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Forget Organic Farming: Agricultural Technology Is the Way to Go

U.S. Department of Agriculture's Roger Beachy advocates increasing the use of advanced agricultural technologies, both in the U.S. and the developing world, despite having grown up on a bucolic Amish farm
Mars panorama from Opportunity rover



NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

The article "Food Fight"in the April issue details Roger Beachy's involvement in the birth of genetic engineering of food crops, how he went on to become an avid defender of the new technology and how these beliefs will shape his tenure at the agriculture department's newly formed National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Here he answers four more questions for readers about his own background and agriculture in the developing world.

How did your Amish background shape your interest in agriculture?
I grew up on a small farm. Ten of my uncles were farmers, and I had a big family on both sides. Just the responsibility of producing food was enormous. The Amish in those days were using very few agrichemicals, and, gosh, I thought if we could find a way to protect plants against disease while minimizing the use of agrichemicals it would be a good thing. That's largely where my interest in agriculture came from. But I also think about the motto of the Mennonite college I went to in Indiana, Goshen College: "Culture for Service." It really was the service attitude of the church and the faith, that, I credit my career choice to as much as anything. I am not involved in the church at all anymore but like others in the sciences it really did color much of what I did: how to be useful, how to serve human kind, how to use the knowledge that you're fortunate to gather in a way that would help people.

Can technical advances in sustainable agriculture be transferred to the developing world?
Absolutely. At the U.S.D.A., I think we need to return to programs that we did in the '70s and the '80s to ensure the training and the capacity of scientists in developing economies in a far more effective way than we've done in the last 20 years. When I was a graduate student, there were between 10,000 and 20,000 students coming to this country for training and agriculture and other sciences. The number today is a fraction of that, and, as a consequence, we have universities in some parts of the world that have little or no agriculture, have no extension service, have no plant breeding and have no production of seeds. Only if we begin to invest there, in their capabilities, will we jump start the private sector in their countries.

Why is it so important to have agricultural training in countries?
They need local industries to grow up and produce better seeds, so we first have to start with building capacities in those countries so that as new technology comes in, whether it's an Indian company going into Africa or a U.S. company going into Taiwan or Indonesia, you still have to have local, on-the-ground strength in order to make it successful.

Is there a one-size-fits-all strategy for fostering agricultural technology?
Every country is different. China largely now has multinational seed companies and a burgeoning domestic company—and seed policies that are favorable to both. In India there's a strong sense of local ownership and every new variety of seed that comes in the country then has to work within their system, and I think that makes for healthy competition. Hopefully all the governments of other developing economies will invest more in this terribly important sector of food security and agriculture economy.

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