Seed World

The Light of Innovation at the End of the Long, Dark Tunnel

“It can’t get any worse than this!”

These were my thoughts while watching activist journalist George Monbiot’s vegan visionary piece, Apocalypse Cow, on the UK’s Channel 4 in early January, depicting farmers as the main cause of every conceivable environmental problem. Monbiot proposed solutions to end agriculture in two decades. In the year since EAT Lancet and the European Court’s decision against new plant breeding techniques, agriculture has been rapidly portrayed as the main threat to humanity and the environment.

But in crisis comes opportunity. In Monbiot’s virtue-signalled despair for a lost environment came his surprising willingness to open up to technology. If consumers are looking beyond the anti-GMO rhetoric to try a plant-based burger; if the public are demanding the necessary tools to solve the “climate catastrophe”; if digital farming, cover crops and climate cows are solutions to problems driving our narrative, then the opportunity is there for plant biologists and agronomists to rise to the challenge.

Delivering benefits, solving problems

Innovation thrives when society demands benefits. This is accentuated when the public feels vulnerable and wants researchers to solve their problems. Our social amnesia of the needs of just the last generation (food security, better medicines, jobs, economic growth…) have led to a complacency towards more research and innovation. My students had blank looks on their faces when I asked them to name the last major famine. There hasn’t been one in their lifetime. Our western lifestyle has forgotten what want is. A good sign of that is how our demands for innovation today focus on faster Wi-Fi and longer battery life.

Growing (wealthier) populations, biodiversity threats, climate stresses and extreme weather events … our comfortable society is indeed still living on a precipice and slowly waking up to the fragility that has always been there. So maybe it isn’t a bad thing Monbiot realised we need to rely on science and innovative thinkers to solve his problems. Of course, Monbiot’s solution, to eliminate all farming in the next two decades, is a product of a misguided narrative and his ingrained fear-mongering.

Innovations in agriculture (rather than Monbiot’s innovations to replace farming) should be seen as delivering benefits to solve society’s challenges: efficient carbon sequestration, better cover crop seeds, fungal resistance, higher yields … the list of innovation opportunities grows by the day. NPBTs have the potential to unleash countless sustainable solutions and benefits.

Innovate or let heal?

But opportunity attracts competition and not every actor is playing the same game. In his book The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles Mann showed how addressing agricultural issues took two divergent paths: the “innovative technology” path represented by Norman Borlaug and the “let nature heal itself” path of William Vogt. Seventy years later, environmentalists and researchers are still disputing which fork in this road to take.

Environmentalists today are campaigning to stop normal practices (stop eating meat, flying, farming … stop everything) and let nature heal itself. In his documentary, Monbiot marvelled at how fast former farmland could be rewilded in the Netherlands. I share the research position’s view, however, that man has the innovative capacity to meet our challenges and protect the environment while ensuring a good quality of life.

The innovation narrative is under siege from activists playing the precaution card and undermining the research community’s goals with fear and uncertainty. As our social amnesia towards vulnerabilities grows, regulators and publics often don’t see the need to take risks to ensure a safe, productive agriculture.

Benefits or denial?

One of the approaches I have regularly advised against is the “Denial Trap”. Whenever we deny a claim (this chemical doesn’t cause cancer, those cows don’t release much methane, that practice doesn’t harm the environment, NPBTs aren’t GMOs…), we are playing someone else’s game and failing to put forward the benefits and opportunities of our research and technology. Activists know that when industry falls into their denial trap, public trust is lost. Scientists and farmers have also fallen into this trap.

What’s needed is a focus on benefits and advances. The public wants to know innovations are making things better (especially when activists paint the situation as perpetually worsening). If ag-tech innovations can excite the public, they’ll capture their hopes to continue to enjoy benefits without threatening humanity or the environment.

But for this to happen, scientists will have to leave the lab for the loudspeaker; farmers will have to leave the land for the lobby. More than research problems, this is a communications challenge to take back control of the narrative. It should not be a question of stopping farming or giving up culinary pleasures but a question of better research and innovative solutions.

The challenges we face today will not spell the end of agriculture and a “rewilding” of the United Kingdom (as Monbiot dreams), but a new beginning for researchers to “rewire” agriculture ensuring benefits while addressing society’s concerns.