Technology to Feed the World
The world's population is expected to grow from today's 6 billion to about 8 billion by 2030. Feeding all of these people and eliminating hunger will require advances in food production and distribution that enhance food supplies without damaging the environment. Agricultural biotechnology is one tool that holds great promise for alleviating hunger and poverty. However recent concerns about genetically modified crops may curtail their widespread use. Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture, a new white paper issued by a working group of seven national science academies, including five from the developing world, examines the potential for genetically modified crops to assist developing countries, and the issues that need to be addressed.
Biotechnology at Work
Farmers have been battling pests for centuries, using everything from conventional plant-breeding techniques to chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides. But because of environmental and health concerns, the development of new chemical treatments has declined in recent years. Now scientists are using the tools of advanced molecular biology to endow plants with genes that help them resist pests. Although breeding practices have been used for years to develop crops with desirable traits, scientists can now pinpoint genes from similar species -- or even from completely unrelated organisms -- and transfer those protective genes into crops.
What are genetically modified foods? How prevalent are they? How are they regulated? The U.S. Department of Agriculture answers frequently asked questions. The University of Wisconsin provides a glossary of terms.
Like most significant scientific innovations, bioengineered seeds did not emerge solely from the efforts of scientists to improve pest or weed control. Beyond Discovery: Designer Seeds explores the history of genetically modified crops.
Take a photo tour of the genetic-engineering process at the Center for Engineering Plants for Resistance Against Pathogens, one of 25 National Science Foundation-supported Science and Technology Centers throughout the United States.
A Global Concern
Today there are some 800 million people (18 percent of the population in the developing world) who do not have sufficient food to meet their needs. Malnutrition plays a significant role in half the nearly 12 million deaths each year of Third World children under five. Growing enough staple crops -- such as corn, rice, wheat, yams, and potatoes -- without further expanding the amount of land that must be cultivated will require substantial increases in yields per acre. Agricultural Biotechnology and the Poor, a report of an international conference on biotechnology convened by the World Bank's Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, explores the potential impact of biotechnology in developing countries.
Boosting food production has always been the highest agricultural priority in China because of the country's massive population. It is estimated that by 2030, food production will need to increase by at least 60 percent to keep pace with population growth.
The debate on biotechnology use in Africa must be considered in the context of that continent's need for more food and the survival of its people. Africa has the highest population growth rate in the world, making it difficult to maintain adequate food supplies. Yet agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa has stagnated in the past two decades for many reasons, including a shortage of arable land, inadequate rainfall, and an abundance of pests and diseases. In Kenya, biotechnology experiments are leading to increased production of bananas, potatoes, sugarcane, and commercially grown flowers.
Agriculture is one of the most important sectors of Costa Rica's economy. But agricultural expansion has resulted in poor natural resource management. For example, the use of pesticides has contaminated land and water, threatened wildlife, and poisoned high numbers of field workers. A major challenge for sustainable development will be finding innovative ways to link conservation and biotechnology to increase agricultural production on less land, with lower pesticide use.
Plants and Population: Is There Time? the Proceedings of a National Academy of Sciences colloquium, explores how the world can feed its expanding population in a sustainable way while maintaining enough undeveloped land to support and preserve essential ecosystems and biodiversity.
Transition to Sustainability in the 21st Century, a conference of the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues, included a session that examined how food production and distribution would need to meet growing demands in the next 50 years.
Leading experts discuss how genetically modified crops could affect nutrition in developing countries on the April 14 edition of Science Friday, a broadcast of National Public Radio.
Protecting Health and the Environment
To date more than 98 million acres (39 hectares) of genetically modified crops have been grown worldwide. No evidence of human health problems associated specifically with the ingestion of these crops or resulting food products have been identified, but concerns have been raised about the potential for transgenic food products to cause allergic reactions or produce toxic compounds. In addition, concrete information on the effects of transgenic plants on the environment and on biological diversity is still sparse.
Every country should have systems in place to identify and monitor potential adverse effects from pest-protected crops, whether modified through modern biotechnology or through conventional breeding practices. A committee of the National Research Council recently reviewed the U.S. regulatory process and concluded that regulatory agencies should do a better job of coordinating their work and expanding public access to the process as the volume and mix of these types of plants on the market increase. The committee said it was not aware of any evidence suggesting foods on the market today are unsafe to eat as a result of genetic modification.
News Conference (requires RealPlayer)
Cultivating Public Confidence in Genetically Modified Crops op-ed article
The National Research Council of the National Academies has established a standing committee of experts to examine the ongoing scientific issues surrounding biotechnology used for agriculture and food production. As part of that effort, the committee is holding a July 13-14 workshop on the ecological monitoring of genetically modified crops. In addition, a study on the environmental impacts associated with the commercialization of transgenic crops is
Using a science-based method to assess and control potential environmental risks and benefits of genetically modified crops is discussed in a paper from Agricultural Biotechnology and the Poor.
Biotechnology for All?
Most genetically modified technology has been developed primarily for large-scale agriculture in the industrialized world - to make a small number of major crops more resistant to certain insects or viruses. Today, private companies can obtain plant varieties free from farmers and from noncommercial organizations, add a new gene, and then sell those seeds back to farmers with legal protections against copying or reuse. The science academies' white paper notes that the issue of intellectual property rights deserves special consideration when it comes to the needs of Third World farmers. For example, poor farmers in developing countries must be allowed to save seed for future use if they wish to do so.
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