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Saturday, September 30, 2017
Kathleen Hefferon attends food security, ag & policy meeting

"The Agricultural Bioscience International Conference (ABIC) was held this past September 25-28, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The conference was hosted by the Life Science Association of Manitoba. I was lucky enough to be funded by the Cornell BEST program (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) to attend this exciting conference concerning food security, agriculture and policy. Here are some highlights from the conference. 

   The first keynote address was given by Dr. Regina Moench-Pfanner, CEO and founder of ‘Investing for Better Nutrition’ (ibn360), who discussed the difference between food security and nutrition security. Dr Moench-Pfanner pointed out that this year, even more people than ever are living in crisis, with a displacement of 310 million refugees in 2015 alone. She spoke about the role of gender in poverty, and remarked that closing the gender gap could reduce the number of impoverished in the world by 100-150 million. A critical means by which to alleviate poverty could be an increase in agricultural productivity. 

   Dr. Catherine Bertini, World Food Prize Laureate, laid out plans as to how we can maintain our momentum in the fight against malnutrition. She explained how food systems adapted by many countries have resulted from emotional responses to our experience from World War II, where food shortages encouraged a focus on quantity rather than quality. Today’s food systems tend to be ‘consumer-centric’, meaning that they respond to what we want rather than what we need. As the world population increases, many of the poorest will live in urban slums, and the challenge will be to provide them with access to affordable, nutritious food. We must find better ways to retain micronutrients in crops from farm to fork, yet at the same time keep them affordable for developing countries. One solution may be found in our ability to produce nutrient dense crops through conventional breeding, as well as using biotechnological approaches. The potential of genetically modified foods to address some of these challenges was touched upon. Interestingly, Dr. Bertini compared some public responses to genetically modified crops to earlier attitudes toward the umbrella term ‘processed food;’ with the thinking that GMOs, like processed foods, are not always as bad as they are made out to be, and have in fact saved lives. 

   A wonderful success story from the conference came from a panel of collaborators representing the ‘Plant Factory’, a vertical farm hydroponic system that was developed for the Opaskwayak Cree First Nations people in Manitoba. The ‘Plant Factory’ employs a highly specialized farming technology that was developed in South Korea. The aboriginals of Northern Canada suffer higher levels of chronic diseases such as diabetes, and shorter life spans than the rest of the population. Improving access to affordable and nutritious fruits and vegetables year round could be one solution. The story doesn’t end there; many requests for vertical farms have now been made by other Northern communities, such as the Inuit. It could be hoped that this smart farm technology could be incorporated in developing countries as well. 

   As much as I enjoyed the Food Factory, my favorite panel of the conference was ‘Bridging the Gap Between Agriculture and Health, Field, Fork, Function.’ Queensland’s James Dale discussed his golden bananas for Africa, that had been genetically modified to express high levels of Vitamin A. Another eye-catching panelist was Fayaz Khazi of Intrexon. Intrexon has purchased Aquabounty, the company which produces transgenic salmon, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, maker of the non-browning Arctic Apple, and Oxitec, the company that uses genome editing technologies to reduce mosquito populations. The success stories of these GM products provided a bright ending to a hectic few days in a prairie city."-Kathleen Hefferon