Special CBI guest blogger, Dr. Nina Fedoroff - Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State and to the Administrator of the US Agency for International Development
Over the past year, the world has experienced a succession of shocks: a global food crisis, spiraling energy costs, accelerating climate change and most recently, a financial meltdown. But even as each crisis sweeps the previous one out of awareness, it is important to recognize that the food crisis is neither sudden nor quickly fixed. It has developed gradually as a result of relentless increases in demand in the context of a finite natural resource base and decreasing global investment in agricultural research and development. At the present rate of growth in population and affluence, we will need to double the food supply by mid-century. Yet the amount of land farmed hasn’t changed appreciably in more than half century, nor is it likely to change substantially over the next half century. And climate change is expected to decrease yields, even on today’s most productive farm land. Where will the food come from?
Contemporary genetic modification of crop plants is embedded in a history of plant domestication that transformed plants profoundly from their wild origins. No crop better illustrates both the genetic plasticity of plants and the inventiveness of humans better than the maize (corn) plant. Thousands of years before science formally entered agriculture in the late 18th century, early peoples had transformed the hard-seeded teosinte rachis into the soft-kernelled early maize ear through the accumulation of a handful of genetic changes that completely altered the architecture of the plant.
Scientific advances in the understanding of plants’ chemical requirements throughout the 19th century culminated in the invention of the Haber-Bosch process for synthesis of fertilizer from atmospheric nitrogen in the early 20th century, removing a major limitation on the productivity of agriculture. The rediscovery of Mendel’s genetic experiments in the early 20th century led serendipitously to the development of today’s highly productive maize hybrids, one of humanity’s handful of major cereal grains. The identification of mutant dwarf varieties of wheat and rice that are highly responsive to fertilization belied renewed Malthusian predictions at mid-20th century, giving rise to the Green Revolution.
The late 20th century witnessed a second genetic revolution with the invention of recombinant DNA technology, the explosion of genome sequencing, and the development of techniques for the introduction of individual genes into microorganisms, plants, and animals. Today, it is possible to modify organisms, including crop plants, in extremely precise ways, adding just one or a few genes at a time. Curiously, these latest genetic modifications, much less profound than those that gave us our crops to begin with, have come to be viewed as unprecedented and possibly even dangerous by a largely urban public unfamiliar with farms and farming, plants and plant breeding.
While contemporary genetic modification (only this kind is called GM) was readily accepted both in medicine and in the food and beverage industry, GM crop plants have remained controversial for more than 25 years. Nonetheless, despite the controversies, several important crop plants modified to resist insects and tolerate herbicides have steadily gained acceptance throughout the world. Today, genetically modified cotton, corn, soybeans and canola are grown in 25 countries by more than 13 million farmers, 90% of whom are resource-poor farmers with small holdings. To date, there is no evidence of adverse effects on either human or animal health, while substantial environmental benefits have been realized, including decreased use of pesticides and increased adoption of no-till farming. Although some countries remain adamantly opposed to the use of contemporary genetic modification, there is increasing awareness that these are important tools in the success of global efforts to lift the last billion out of hunger and poverty through agricultural intensification and decreased crop loss. Moreover, molecular modification will be an indispensable tool in the adaptation of crop plants to changing climatic conditions. Let’s get on with it!