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Canadian "Agri-expert" advises world farmers on biotech crops

Peter Wamboga-Mugirya

A prominent Canadian agriculturalist has challenged the world to appreciate the need for genetically engineered (GE) crop technologies as a core part of an integrated agricultural research, management, and development system.

Robert Saik, the Chief Executive of Agri-Trend, a consulting firm based in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, says that where today there are severe pests and virulent disease infestations, drought and frost problems, GE crops have been specifically developed to enable farmers to manage these problems. Such a technological solution is not dissimilar to how farmers have embraced weather monitoring, soil-fertility, water, good crop agronomics, and good animal husbandry practices.

As key stakeholders, farmers should know GE seeds as an important element in efficient crop performance, Saik adds. “It is a technology solution that must be understood to be relevant in agriculture of both developed and developing countries. It is as important to farmers as is post-harvest handling, processing, marketing and trade. This is a value-chain that farmers, policy-makers and advocates of agricultural biotechnology like you should promote,” Saik told a group of 25 Visiting Scholars to the United States, from 10 countries and, staff and students of Cornell University, Ithaca city in New York State. This was during a specially-organized dialogue at the university.

Among the scholars are five participants from Uganda, Kenya (4), Nigeria (3), Ghana (1), Tanzania (1) plus Indonesia (1), Philippines (5) and three from the U.S states of Oregon, California and Hawaii. They are currently undergoing training under the Global Leadership Fellowship Program (GLFP) of the Alliance for Science—a Cornell University-based strategic communication initiative promoting access to scientific innovations as means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability and raising the quality of life globally.

Saik explains that GE technology enables farmers to deal with specific problems, for a specific outcome, and should be a critical input that shouldn’t be viewed any more as a threat to the sector, but as a contributor to better crop resilience working along with other inputs.

His organization, Agri-Trend, provides consulting services to thousands of farmers in North America and works with many international farming operations as well, according to his award-winning book, The Agriculture Manifesto. This book lists ten key drivers that will shape agriculture in the next decade notably, “the future of agriculture could be GMO – Genetically Modified Organic food production.”

The well-travelled Ag-specialist, whose country – Canada – is one of the largest-growers and exporters of biotech crops, makes this disclaimer about Agri-Trend: “We don’t sell seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, nor agricultural machinery. We sell professional knowledge to farmers.”

Mr. Saik had earlier told a training session for the visiting scholars that he recently wrote a letter to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni informing him of why he shouldn’t fear GM crops. In the letter, a copy of which this correspondent has seen, Mr. Saik tells Mr. Museveni that recently he was traveling and visiting farms across Uganda and later in Kenya working on agricultural projects with A Better World, where he spent time with many smaller farmers.

In the letter, Saik writes: “…and I [have] witnessed the problems in cassava associated with mosaic virus. Later I was in many banana groves which were being attacked by xanthomonas (BXW) wilt and black sigatoka. I also saw great damage inflicted by corn-borer. In Kenya, maize crops were being attacked by maize lethal necrosis (MLN). When I asked farmers what they were going to do about the problem, they did not know. Most thought they were going to have to spray fungicides or insecticides (most of which have low effectiveness against these diseases or pests) or kill the crop.”

“The reason I write this letter,” Saik pens, “is to encourage you and your government to be pro-active with support for GM [crops]. I do not sell GE seed nor do I sell chemicals or fertilizer, however I know of the direct benefits of GM-technology for farmers, whether those farms be in Brazil, USA, Canada or Uganda.”

Saik was speaking against a backdrop of mounting pressure on many governments by special interest groups who create fear about GMO technology. This fear is unfounded. The problem is, farmers do not have a voice, while many activist groups make their money by propagating a message of fear that keeps tools away from farmers, and prevents the use of science to enhance the nutritional characteristics of food.

“We [myself and you fellows] should change the narrative of ‘No to GMO’ to ‘Know GMOs,’” Saik urges enthusiastically. A professional agrologist and a certified agricultural consultant, Saik commands a 250-strong team of professional agriculturalists that tell clients that agriculture of the future will be different from the agriculture of today, and vastly different from agriculture of the past.

The Global Leadership Fellows told Saik they want to help farmers in their countries have access to technology that can help them grow better crops, access to Bt crops to help reduce exposure of farmers and their families to pesticides/insecticides, and that they would want to push against the distortions and lies being spread about modern agriculture and especially genetic engineering.

Saik stated: “It was a very personal mission for each one of them. These people will be sparks of science around the world. Thank you for allowing me to provide the kick off lectures for your journey.”      

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