Today is World Water Day, a day set aside annually on March 22 as a means to focus attention on the importance of freshwater and to encourage people everywhere to sustainably use water resources. It’s also a day to think about the role agricultural biotechnology can play in helping people who most rely on water for their livelihood - our farmers.
Water in the form of irrigation and rainfall is essential for all food production. And agriculture accounts for about 70% of global freshwater usage, according to the United Nations, and as much as 90% in some fast-growing economies.
Fresh in our memory is last summer’s record drought, the worst experienced in the United States since 1988. About 87 percent of the nation’s corn crop and 85 percent of soybeans experienced drought conditions last July and August, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The result was lower corn, soybean and other crop yields across the Midwest and South, generating less income for farmers and farm communities.
Amidst last year’s drought, there was hope offered by new biotechnology technologies that can help farmers cope with drought. Farmers who planted new varieties of drought-tolerant corn last year found these crops to be more resilient to drought conditions than other varieties. There are other promising biotech seed varieties in the research and development pipeline that will help farmers get “more crop per drop” of precious water.
For farmers, the reality is that every day is World Water Day, because crops will always need water. But any technology that enables plants to use it more efficiently can give our farmers an edge - even a small one - to grow the food we need to feed America and export to others around the world.
The fast pace of population growth and high consumption behaviors make it necessary to double global food production by 2050. A presentation at the 2012 Greenbiz Forum discusses the importance of increasing crop yields without using more natural resources.
Jon Foley, Director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota, points out in the presentation that improving resource efficiency through using less land and water “could add 50 to 60 percent more food to the world with almost no impact on the environment.” Other experts have noted that biotechnology has the ability to boost the amount of food production per acre while better managing water resources, particularly in the face of drought or water shortages. Read more.
What traits would the “perfect plant” have? In Science’s “Sowing the Seeds for the Ideal Crop,” researchers present a wish list of crop improvements needed to increase production and achieve sustainability.
Some of researchers’ “lofty goals” include restructuring root and leaf architecture to increase water use efficiency, improving the nutrient content of seeds and edible plant parts, and adding genes for toxins that will killonly pest insects.
The article also discusses technologies that can make these changes possible, such as artificial chromosomes, RNA interference, targeted gene replacement and robotics. While these techniques are still being developed and refined, it is clear to scientists that they are part of the solution to providing more food for the world.
Science also provides further insight into how to feed the world’s growing population with their video, “Feeding the Future.”
Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle addressed the importance of biotechnology in feeding the world in a recent Politico article.
He writes, “In the past 25 years alone, farmers in the United States have boosted corn production by more than 40 percent. And products in the ag pipeline offer the promise of nutritional outputs that will improve products and boost yields. In order to realize these new technologies, we must foster innovation by incentivizing and encouraging investment in biotech and broader agricultural research and development.”
Daschle believes there are four core pillars on which agricultural leaders must organize an agenda:
1. We must support scientific and technological innovation in agriculture.
2. We must facilitate an open, competitive marketplace.
3. We must collaborate to innovate.
4. We must empower farmers worldwide with the tools necessary to meet this growing demand.
He concludes, “The challenges we face are daunting. But I remain confident that harnessing the innovation of our policymakers, scientists and farmers around the world will put us on track to feed the world and preserve its resources. Indeed, we have no other choice.”
Andrew Revkin, science reporter from the New York Times Dot Earth Blog shared in his blog post “A Menu feeding 9 Billion” that Science Magazine, the premier national academic science journal, removed the pay wall from the report “Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People.” According to Revkin, the paper discusses the difficulty of feeding a growing population with current agricultural practices, but “expresses optimism that a sustained focus on efficiency, technology and policy innovations can do the trick.”
The authors of the report prepared a chart with examples of possible strategic traits that could be engineered in specific crops, helping farmers produce significant crop yields even in marginal circumstances. Examples of traits include: salinity tolerance and increased nitrogen-use efficiency.
The paper stresses “that technology alone is far from sufficient if policies are not shifted to advance the appropriate use of the right agricultural strategy or tool in the right place.” Therefore, the authors also point to areas such as aquaculture and food waste management as tools that can increase sustainable production limits.
The authors of this analysis believe that the complex regulatory structure for GM crops needs to be simplified so more resources are allocated towards GM crop development. They believe that these efforts, along with improved aquaculture practices, will help us improve food security worldwide and combat the effects of a changing climate. The authors of this report conclude by saying, “But if we are to resume progress towards eliminating hunger, we must scale up and further build on the innovative approaches already under development, and we must do so immediately.”