Gabriela Cruz farms in a part of the world where biotech crops not only are looked down on by some but are also banned, for the most part, by government fiat.

But Cruz is an anomaly in her world in that she not only plants a genetically modified crop – Bt corn – but she’s also pushing her government and the governments of other European Union countries to allow other farmers to grow them.

Cruz, who was named the winner of the 2010 Kleckner Trade and Technology Advancement Award in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday (Oct. 13), manages a 700-hectare (1,700-acre) farm in Portugal that she owns with her sisters.

Currently, Bt corn is one of only two genetically modified crops that can be grown legally in the member countries of the European Union. Besides Bt corn, Cruz and her sisters also grow conventional corn, wheat, triticale, barley, green peas and livestock.

Bt corn in 2006

Cruz began planting Bt corn in 2006 as a way to reduce her costs for controlling insects. She says she could reduce her use of pesticides and the number of tillage trips in the field by optimizing such GM traits in corn.

Less tillage is important to Cruz, who is president of the Portuguese Association for Soil Conservation. Soil loss is a major problem and can average 17 tons of top soil annually for farmers in the erosion-prone fields of southern Europe .

“Europe wants the farmer to be more and more sustainable. They are imposing some restrictions or norms to use environmentally friendly practices, with which I totally agree,” she said. “But then they don’t allow us to use all the tools that will make those environmentally practices more efficient like biotech crops.”

The ban on biotech crops is a serious issue in the Europe. While planting Bt corn is permitted in the EU, it is still banned in member countries such as Italy. Giorgio Fidenato, an Italian farmer attending the World Food Prize events as part of the Truth about Trade and Technology program, is being prosecuted in the courts for planting six GM corn seeds last spring.

Farmer roundtable

(TATT hosted a Global Farmer-to-Farmer Roundtable Oct. 12 and 13, prior to events in Des Moines related to the World Food Prize. The Roundtable is supported by the Council for Biotechnology Information, CropLife International, and the National Corn Growers Association.

Cruz said removing the ban on biotech crops would help European farmers and consumers.

“What we are facing now are some problems controlling weeds,” she said. “We are spreading an enormous amount of herbicides. If we had other biotech crops like those that are resistant to herbicides, it would help us because we would be able to reduce costs, to increase our production and be more sustainable in our practices.

“Biotechnology offers one of the most promising solutions to many emerging challenges in feeding the world’s growing population,” Cruz says. 

The International Panel for Climate Change forecasts increasing dryness for the Mediterranean region where Cruz farms. Portuguese farmers have experienced droughts similar to those encountered by farmers in Africa, and water prices for Portuguese farmers have risen by 40 percent.

“Scientists can generate crops that make more efficient use of water, as well as add characteristics that allow us to fight off weeds that compete with desired crops and suck water and nutrients from the soil,” says Cruz.

Fantasies for farmers

“Yet, these innovations will remain fantasies for farmers in Europe as long as our governments listen to misinformed activists and journalists that crowd out the responsible views of scientists, Nobel Prize winners and farmers.”

Cruz says her family has seen how biotech crops can improve their quality of life, and she wants more of that for herself, her sisters, her workers, and the women who farm in other countries.

“Around the world, women cannot take advantage of biotechnology because of Europe’s hostility to GM crops,” she notes. “This especially affects African women farmers because they are highly dependent on trade with Europe.”

The Kleckner Trade and Technology Advancement Award was established in 2007 in honor of Dean Kleckner, the chairman of Truth About Trade and Technology and former president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The award is given annually in conjunction with the Global Farmer-to-Farmer Roundtable.  The first winner of the award was Rosalie Ellasus of the Philippines, the 2008 winner was Jeff Bidstrup of Australia and, in 2009, the award went to Jim McCarthy of Ireland.

For more on Cruz’s views on the need for Europe to adopt biotech crops, go to http://www.truthabouttrade.org/news/editorials/guest-commentary/16778-freedom-to-choose--a-farmers-basic-right.

flaws@farmpress.com