In 1996 the first biotech crop was commercialized, but already the global production of biotech crops is expected to exceed 200 billion dollars. The U.S is the leading producer of biotech crops and these crops are cotton, corn, canola, soybeans, flax, melon, papaya, potatoes, rice, sugar beets and tomato. The second largest investor in biotech crop research is China, and other countries have cultivated biotech crops as well, perhaps contributing to greater rural farm incomes.
Biosafety Protocol to the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity is expected to regulate biotech crop produce especially with regard to exporting of GM seeds. But there doesn't appear to be any constraints on GM products in processed foods or in GM grains for human use.
Research efforts on biotech crops
Today more than sixty countries are engaged in research on genetically modified crops which is focused on having advantageous traits, as for example, potatoes resistant to fungus, peas that are resistant to herbicides, and genetic research in cucumbers, bananas, peanuts, onions, tobacco and several others.
Here are some of the leading research efforts currently underway in biotech crops.
A leading US rice breeder Susan McCouch who is credited with publishing the first molecular map of the rice genome has also succeeded in crossing commercial rice varieties with wild species (crosses between the high yielding Oryza sativa rice cultivars and a low yielding wild variety O.rufipogen) resulting in almost 20 percent yield increase. This means that phenotypically inferior wild varieties can positively impact rice yields. From a biotechnology perspective it also means that naturally occurring genetic variations could be added to the genetic pool of crop varieties and improve yields of our food crops.
The Rockefeller Foundation is an umbrella organization that brings within its ambit biotech research laboratories and companies to provide free consultation services to developing countries to increase their food production, and assist researchers as well. In the sub-Saharan Africa, this foundation supports seven crops relevant to this region and addresses the crop constraints namely, maize (stem borers and foliar diseases), cassava (mosaic virus and green mites), rice (drought and gall midge), sorghum (stem borers and striga), banana(nematodes and weevils), cowpea (viruses and bruchids) and beans (angular leaf spot).
An American molecular biologist Richard Jefferson runs a non-profit biotech research institute in Canberra that focuses on making available biotech tools of innovation to farmers in developing and developed countries. To the farmer they provide several cutting edge technologies such as:
• Transbacter™ which is a technology that uses bacterial species not related to the genus Agrobacterium as a method of gene transfer for plants. Thus patent restrictions relating to Agrobacterium transformation can be overcome.
• Diversity arrays to help researchers analyze plants
• GusPlus a reporter gene that is used in plant transformation
Advantages of biotech crops
Insect and herbicide resistance are the common traits that can be seen in biotech crops. The former is achieved by inserting a gene found in a soil bacterium while the latter allows crops to withstand herbicides. Herbicide resistant crops allow farmers to practice no-till farming which counters soil erosion.
Biotech crops could enhance nutritional benefits as for example soybeans could be engineered with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids
Biotech crops could fight plant diseases effectively, as for example take the case of banana trees that can resist leaf spot disease caused by fungus Mycosphaerella fijiensis.
Biotech crops could increase crop yields substantially as for instance GM corn that has helped raise output by one and a half million tones.
Disadvantages of biotech crops
There could be a mismatch between land used for crop cultivation and land ploughed to make biofuel feedstock and therefore there could be problems with crop productivity. A possible solution would be to rely more on non-crop biofuel feedstocks
There are inherent risks in genetic transfer or gene flow from GM crops as for example when wild sunflowers where crossed with GM sunflower resistant to moth larvae, the weedy sunflowers became sturdier like superweed. Similarly gene flow between genetically modified sugar beets and their wilder varieties have been noted.
The concept of biopharming has increased the risk of undesirable gene flow. The fact that medically important proteins could be made in corn kernels rather than in expensive fermentors raises the question, do you want to have medicines made in your food grains?
Kenyan biologist Florence Wambugu is a leading proponent of biotech crops, famously known for developing GM sweet potato with viral resistance. Although much was expected from this genetic modification, it failed miserably in terms of yield to the farmer.
Biotech crops have raised concerns in developing countries in that it could negatively impact their exports. The touted reason is, genetic modification could allow tropical crops to be grown elsewhere as for example in colder climes. Another example is, what if canola plants could be genetically engineered to produce lauric acid, which would mean a threat to Phillipino farmers who rely on palm trees and coconut trees to produce lauric acid oils.
Although crop biotechnology is now more than 20 years old, in future it will be even more consequential for us, since it will boost food grain production manifold.
In the coming decade, phenomenal advances in crop biotechnology are expected especially with regard to commercial and scientific applications so as to cater to several unmet needs. For example in the African region, many farmers loose their crops to the scourge of witchweed (a parasitic plant of the genus Striga) which destroys corn and sorghum plants. So far there is no biotech solution to this.
Perhaps crop biotechnology is a natural step in the evolution of agriculture, as that has translated to transgenic foods which have now been used for over a decade. May be some would reckon with these foods as being unsafe, but if biotech can help produce better seeds for growing more food in Asia and African deserts what is the harm?
Furthermore, biotech crops are more likely to be developed in Asia and other regions as the need for food grains is more there.
About Author / Additional Info: