Milton Stokes, the director of global health and nutrition outreach of Monsanto Company, came to the Philippines last week to warn about the future when population will most likely increase and arable farms will shrink.
Stokes, a former writer and restaurateur, says the planet will have to feed at least two billion more people by 2050.
“From my perspective, what’s profound and of interest to me is that the population of Earth is growing. By 2050, there will be at least additional 2 billion people on this planet. That is probably a conservative estimate. [More] food has to come from somewhere," he says in a roundtable briefing with journalists at Dusit Thani Hotel in Makati City.
"We feed the world on arable land that is about the size of South America. Nobody wants to bring more land to production. That’s just not gonna happen,” he says.
Stokes says while human population is growing rapidly, arable lands will be reduced to a third over the next century. “For now, we feed people on about an acre of land, but in approximately 90 years, we are going to feed them in a third of an acre,” he says.
Stokes does not directly endorse the use of genetically modified or biotechnology crops, where Monsanto is considered a pioneer, but says countries should look at options available on the table to avert hunger in the future.
“So what are we going to do? I think we have to be smarter in terms of agriculture. We have to get farmers a wide range of tools to make the best decision for their farming operations,” says Stokes, an assistant professor at the Department of Nutrition of University of Saint Joseph. He teaches food and nutrition management, nutrition, dietetics and nutrition communication.
“These tools could include traditional plant breeding, more conventional options. They could include biotechnology. They could include a variety of crop protection. They could also include precision agriculture,” he says.
Biotechnology is a biology-based technology which involves using organisms or parts to make or modify products or improve plants, animals or microorganisms. Several groups, however, have raised issues against biotech crops, especially over food safety, ethical and political concerns.
Stokes, a father of two, says as a dietitian, biotech food is not different from conventional crops. “From nutritional equivalent standpoint, there is zero difference, unless the products are biology-fortified. Otherwise, there is no material difference,” he says.
“I actually think from the nutrition perspective, they are pretty boring. I mean that with as much respect as possible, because nutritionally, there is nothing to talk about, unless there is bio-fortification. Nutritionally, they are the same. You can’t tell the difference,” he says, referring to the difference between biotech and conventional crops.
Stokes says “we want to make people comfortable, confident and secure in their decisions in the food supply.”
What he is more interested in, he says, is the impact of higher farm productivity on public health. “As we see people having better economics, their diet shifts towards more different types of protein. So there are a variety of implications on economics, agriculture, food and health,” he says.
“We know that higher yields is for anti-poverty. Farmers can produce more with fewer inputs, where they can spend less money, where they can get more crops, other than their production. They have more money for their families, more money for education of their kids, they have more time to do other things. That’s directly related to their health, their quality of life, their livelihood,” he says.
Stokes, who is based in St. Louis, Missouri, came to the Philippines to attend the conference organized by the Nutritionist-Dietitians’ Association of the Philippines, which tackled issues such as food security and nutrition.
Why he joined Monstanto
Stokes says nutrition is a significant issue all over the world, especially in developing countries such as the Philippines. “One of three kids [in the Philippines] are stunted for height, which means by certain age, they have not reached appropriate height. About one in ten have what is called wasting, which means their bodies, because of lack of calories, started to use stored protein like muscles and organs for energy. And one in five is underweight,” he says.
“That’s not only exclusive to the Philippines. That’s a planet-wide issue. As a dietitian, I am interested in working with Monsanto, because it is a company focused on helping farmers maximize their yield and making farm sustainable,” he says.
Monsanto, along with other multinational agriculture companies such as Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and DuPont-Pioneer, consider the Philippines as a big market, because of its acceptance of biotechnology.
More than a decade ago, the Philippines became the first Asian country to allow the commercial propagation of a GM crop– Bt corn, which was developed by Monsanto.
Actual planting of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn started in December 2012. Bt corn was developed to fight Asian corn borer (Ostrinia furnacalis), a pest that reduces yellow corn yield by as much as 80 percent. Corn borers are the top pests of corn in the Philippines.
Bt corn carries a transplanted gene that produces delta-endotoxin protein, which can kill the corn borer. Once inside the alkaline gut of the corn borer, the Bt protein is activated and binds to specific receptors. This mid-gut is punctured, leaving the insect unable to eat. Prior to the planting of Bt corn, farmers had to apply a lot of pesticide and chemicals to control the spread of corn borers.
Monsanto says the average yield of Filipino corn farmers have more than doubled to a range of 7 to 12 metric tons per hectare from only 2 MT per hectare because of Bt corn. Farmers were also able to reduce expenses in pesticides and chemicals.
The company says half a million corn farmers have benefitted from Bt corn in terms of higher crop yields, reduced farm input costs, increased profit, improved environment and less dependence on imports.
Acceptance of Bt corn has grown over the years, with 750,000 to 800,000 hectares planted to the GM crop as of 2013, according to the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. This enabled the Philippines to become the 12th leading producer of biotech crops in the world.
Monsanto Bt corn hybrids are known as Dekalb(DK) 818YG, DK9161YG, and DK9051YG. Pioneer also has its own Bt corn hybrid varieties known as 30Y84, 30Y50, 30Y80, 30Y73, and 30Y34 while Syngenta has NK 5447Bt.
Gabriel Romero, regulatory affairs lead at Monsanto Philippines Inc., says the impact of Bt corn on Philippine food security was “very clear.”
“Biotech corn has made the Philippines self sufficient on corn. Recently, we are around 100-percent self sufficient. There were years we were a little short, but we have been mostly self-sufficient. It has created a lot of jobs and improved the quality of life of corn farmers,” he says.
Romero says this has supported the growth of the livestock and poultry sector, which depends largely on yellow corn as animal feeds. “Our feed millers used to import quality corn from the US, but now they are buying locally produced high-quality biotech corn,” he says.
Romero says Bt corn now accounts for around 85 percent of yellow corn grown in the Philippines.
Stokes says the growth of Bt corn in the Philippines had an impact on the economy. “It is used in animal feeds, and Filipinos consume animal protein. So some of that corn goes to feed animals. Some of the corn also goes to what we could call consumer processed goods. It is ultimately consumed,” he says.
Monsanto, which introduced Bt corn in the Philippines, also developed seed brands in cotton, oilseeds and fruits and vegetables.
Stokes says biotechnology is just one of the options available to farmers globally. “That’s one of the tools in the so-called toolkit because of its capacity to increase yield out of the same amount of land. Farmers have to have a wide range of solutions and biotech is certainly one of those. Precision agriculture is another exciting area. For me, combining solutions like that with biotech, that’s how we get to the target of feeding the planet,” he says.
“The population is definitely growing, but our resources are not necessarily growing, especially arable land. That brings us back to the question of have more people, 2 billion plus coming to dinner at some point in the future and they have to be fed. We want to make sure people have access to safe, affordable and healthful food supplies. And part of that access includes making sure farmers have choices and choices that maybe biotech, but also other options such as conventional methods,” he says.