Ag biotech Increase yield and tolerance to feed burgeoning world

Continued advances in agricultural biotechnology are pivotal to increase crop yields to feed a burgeoning world population expected to surpass 9 billion by 2042.

The world's population doubled from 3 billion in 1959 to 6 billion in 1999. As of June 2008 the world's population is believed to be just under 6.7 billion. In line with population projections, this figure continues to grow at rates that were unprecedented before the 20th century, although the rate of increase has almost halved since its peak of 2.2 percent per year, which was reached in 1963.

“Technology can solve the problems (of starvation) in the 21st century if we're allowed to use it,” according to David Davis, president and co-founder, Performance Plants Inc., Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

The advancement of agricultural biotechnology has been slowed by social activists who advocate smaller-scale agriculture.

“Some want us to go back to agricultural technology from many years ago. You wouldn't want to drive a Model T Ford on a super highway,” Davis said. “You can't solve 21st century problems with 1920s technology.”

Davis spoke on ag biotech during a safe and sustainable food supply workshop recently at the Bio International Convention in San Diego, Calif., attended by 25,000 people from more than 220 countries.

Davis said about 800 million people worldwide are currently malnourished. That's 25 times the population of Canada or 2.5 times the U.S. population. Meanwhile climatic conditions and increasing population numbers are drying up acreage in the Southwestern U.S., India, and Africa. Overall, aquifers are 10 percent full; that's 90 percent empty, he said.

Agriculture utilizes about 70 percent of the world's water supply for food production; about 40 percent on irrigated land. Davis advocated the continued expansion of renewable fuels over fossil fuel use.

Davis highlighted technological advances in crop production over the last 80 years. U.S. corn yields from 1865 to the 1930s remained constant. Since 1996, biotechnology-led advancements have increased U.S. corn yields by 60 percent to 70 percent to about 160 bushels an acre today, a major achievement for a short period of time.

“Without the introduction of technology, we would not have seen this change.”

The major factors that reduce yields include environmental stresses (68 percent), actual yield (22 percent), and diseases, insects, and weeds (10 percent). The number one environmental stress is drought.

At Performance Plants, Davis is conducting breeding research to increase yields while improving stress tolerances including drought, plus focusing on heat protection at flowering and increased seed size.

On the bioenergy front, he said growing for crops for energy versus food is a mounting issue. Among the likely crops for energy conversion include miscanthus, switchgrass, poplar trees, sorghum, and willow trees. Growing miscanthus on 3.2 percent of the earth's land mass would satisfy all mankind's energy needs.

“Creating energy from agricultural wastes (such as corn stalks) is a poor option since the wastes provide nutrients and carbon back in the soil.”

The development of genetically modified (GE) crops has been slowed due to resistance from social activists who echo fears of “Frankenfoods.”

“I think it's time that we should favorably compare ourselves with medical biotech. If it's not inherently suspicious, then food biotech is not inherently suspicious,” said Les Crawford, senior counselor, Policy Directions Inc., Washington, D.C. He suggested highly-sophisticated “Did You Know” advertising campaigns to advance the knowledge of biotech's successes and solutions for the future.

“Based on reports and analyses on the global food situation, the demand of consumers, and emerging issues like energy and water supply, now is perhaps the hour for food biotechnology,” Crawford said. “It's been a long and torturous battle. Here's the technology that offers the prescription for today's needs in food production.”

An uphill battle on the biotech front could be gaining financial support from state and federal lawmakers in support of biotech expansion. In Indiana, state Senator Robert Jackman, a farm veterinarian, has worked to bring attention and dollars to advance biotechnology.

Since 2002, the Indiana General Assembly (legislature) has passed a handful of pro-biotech initiatives including BioTown USA in Reynolds, Ind. The project showcases community energy sufficiency by converting biomass to energy to power homes and businesses, and promotes biodiesel and ethanol use.

“We're taking agricultural wastes from nearby livestock operations and combining them with industrial wastes to run through a methane digester to produce energy to run the town of Reynolds, Ind.,” said Jackman, Milroy, Ind.

U.S. farmers have the ability to feed the world if they're allowed to do so though biotech, Jackman said. “The American farmer is no stranger to challenges.”

Mexico is also onboard in advancing its agricultural industry through biotech research. Cesar de Anda, chief executive officer, Inova Group, Guadalajara, Mexico, said the North American Free Trade Agreement is the platform that's moving companies into the biotech arena including exporting value-added products to Asia, Europe, and other markets.

With 50 years in the chicken egg business, the Inova Group is developing biotech technology to expand traditional egg uses beyond liquid, powder, and frozen forms. The company is extracting the lyzosime enzyme from egg whites to lengthen the shelf life of food products including wine and cheese.

A joint venture with a Canadian company will extract the antibody IgY from egg yolks for a product to create a product that fights human disease.

The Keystone Initiative was advocated by Jeff Barach, vice president, special projects, Food Projects Association. The objective is to create a single platform that can be used across the overall agricultural supply chain to improve the overall sustainability of production agriculture, rather than any one single entity. The idea is to focus on the U.S. agricultural supply chain and establish methods applicable to other chains and geographies.

Jackman shared results from an Indiana survey that showed one-third of consumers believe the food supply is safe. Another finding indicated the humane treatment of farm animals is more important than environmental protection or treatment of workers.

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