The first commercial planting of a genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified (GM) crop was in 1995 in North America. Since then, these products of modern agricultural biotechnology have spread throughout the world.

Although, at present, only 20 or so countries commercially grow generically engineered crops, over 70 have active research programs in agricultural biotechnology. Many critics of genetically engineered crops and food have proclaimed the technology to be a failure. However in 2007 the global acreage of GE crops rose to over 280 million acres.

Over 12 million, mostly resource poor, farmers used genetically engineered seeds last year. This represents an increase of 12 percent over 2006.

Farmers are very smart. They must be in order to survive the varied pressures of growing crops. No one could hope to fool all of the farmers all of the time. The continued global demand for GE crops definitely argues this technology represents a significant step forward in agricultural science.

Two traits, herbicide tolerant (HT) and insect resistant (IR), dominated the early years of GE crops. Here in Canada the vast majority of GE crop acreage is herbicide tolerant canola.

Fully 95 percent of Canadian canola is HT, with over 75 percent being products of genetic engineering. Growing HT crops allow for easier weed control, better soil and water conservation and reduced green house gas emissions.

This is exactly why Canadian farmers have overwhelmingly chosen to plant GE varieties of canola. On a global scale the success of these crops can be measured in the landmark billionth acre planted in 2007.

Most of the acreage was planted with GE cotton, soy and corn. Although herbicide tolerance dominated the first decade of biotech crops, genetically engineered insect resistance is rapidly gaining ground.

The greatest threat to corn (or maize) is insect damage. Scientists have developed varieties of corn with built in insect resistance. A common soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) has been used as a ``safe natural pesticide" by organic farmers for 50 years.

These bacteria produce proteins that are deadly to very selective insect pests. Non-target insects are unaffected. Scientists transferred the bacterial Bt gene into corn, resulting in protection from insect damage.

Planting Bt-corn allowed farmers to maintain or increase yields while reducing their use of organophosphate insecticides.

Fungi contamination of crops is a global problem and some species of fungi produce powerful mycotoxins. Fumonisin B is one such toxin that can contaminate corn products. This potent toxin blocks folic acid metabolism and therefore represents a real health threat to fetal development in livestock and people.

Italian researchers, sponsored by the University of Milan, found Bt-corn varieties had much lower levels of this nasty toxin compared to identical non-GE corn varieties. The same study also found a 28-43 percent yield increase for the genetically engineered corn varieties.

Bt-corn has consistently shown dramatically reduced levels of Fumonisin B compared to conventional or organically grown corn. Clearly less pesticide use, reduced insect damage and the resulting low levels of Fumonisin B found on Bt-corn represent a significant health benefit of this GE crop.

Now researchers are developing corn varieties (conventional and GE) with reduced aflatoxin. This particular fungal toxin can be deadly, and was responsible for over 100 deaths in Kenya alone in 2007.

Wheat farmers around the globe are carefully watching the spread of a resistant variety of fungus called Ug 99. Agricultural scientists are worried that this particular fungus could have devastating effects on global wheat production.

Conventional farmers use synthetic fungicides while organic agriculture use toxic copper compounds to reduce fungal damage of their crops. Therefore, all farmers should be interested in fungal resistant varieties being developed.

Approximately 30 percent of all food is destroyed by bacterial or fungal contamination before it can be consumed. Therefore, this represents an area with potentially huge yield increases without an increase in acreage under the plough.

With this goal in mind, several countries have on-going field trials of genetically engineered fungal resistance in wheat, potatoes, strawberries, bananas, papaya, and rice crops to name but a few.

The world's population is predicted to reach 8-10 billion in the next few decades. The demand to produce more food will put tremendous pressure on the environment. Already millions of acres of arable land are lost each year to soil loss and degradation.

If we want to save the remaining wilderness from the plough, agricultural science must find better ways to produce more food on less land.

The world is presently experiencing a steep rise in food prices. Wheat prices have doubled, in part due to a decade long drought in Australia's wheat growing region. Water is rapidly becoming one of the most important variables in agriculture.

Shifting weather patterns, pollution and over exploitation of groundwater resources show the present use (70 percent of the world's fresh water) for agriculture is not sustainable. We must learn to do more with less.

Fortunately researchers have been hard at work developing genetically engineered crops that are drought tolerant. Maintaining yields in the face of less than ideal water conditions will undoubtedly become very important in the future.

The adoption of GE crops in North America is dramatic, with over 90 percent of the soy, 60 percent of the corn, 70 percent of the cotton and 75 percent of the canola planted being products of biotechnology. Europe has few commercial acres but very extensive research programs.

The biggest change will come in the less developed world. China alone has carried out over 2000 field trials on different GE crops and India and Brazil are not far behind. There is little doubt this technology will become very important in the near future.

There is no single type of agriculture that can be used to feed the world. Genetically modified crops are not a panacea. However, the world simply does not have the luxury of disregarding any type of agriculture for ideological reasons. We will need the best of every form of agriculture to help feed the world. Sustainability is essential.

Decades of research and twelve years of commercial growth show genetically engineered crops have significant yield increases, with reduced environmental impact.

The next wave of innovation will see more varieties of disease resistant crops that require little or no pesticide inputs. The world can expect to benefit from genetically engineered crops that produce cheaper pharmaceuticals. The demand for biofuels will be met using non-food crops.

Drought and salt tolerant varieties will help maintain yields in degraded environments. This, in turn, will take the pressure of the remaining wilderness.

And finally, the world's poor will benefit from nutritionally enhanced staple crops like golden rice and cassava. The future looks bright with genetically engineered crops playing a significant role in global agriculture.

 

Originally published The Korea Times July 31 2008

By Robert Wager