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 the poor!