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Biotechnology provides sustainable solutions

Published on June 26, 2010 3:01AM

Last changed on July 24, 2010 6:09AM

Jim Greenwood

Greenwood Jim Greenwood

For the Capital Press

The use of biotechnology in agriculture -- while impressive -- isn't anything new. Over the centuries as agriculture improved, farmers noticed that certain plants and animal offspring had superior characteristics compared to others. They used the seeds of superior plant varieties to plant the following year -- the foundation of selective breeding -- and they used superior livestock to breed healthier and better yielding herds.

In effect, farmers were the first experimental scientists -- using observation of their crops, livestock, and agronomic conditions to improve their yields and the quality of food.

Today, biotechnology continues to help improve our lives. Thanks to advances in biotechnology, we're able to answer the world's most pressing agricultural challenges: climate change, resource sustainability, environmental stewardship, water availability, food insecurity and nutritional needs, to name just a few.

And we'll face many new challenges in the future. Globally, the population is expected to increase 38 percent by 2050, from 6.8 billion in 2009 to 9.4 billion in 2050, with the U.S. population growing 43 percent and the population of Africa projected to double during that same period.

Against this backdrop, we face limited arable land for food production, a scarcity of clean water, the looming impact of climate change, dwindling supply of fossil fuels, and constantly evolving threats to our health and nutrition.

Fortunately, recent advances in biotechnology are helping us prepare for and meet these challenges.

Already, agricultural applications of biotechnology have helped create a more abundant and reliable food, feed and fuel supply by increasing crop yields and enhancing crop resistance to pests and diseases.

Biotechnology also provides the tools and technologies that enable farmers to grow crops in a more environmentally sustainable way. Biotech herbicide-tolerant crops need fewer applications of pesticides and allow the use of no-till farming practices. No-till farming enhances soil health, reduces erosion, limits carbon dioxide emissions and reduces on-farm energy consumption and the associated environmental impacts.

In fact, a recent report issued by the National Research Council details the environmental benefits from biotech crops such as reductions in the use of pesticides, and increased use of tillage techniques that reduce soil erosion, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The report even says, "improvements in water quality could prove to be the largest single benefit of GE crops."

While great progress has already been made since the first biotech crop variety was introduced, in the near future, we can expect biotechnology to be at the forefront in providing solutions to some of the world's most pressing agricultural challenges.

Through ongoing research and development, scientists have developed plants that are resistant to environmental stresses such as drought, frost, flood, and saline soils, and foods that can be nutritionally enhanced to contain heart-healthy oils or to address vitamin deficiencies. In addition, genetically engineered animals are being developed for both health and food applications, and forest biotechnology is helping to meet our increasing demand for wood, fiber and energy.

The development of new biofuels and other renewable fuels has helped enhance our energy sustainability while reducing dependence on foreign oil. According to the Department of Energy, biofuels can provide a number of environmental advantages over conventional fossil fuels -- most notably a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The burning of fossil fuels releases concentrated carbon into the environment, carbon that was safely locked away deep within the earth for millions of years. Biofuels, on the other hand, typically use plant materials that absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to grow. Since the transportation sector accounts for about a third of total U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide cleaner transportation fuels can play an important role in addressing climate change.

During the first half of this century the challenge of increasing global food and energy security can be met by helping farmers across the globe increase their productivity. Agricultural biotechnology is a key tool that can contribute to alleviating hunger, raising farmers' incomes, improving health and nutrition and diversifying our energy supplies, all while utilizing environmentally friendly farming practices.

That's not just good science, it's good business.

Jim Greenwood is CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C.


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