Persistent poverty and environmental degradation in developing countries, changing global climatic patterns, and the use of food crops to produce biofuels, all pose new and unprecedented risks and opportunities for global agriculture in the years ahead.
Agricultural science and technology, including the indispensable tools of biotechnology, will be critical to meeting the growing demands for food, feed, fibre and biofuels. Plant breeders will be challenged to produce seeds that are equipped to better handle saline conditions, resist disease and insects, droughts and waterlogging, and that can protect or increase yields, whether in distressed climates or the breadbaskets of the world. This flourishing new branch of science extends to food crops, fuels, fibres, livestock and even forest products.
Over the millennia, farmers have practised bringing together the best characteristics of individual plants and animals to make more vigorous and productive offspring. The early domesticators of our food and animal species— most likely Neolithic women— were also the first biotechnologists, as they selected more adaptable, durable and resilient plants and animals to provide food, clothing and shelter.
In the late 19th century, the foundations for science-based crop improvement were laid by Darwin, Mendel, Pasteur and others. Pioneering plant breeders applied systematic cross-breeding of plants and selection of offspring with desirable traits to develop hybrid corn, the first great practical science-based products of genetic engineering.
Early cross-breeding experiments to select desirable characteristics took years to reach the desired developmental state of a plant or animal. Today, with the tools of biotechnology, such as molecular and marker-assisted selection, the ends are reached in a more organized and accelerated way. The result is the advent of a “Gene” Revolution that stands to equal, if not exceed, the Green Revolution of the 20th century.
Consider these examples:
• Since 1996, the planting of genetically modified crops developed through biotechnology has spread to about 250 million acres from about five million acres around the world, with half of that area in Latin America and Asia. This has increased global farm income by $27 billionannually.
• Agriculture biotechnology has reduced pesticide applications by nearly £500 million since 1996. In each of the last six years, biotech cotton saved US farmers from using 93 million gallons of water in water-scarce areas, 2.4 million gallons of fuel, and 41,000 person-days to apply the pesticides they formerly used.
• Herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans have enabled greater adoption of minimum-tillage practices. No-till farming has increased 35% in the US since 1996, saving millions of gallons of fuel, perhaps one billion tonnes of soil each year from running into waterways, and significantly improving moisture conservation as well.
• Improvements in crop yields and processing through biotechnology can accelerate the availability of biofuels. While the current emphasis is on using corn and soybeans to produce ethanol, the long-term solution will be ethanol made from forest industry by-products and products.
However, science and technology should not be viewed as a panacea that can solve all of our resource problems. Biofuels can reduce dependence on fossil fuels, but are not a substitute for greater fuel efficiency and energy conservation. Whether we like it or not, gas-guzzling SUVs will have to go the way of thedinosaurs.
So far, most biotechnology research and development has been carried out by the private sector and on crops and traits of greatest interest to relatively wealthy farmers. More biotechnology research is needed on crops and traits most important to the world’s poor—crops such as beans, peanuts, tropical roots, bananas, and tubers such as cassava and yams. Also, more biotech research is needed to enhance the nutritional content of food crops for essential minerals and vitamins, such as vitamin A, iron and zinc.
The debate about the suitability of biotech agricultural products goes beyond issues of food safety. Access to biotech seeds by poor farmers is a dilemma that will require interventions by governments and the private sector. Seed companies can help improve access by offering preferential pricing for small quantities of biotech seeds to smallholder farmers. Beyond that, public-private partnerships are needed to share R&D costs for “pro-poor” biotechnology.
Finally, I should point out that there is nothing magic in an improved variety alone. Unless that variety is nourished with fertilizers—chemical or organic—and grown with good crop management, it will not achieve much of its genetic yield potential.
Norman E. Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, America’s highest civilian honour on 17 July. Comment at email@example.com