This question is personally interesting to me because during my time in the Peace Corps, I saw firsthand how tough conditions could devastate crops, how difficult subsistence farming can be, and the importance of risk management – farmers in developing countries have very few safety nets so each new cropping season is critical. But I’ve also had the chance to see how biotechnology can make a difference for farmers and their communities. So I have high expectations for biotechnology and believe in the future it will: 1) improve food availability and nutrition; 2) help farmers make better use of their land, water and labor resources; and 3) help local farmers move beyond subsistence. These advances will help the next generation get excited about agriculture and staying on the farm, something that is often missing around the world.
We’re already making progress. Scientists have demonstrated biotechnology can be used to increase the amount and stability of pro-vitamin A, iron and zinc and improve the protein digestibility of sorghum. In the coming years, this technology is anticipated to benefit Africans who rely upon sorghum, which traditionally is deficient in key nutrients. “Golden Rice,” is another example of a nutritionally improved biotech crop. It’s genetically engineered to provide an increased amount of beta-carotene. A serving of Golden Rice could provide half the required daily intake of pro-vitamin A for a 1 to 3 year old child. Technology exists to help breeders develop high quality hybrids more quickly, which can help us improve productivity and sustainability faster. Scientists now are working on ways to further improve the staple crops that people in developing countries rely on for food. This will help food security in these countries by producing more food where it’s actually consumed.
Biotechnology also can help farmers grow more with less. Analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture data show global corn acres have increased 31 percent since 1981, while production increased 93 percent. Approximately 240 million “virtual” corn acres have been created in the last 30 years. That trend has to continue if we’re to meet growing demand, despite conditions like drought, poor soil nutrient levels and insect pressure – all of which many experts predict will present an even greater challenge in the future. Therefore, the next generations of biotech crops are being developed to include more drought resistant varieties available in more geographies, crops that can perform when soil nutrients are less than optimal and those that can defend against intensifying stress from diseases and pests.
If you’re like me, and the promise of further applying biotechnology in developing countries is exciting to you, you can learn more about the Africa Biofortified Sorghum project and Golden Rice online. Also, for another view on the future for biotech crops, I recommend the Executive Summary from the Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2012 report published by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) (look for the “Future Prospects” section toward the bottom of the page).