Dr. Wayne Parrott
Dr. Wayne Parrott is a Professor in the Department of Crop & Soil Sciences at the University of Georgia in Athens. He teaches plant genetics courses at the University as well as a course that focuses on agricultural sustainability. He also runs a laboratory research program which uses biotechnology to improve crops.
Tell us about your work.
My work centers on developing methods to genetically engineer crops and then to use these crops effectively.
We work on several projects related to soybeans. The one we have been working on the longest is insect resistance, trying to combine both biotech and traditional approaches to come up with insect resistance that is effective, durable and economical. We have started working on nematode resistance. Nematodes are very difficult to control with traditional methods. We are also trying to develop a specialty soybean for use by certain industries such as the poultry or the aquaculture industry.
Additional work is aimed at getting alfalfa to grow on a broader range of soils, and trying to make switchgrass more amenable as a source of cellulosic bioethanol.
You will be on the panel “Plant Biotechnology’s Role in Advancing Sustainable Development.” What is plant biotechnology’s role in advancing sustainable development?
The role that agricultural biotechnology has played in advancing sustainability is unfortunately a very well kept secret.
One of the exciting things about the advent of the biotech crops in the past 10 years is that they have really changed farming practices. Things that were environmentally unfriendly and unsustainable such as plowing are going out the window. If you don’t have to plow as much, you don’t have to burn as much fossil fuel, you don’t produce as many greenhouse gases; your soil won’t erode with rainfall which means you don’t clog up canals, streams and rivers with sediment.
Agriculture biotechnology also means we have been able to eliminate older chemical herbicides classes and replace them with more environmental friendly types. In terms of insecticides we have been able to really cut down on the number of insecticides used, which means we are able to increase the availability of beneficial insects and desirable organisms in the crop fields.
Biotech will be very important in the future as well. In the year 2000 there was about 5 and a half acres that could be used to feed every person on the planet. By the year 2020, when there is projected to be 7 billion people, there will be only 4 and a half acres available to feed every person alive.
In other words, in order to feed the world’s population in the year 2020 we will have to increase production per acre by 40 percent relative to what it was in the year 2000. And we have to do it without cutting down forests and expanding into environmentally sensitive areas, without using more resources such as fuel and water, and while reducing the use of insecticides and fertilizer.
A year ago reports began to appear of the global food crisis. Where are we now?
We are still waiting with bated breath for the next harvest to fail. What brought the last global food crisis on was that there were droughts in a couple of key areas of the world. The droughts demonstrated that in this day-and-age, all that it takes is for one part of the world to have a bad growing season and the rest of the world then faces a food shortage.
The goal of agricultural biotech is to stabilize yield. We have generations of crops coming up that are more drought-tolerant, and stress tolerant in general, so if there is a bad growing season somewhere in the world, the impact on the world food situation should not be as drastic as it was last year.
What would surprise most people about agricultural biotechnology?
There are a lot of groups that position themselves as environmentalists and that oppose genetically modified crops. But, the people who oppose genetically modified crops and those developing genetically modified crops have the same goals in mind, which include: achieving sustainability, promoting the long-term environmental benefits of reducing the use of resources such as fossil fuels and water, securing economic prosperity for agricultural communities, and reducing our environmental footprint. We just differ on the way to achieve these goals. We have 13 years of data from about 25 countries in the world that demonstrate that ag biotech crops are much more environmentally friendly compared to what was done in the past and support the continued use and development of genetically modified crops.