A Green Future for the Poor May03
People started farming crops about 10,000 years ago. Since then,
vast amounts of food, animal feed and fibre have been consumed. We need
double the amount consumed so far to feed the world’s population over
the coming 50 years.
How can we achieve a green revolution with the limited arable land
we have without polluting our land with increasing amounts of chemical
fertiliser and resorting to intensive farming that compromises on taste
and quality of our food on the table?
Plant biotechnology builds on the lessons of traditional plant
breeding, as it has the same goal of improving the quality and yield of
crop plants. It can boost the nutrient and vitamin content of crops,
reduce allergenic characteristics, make plants disease resistant and
thrive on salty or sandy soils. Such plants can stop desertification,
yield biofuel and can feed both man and his animals in barren lands.
Genetic engineering has long been used in food production. In
nature, enzymes control metabolism in plants and humans and we have used
GM techniques to manufacture enzymes in the laboratory because they are
purer and cheaper to produce. These enzymes optimise fats and proteins,
stabilise mousses and creams, add taste to hams and sausages, preserve
mayonnaise and egg-based products, give cheese and red wine their perfect
aroma, separate fatty acids from butter/cheese/cream, create a spicy or
roast flavour from proteins and act biochemically to remove fruit peel.
Enzymes help in the extraction of citrus essences, keep cornflakes crisp
and stop ice cream wafers going soft.
Advances in biotechnology are most significant for five important
crops: maize (corn), soya bean, rice, oil seed rape (canola) and cotton.
Throughout the world, 49 genetically modified crops (GMO) have received
market authorisation. 99 per cent are grown in just four countries: USA
35.7m ha; Argentina 11.8m ha; Canada 3.2m ha and China 1.5m ha. The most
important genetically modified plant is soya, accounting for 46% of global
GMO production, followed by cotton (20%), oil seed rape (11%) and corn
(7%). Most GMOs (77%) are resistant to herbicides while 15 per cent
contain genes to combat insect pests. Some GMOs (8%) have both properties.
The list of genetically improved plants also includes potatoes, flax,
rice, sugar beet, wheat, chicory and faster ripening tomatoes.
More than five million farmers in 13 countries have been growing GM
crops. In Canada 80 per cent of farmers growing oil seed rape use GM
varieties as they plough less, retain more soil moisture, achieve more
efficient weed control, realise higher yields and enjoy greater income. In
the year 2000, these Canadian farmers saved 32m litres of fuel from less
use of farm machinery.
Millions of farmers in USA and Argentina have benefited from GM
soya as their costs are down and the yields are higher. GM Soya is an
important basic ingredient of animal feed and the EU, including the UK,
has been feeding farm animals GM soya for over 8 years!
Farmers in China, India and South Africa have now benefited by
using insect resistant Bt cotton that is resistant to the cotton pest
called bollworm. Small farmers in India previously suffered losses of
almost $300m each year because of the bollworm (cotton pest) reduced
yields and required expensive chemical spray treatment. Farmers producing
banana and palm oil have also benefited from advances in plant
biotechnology offering them better seed varieties.
Producing more food is not the only benefit of plant biotechnology.
Scientists have inserted a gene in golden Rice that increases the
production of provitamin betacarotine that the body converts into Vitamin
A. More than 100 million children, especially in rice eating Asian
countries, suffer from Vitamin A deficiency that causes disease, including
blindness. In addition, research is well advanced to increase the Vitamin
A content of GM tomatoes and to enhance the anti-oxidants in lettuce to
reduce the risk of cancer.
Finally, biotechnology is helping us to develop appropriate seed
varieties to produce starch-based raw materials for clothing and other
applications that will be environmentally friendly as we will conserve
water and energy.
Let us not fear science. Let us treat science as a knowledge tool
that we must understand, develop and use to conserve, enrich and enjoy
nature. In this way there will be a green future for all of us, especially