The biggest challenge for genetically modified crops is overcoming public resistance, says Timothy Dennehy, former entomologist with the University of Arizona.
Denneny, who now manages the global insecticide resistance program for Bayer CropSciences, says it’s a delicate balancing act to convince people.
“We can’t win by shoving things down people’s throats,” he said at the recent Southwest Ag Summit at Yuma, Ariz. “We have to respect people’s opinions, even if they’re not science based.”
By 2050, conference speakers noted, the world will need to double its food production. How it will do that is the question.
“We’re not making new land,” said Jeffrey Silvertooth, associate dean and director for extension and economic development for the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Just the opposite, in fact: Millions of acres of arable land for growing crops are being lost around the world due to degradation.
“We’re already facing widespread hunger,” Silvertooth says. There is a bottleneck caused by unprecedented growth in population, expected to exceed nine billion by 2050, placing maximum demand on natural resources and maximum need for human ingenuity.
“Norman Borlaug showed what can be done with technology,” Silvertooth says, referring to the American biologist who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution” for his plant breeding research. “He was addressing the same issue in the 1940s — the population monster.”
In a research position in Mexico, Borlaug developed semi-dwarf, high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties and combined them with modern agricultural production techniques in Mexico, Pakistan, and India.
Problems still exist
Mexico became a net exporter of wheat by 1963, and wheat yields nearly doubled between 1965 and 1970 in Pakistan and India, staving off starvation for a billion people. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increased food supply.
“But the hunger war isn’t over,” Silvertooth says. “The problem hasn’t gone away. We still have a lot of work to do.”
Plant breeding — the crossing of plants with desirable traits to create a new variety — has been going on since the dawn of human agriculture some 10,000 years ago, he notes. “Plants today are very different from their parent plants. Corn is a good example; you can hardly see the similarities in the plants.”
Ancient farmers in what is now Mexico took the first steps in domesticating maize (also known as corn) when they simply chose which kernels to plant. They saved kernels from plants with desirable characteristics and planted them for the next season's harvest. Maize cobs became larger over time, with more rows of kernels, and eventually took on the form of the modern crop.
Transgenic or molecular breeding takes that selective process a step further in the lab, transferring a gene for a desired trait into a recipient plant, then backcrossing or traditionally breeding the recipient several times until the modified property is incorporated into the plant’s genome for commercial use.
Benefits of GMO’s
Traits might include natural resistance to a destructive pest or disease, herbicide tolerance, higher yields, improved quality, or increased nutritional value.
Transgenic crops, also known as GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or biotechs, have met with resistance amid fears they might harm humans or the environment.
There is no scientific evidence of harm to humans, and they’re actually beneficial to the environment, Silvertooth says. He cites the example of the pink bollworm that was devastating the cotton industry in the early 1950s, when fields were being sprayed 15 to 20 times a year. Transgenic cotton containing the Bt gene that made the plant toxic to the bollworm was first planted in Arizona in 1996. Its adoption resulted in an 82 percent decrease in pesticide applications, increasing safety for workers and improving field ecology through recovery of beneficial insects.
Today nearly all — if not all — cotton planted in Arizona, and much of the crop worldwide, is Bt varieties. “We see the benefit in Arizona,” Silvertooth says. “It’s a viable technology that has its place.”
That view is not universally shared around the world. For example, two African countries, Zambia and Zimbabwe, have rejected shipments of genetically modified corn from the United States, even though millions of their citizens were in need of emergency food aid.
Reduce environmental impact
Rick Ward, director of the University of Arizona Maricopa Agriculture Center, added his voice to the urgency for new technology to close the food gap. While food production has increased over the years, he says, the rate of increase is declining.
“We won’t make the 69 percent increases in food production needed by 2050 unless we push out forests — and that’s not good for climate change,” Ward said. “But we can’t have places with people with empty stomachs. The challenge whether people will be poisoned by GMOs; it’s whether their children and grandchildren will be fighting over food. It’s not about a fuzzy feeling about food, it’s about basic humanity.”
Yet, he says, there’s not one GMO field of wheat planted in the world. “Wheat is an extraordinarily important crop but not one country allows anyone to plant a commercial GMO wheat field.”
Acceptance of other GMO crops is growing around the globe, Ward says. In 1996, six countries — the U.S., China, Argentina, Canada, Australia, and Mexico — planted biotech crops. By 2014, 18 million farmers in 28 countries planted more than 46 million acres of biotech crops, a 100-fold increase, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. Another 39 countries imported biotech crops in 2014.
While the dominant biotech crops are soybeans, corn, cotton, and canola, other crops are quickly being added to the list. The U.S. recently approved biotech potatoes and alfalfa, Bangladesh just approved Bt eggplant (the poor man’s potato there), Taiwan has approved GMO cotton, Australia and New Zealand in January approved GMO sugar beets. The European Union recently approved a law to allow member countries to decide whether to grow GMOs.
Ward, who worked on wheat breeding with Borlaug in Mexico and on projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, says it’s also critical to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. For instance, the Gulf of Mexico often becomes a dead zone from fertilizer runoff, with an impact on fish, wildlife, and humans.
Meanwhile, Hawaii has resisted all GMO crops except papayas, says Dennehy. That crop was in danger of extinction until a biotech variety resistant to a devastating virus was developed,
“Industry is working very hard,” he says. “The last 12 months there has been an avalanche of new and novel possibilities.”
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