Interview with Dr. Eduardo Trigo
Dr. Eduardo Trigo, Director of Grupo CEO, a consulting firm specializing in agricultural organization and technology policy issues, and Scientific Adviser to the International Directorate of the Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation of the Argentine Government
“Since the introduction of the new soybean technology, Argentina has more than doubled its grain and oilseed production”
Dr. Eduardo Trigo is author of the report “Ten Years of Genetically Modified Crops in Argentine Agriculture”, a study that draws attention to the effect that GM crops have had in Argentine Agriculture during the past decade and how this new technology has transformed the country’s agricultural sector and economy. The study has been financed by the Argentine Council for Information and Development of Biotechnology, a non-profit organization whose mission is to make available information on biotechnology, contributing to its understanding through education and promoting its development.
EFB: Dr. Trigo, what is the background to the report “Ten Years of Genetically Modified Crops in Argentine Agriculture” and why did you decide to carry it out? Where there specific issues you wanted to draw attention to or was this intended to highlight the overall experiences and lessons of 10 years of GM crops in Argentina?
Dr. Eduardo Trigo: “The report is intended to document the Argentinean experience with this type of technology. Back in 2002, we published a similar report looking into the initial five years since the introduction and we already found signs of a very powerful process that was starting to reshape the country’s agriculture. We thought that a decade was a long enough period to look at established trends and we also wanted to highlight what were the drivers shaping this process, particularly as a basis for domestic policy-making. The “soybean era” is gradually reaching its ceiling – land for further expansion is becoming a limiting factor, etc. – and we think that for the country to continue to benefit from the new technologies there is the need for a renewed policy effort and we also wanted to provide support for that process.”
EFB: What have been the most significant impacts in Argentine agriculture after the introduction of genetically modified crops 10 years ago?
ET: “Since the introduction of the new soybean technology, Argentina has more than doubled its grain and oilseed production and it has not only been soybeans; maize has also increased and so have other activities such as beef and dairy. In economic terms, that has amounted to about USD 20 billion in cumulative terms. That in itself is quite impressive but the indirect benefits on employment and other variables should also be taken into account.”
EFB: What has been the overall economic impact on Argentina?
ET: “A conservative estimate, included in the paper, sets global impact at around USD 40 billion and the total number of jobs created at 1 million (over the ten year period under analysis). Regarding the importance of the latter figure, one has to consider that this increase took place during a period when the Argentine labour market went through one of its worst crises, with unemployment going from one digit figures to 23% (only this past month it has gone back to one digit again).”
EFB: What lessons are there for other countries, both developed and developing?
ET: “When tackling this particular issue, one has to be careful. Although Argentina is a developing country, its agricultural sector resembles more that of the developed countries, both in product mix as well as farm structure, and this has been a critical issue in the success of this story. The country foresaw the potential of the new technologies and undertook the necessary policy measures for gaining access to them, but it is also true that the technologies were a perfect fit for the country’s agroecological conditions. Beyond that, one has to highlight a number of issues. First, that of readiness. By the time the first GM varieties became available, the regulatory system was already in place, and most importantly there existed a suitable germplasm base to which the new genes could be attached, otherwise diffusion would have been highly unlikely. This latter aspect is a key but frequently overlooked aspect in the success of biotechnological innovations. Biotechnological innovations are not a substitute for conventional breeding, on the contrary they go hand-in-hand as farmers would not buy seeds that are not well suited to their particular agro-ecological conditions and for that you need breeding programs and a seed industry that is able to deliver the innovations to the farms. Argentina had all that already in place and any other country that wants to benefit from these technologies – as well from non-GMO biotech, such as marker assisted selections, etc. – needs to have it as well.”
A second point to make is that of the existence a thorough policy oversight along the process so that commercial releases are granted only after considering their possible market implications. In hindsight this may have been less important than thought at the time, but nevertheless it was an element that certainly contributed to building confidence in the technology with the country’s stakeholders.
EFB: What can neighbouring countries learn from the Argentine example?
ET: “The lesson to be learned is: The sooner, the better. In the case of Brazil, it has become evident that due to delays in the decision-making process, farmers were not able to make use of the full potential of these technologies.”
EFB: According to the study, Argentina ranks second place, behind the US, in total planted area with GM crops. What are the main reasons of this swift growth?
ET: “Essentially, the fact that the products available during this first cycle of the technology, as I already mentioned, were a perfect fit with the profile of our agricultural sector and the other set of conditions – policies, international markets, etc. – came together and made it feasible for the country to take full advantage of this situation.”
EFB: How are farmers responding to this new technology and how is the government supporting it?
ET: “Farmers have been key players and the government provided the appropriate regulatory tools and was always supportive in terms of sending the signal that it was going do the right things in terms of assuring market access: “managing” commercial releases so as to not to put at risk access to our main export market – the EU – in the case of corn, siding with the USA in the WTO panel demand, etc.”
EFB: Can you comment on the general public perception of biotechnology in Argentina and agricultural biotechnology and GM crops specifically?
We do not have specific surveys to quote, but all available evidence suggests that for Argentine consumers this is a non-issue, and the farmers’ behaviour in terms of adoption speaks for itself.
What message would you like to leave with members of the European Federation of Biotechnology as they read the report?
ET: “That their continued support for a more proactive Europe in the development of the new technologies is the right position and it will become even more important as biotechnology moves beyond GMOs. The Argentine story is a powerful one, showing quite clearly the potential of the new technologies; not only for improving the country’s economic and social conditions, but also in terms of what they could contribute globally to produce the food the world will need in the coming years. It is also a safe technology and under the right conditions – as the ones existing in Argentina at the time, because of the interphase with no-till practices – a win-win situation in terms of its environmental and economic impacts. However, this experience is not easy to extrapolate to other conditions, because of the particular nature of Argentine agriculture and also because of the fact that most of today’s advances are present in crops suited for temperate environments, which are the basis of international commodities trade. There is very little done for the semi-tropical / tropical and small farmers’ conditions, which accounts for the largest share of the world’s poorer farmers. This is the next frontier and it could become the most relevant source of biotech’s social and environmental benefits. But for that to occur, greater involvement of the research capacities of regions such as Europe will be needed and in this the EFB has a key role to play.”