Jacque Matsen, Public Affairs Manager at DuPont Pioneer, discusses the future of GMOs and benefits of the technology.
Biotechnology has been helping farmers around the world increase their productivity, boosting crop yields by providing protection from pests, viruses and poor weather. Genetically modified crops are an important tool that helps the world's farmers sustainably feed a growing world population. We hear many positive stories, based on firsthand experience with biotech crops, from farmers around the world every day.
Biotechnology is widely accepted around the world, where farmers have harvested more than 3.5 billion acres of it over the last 20 years. A few of those acres have been mine. I started growing GM crops shortly after the death of my husband. They helped me get my life back together and gave me the financial means to send my children to school. They also put food on the table. I mean this both figuratively and literally because in my home we eat what we grow. Biotech crops aren't merely just okay to eat. They're actually better than non-biotech crops. They allow us to grow more food on less land, which makes them tools of conservation and sustainable agriculture. They also improve the health of farmers because they don't require additional pesticide applications, which can be hazardous to the people who apply them directly to crops. More information is available here.
I've grown non-GM brinjal, a staple vegetable that many people around the world call eggplant, on my farm for many years, so I know the challenges that it presents. The pests are terrible. Fruit and shoot borers can reduce a crop badly or destroy it entirely. Up to now, pesticides have offered the only way to cope. We spray every 15 days on my farm. Some farmers actually overdo it, applying pesticide more frequently, due to ignorance or anxiety. This creates problems for workers in fields and families in kitchens. Biotechnology can change all this. By using the same safe and proven technology that has transformed agriculture for so many around the world, brinjal can fend off the bugs on its own, leading to higher yields, healthier vegetables and lower costs. This helps farmers and consumers alike. More information is available here.
We all benefit from GM crops. Millions of farmers around the world know this, and so do the majority of scientists. As a scientist, father and neighbor, I often get this question from people in my community. The short answer is that GM crops help farmers grow crops more efficiently, protect biodiversity and provide all of us with a more abundant and affordable food supply.
But the world is adding 200,000 persons every day, and the United Nations estimates the world population will reach 9.3 billion by 2050. And as the population increases and agriculture attempts to increase productivity to match the growing need, we have to worry about environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, access to fresh water, the impact of climate change and the cost and availability of food. These are some of the greatest challenges we have ever faced, and we need to make use of human innovation and the best available technologies, including GMOs. Improving global agricultural production is important to meeting these challenges. It would be a mistake not to choose GE crops, because the challenges are great and all our tools will be needed to adapt and produce resilient cropping systems that produce more and protect the environment while combating pests, disease and harsh climatic conditions that limit harvests and threaten our future.
Here are some of the benefits of GMOs and sources for those who want to dig deeper:
- GM crops help make food production more sustainable. “Fourteen years of extensive field studies have demonstrated that genetically engineered crops are tools that, when integrated with optimal management practices, help make food production more sustainable. The vast benefits accrued to farmers, the environment and consumers explain the widespread popularity of the technology in many regions of the world. The path toward a future sustainable agriculture lies in harnessing the best of all agricultural technologies, including the use of genetically engineered seed, within the framework of ecological farming” (Carpenter, 2010).
- Improved productivity. From 1996 to 2011, biotech crops are estimated to have contributed to an additional global production of 195 million tons of maize, 110.2 million tons of soybeans, 15.85 million tons of cotton and 6.55 million tons of canola (Brookes and Barfoot, 2013). Biotech crops have contributed to higher yields, e.g., 30 percent more in some farming areas, and can contribute to poverty reduction and food security in developing countries (Qaim et al., 2010).
- Increased biodiversity. GE crops increase productivity on existing agricultural land and protect biodiversity by sparing lands not intensively cultivated (Raven, 2010). The pressure on biodiversity will continue to decrease as global agricultural systems including GM crops expand to feed a growing world population (Carpenter, 2011).
- Increased use of conservation tillage. According to the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), since glyphosate-tolerant GE soybeans were introduced in 1996, acreage of no-till soybeans in the United States has increased in 2008 by nearly 70 percent (CTIC). Conservation tillage reduces soil erosion, increases soil organic matter, improves water quality, conserves soil moisture (Hawkins et al., 2006), provides habitat for wildlife (NRCS), reduces soil compaction, reduces fuel use and greenhouse emissions from not tilling, increases the number of beneficial soil organisms and beneficial insects and increases the number of birds and other wildlife in and around the field (Fernandez-Cornejo et al., 2012; Brookes and Barfoot, 2013; Carpenter, 2011; Cerdeira and Duke, 2006; Scheffe, 2008).
- Enhanced use of integrated pest-management practices with negligible impact on non-target organisms (Mendelsohn et al., 2003; Marvier et al., 2007).
- Reduced exposure to pesticides by farmers using Bt crops (Mannion and Morse, 2012; Shutske, 2005).
- Enhanced safety of foods and animal feed due to lower levels of mycotoxins. This reduction in mycotoxins in grain from Bt crops has been demonstrated in France, Italy, Turkey, Germany, Spain, Argentina, the Philippines, Canada and the United States (Ostry et al., 2010; Wu, 2006; Wu, 2007).
- Increased farmer incomes. The net global economic benefit at the farm level in 2011 was $19.8 billion, equal to an average increase of $133 per hectare. From 1996 to 2011, the global farm income gain has been $98.2 billion (Brookes and Barfoot, 2013).
Improved nutrition is one of the many exciting things we can achieve through genetic modification. For example, biotech companies such as DuPont Pioneer are close to commercializing soybeans that produce oil with a better nutrition profile than traditional soybean oil. This high-oleic oil has 0 g trans fat and less saturated fat and is higher in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, similar to what you would find in olive oil.
In developed countries like the United States, we worry about cutting back on calories, while the challenge in many parts of the world is getting enough. Genetic modification can make a difference there, too. Technology providers have contributed important research and resources globally to help improve the nutritional value of staple crops like sorghum and rice. The Africa Biofortified Sorghum Project, for example, supports the adoption of transgenic sorghum with increased levels of essential nutrients, like vitamin A, iron and zinc, and improved protein digestibility.