Boyce Thompson Institute in collaboration with Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., Iowa State and the University of California-Davis.

"Major challenges are likely to force us to rethink the assumptions about food and agriculture that we have taken for granted for at least 50 years," Kirschenmann said.

An exploding population is entrenched in poverty, he said. The ecological health of the natural resources on which agriculture depends needs to be restored. The climate is changing, while at the same time global society insists that food is a human right. Meanwhile, an increase in infectious diseases requires that we attend to the ecological ramifications of human activities.

What kind of agriculture can meet the requirements of these complex challenges, Kirschenmann asked.

Although new technologies--transgenic or non-transgenic--aren't likely to address such a multifaceted set of circumstances, Kirschenmann believes technology can play a role.

"The question we face as we attempt to meet these challenges is not whether we will use technology to help shape the new agriculture required to meet future challenges. Clearly we will. Nor is the pertinent question what kind of technology we will use. We likely will use all of the available technologies that hold any promise for developing an agriculture capable of meeting these challenges," he said. "The more important question is how we will use the technologies available to us."

Traditionally, Kirschenmann said, technology has been used in production agriculture to intervene in a system to get rid of a problem rather than to understand why the problem emerged or how the inherent strengths within ecosystems could be enhanced to address the source of the problem.

The one-dimensional approach has led to unexpected consequences like deteriorating soil quality, soil erosion, new pests and less biodiversity.

Agricultural biotech researchers seem to follow much the same approach, he said. Most applications of transgenic technologies still are intended as single tactic approaches to problems, like designing corn plants to resist corn borers.

Kirschenmann recommended a research agenda that "honors" the complexity and interdependence of the ecosystem.

"We might begin to take ecology and evolutionary biology seriously in all of our human endeavors," he said. "And these new discoveries in the functions of biology and ecology may impose a significant paradigm shift on agricultural research.

"All of this suggests that the principal benefit from genetic research for meeting the challenges facing us in agriculture's future may not lie in the invention of specific transgenic technologies that modify plants and animals, but in the discoveries that help us better understand how systems function and therefore better utilize the strengths that are inherent in natural ecosystems," Kirschenmann said.

"One thing seems certain," he said. "If we continue to insist on using technologies in accordance with old paradigms that seem unlikely to meet the challenges of the future, they will fail us."


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