AFG Venture Group Dispatches

Corporate advisory and consultancy in Australia, South East Asia and India.

Tackling the 21st Century Food Crisis with Technology – Dan Quinn Policy Manager – Crop Biotechnology & Minor Use, CropLife Australia

Putting Modern Plant Breeding into Context

Agriculture is the basis of modern civilisation and is thought to be around 11,000 years old. During this time period crop breeders have consistently improved crops to produce better foods that seek to improve the livelihoods of human beings. As a result, the crops that we grow today bear little resemblance to the plants from which they originated.

There are many reasons for altering a plant that is intended for use as a food crop. Plants generally don’t like to be eaten and may produce chemicals that are toxic to animals that eat them, including humans. Also, many beneficial food crops are initially poorly suited to growing in climates that differ from their place of origin. Finally, plants that evolved in wilderness areas with competition from weeds, limited water and no fertiliser have different ideal traits to an agricultural crop. For these reasons and many more, farmers and crop breeders have sought to alter the genetics of crops since agriculture began. This has not been as simple as hand pollinating two strains of the same species.

Typically, plants are capable of reproducing only with other plants of the same or closely related species and some crop breeding uses this approach. However, sometimes traits that are beneficial to a crop are found in an unrelated species and plant breeders can utilise the technique of a ‘wide cross’ to create a new crop. A wide cross typically results in a variety that is unable to reproduce, however by exposing this crop to certain chemicals the crop can be made fertile again.

Mutagenesis has also been used. Crop breeders recognised many years ago that mutant plants were an important source of genetic diversity and a driving force in evolution. Since the 1930’s scientists have used a range of methods to deliberately generate new mutant plants. Chemicals, x-rays and radiation have all been used to randomly alter the genetic code of crops, including at least one occasion that involved placing seeds in the nose cone of a space shuttle so that the ionising radiation of space would change its genetics. The UN estimates that there are over 2500 mutant strains in a total of 170 crops being grown around the world, including rice, wheat, barley, pears, peas, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit, sesame, bananas, cassava and sorghum.

In the last 30 years another technology has begun to be widely used in crop breeding. Genetic modification (GM) involves identifying the precise genetic code that is required to give a crop a particular trait and then inserting this code into the crop. GM allows genetic changes to be made that are much more precise and well understood than these conventional breeding methods. Paradoxically though GM techniques are much more strictly regulated.

Why we need GM

This ability to quickly produce new traits in crops will be vital because the world faces extremely serious food security challenges during the next forty years. Ground water is declining rapidly and current estimates indicate that we will not have enough water to feed ourselves in 25 years time; the amount of arable farmland is declining annually by about 1% and 25% is already degraded; essential fertiliser supplies are dwindling and increasing in cost as oil prices rise and minerals deplete. Meanwhile, bio-fuels are competing with food for farmland and agriculture is particularly affected by environmental pressures with farmers being hit the hardest by climate change, increased storms, flooding, drought and new pests.

While agricultural production will be challenged by these factors, demand for food is increasing rapidly. Population continues to rise and large economies in China and India are increasing their per capita consumption. As a result of these and other factors the UN estimates that the world will need to grow 70% more food by 2050 if there is to be sufficient food for everyone.

What types of GM crops do we have already?

The four major GM crops are corn, cotton, canola and soybean. These crops account for over 99% of global GM crop plantings and the GM traits make the crops resistant to insects and easier to weed. These are known as the first generation of GM crops and these were developed to address farmer needs. The second generation of GM crops are starting to become commercially available and include a much wider range of traits, many targeted towards providing consumers with benefits.

Australian and International Experiences with GM Crops

Australia has experience in cultivating two GM crops – GM cotton and GM canola.

Australia began commercially cultivating GM cotton in 1996 and today the cotton industry uses four GM cotton traits that make the cotton resistant to pests or tolerant to certain herbicides. The use of GM crops with an inbuilt organic insecticide has helped reduce overall insecticide use by 85-90 percent. Herbicide tolerant cotton also reduces the amount of soil cultivation and herbicide required on cotton crops to control weeds and facilitates healthier soils through less soil disruption and reductions in residual herbicides. Due to these wide ranging benefits, virtually all of Australia’s cotton growers planted GM cotton in 2009.

In 2008, growers in New South Wales and Victoria were legally allowed to plant GM canola for the first time and just less than 10,000 ha was cultivated. In 2009 the uptake of GM canola increased four-fold, with 308 growers planting 41,000 hectares. In 2010 this area tripled again to a total cultivated area of 133,000 ha. When surveyed, Australian canola growers have indicated that they decided to grow GM canola because it gives them excellent weed control, higher oil content and greater rotation options after growing the crop. There have been no marketing issues with GM canola either locally or internationally.

The rapid rate of GM crop adoption in Australia has also been witnessed in other countries where farmers are allowed to plant these crops. In 2009 over 14 million farmers planted around 134 million hectares of GM crops.

A global survey of the economic benefit of GM crops found that farmers received net economic benefits of $51.9 billion in the period 1996-2008. These benefits were fairly evenly split between developing and developed countries. GM crops have also delivered a range of environmental benefits including reducing fuel and pesticide use and decreasing carbon emissions from farms. In 2008 the CO2 savings from GM crops were the equivalent of removing 6.4 million cars from the road for a year.

These benefits are likely to increase with the EU predicting that the number of commercially cultivated GM crops is set to explode from 33 in 2009 to 122 in 2015. Many of these new GM crops have been developed by Asian scientists and will be first cultivated in the Asian region. The new GM crops will possess a range of traits that were not available in first generation GM crops. Some crops will have improved oil and starch profiles to make healthier food products. Others (like golden rice) will be nutritionally enhanced by adding vitamins or other nutrients to the crop. Drought tolerant plants will also become available and these will reduce the reliance of agriculture on our dwindling water resource. Plants and animals that are resistant to major diseases are also under development.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to agricultural production and methods and technologies need to be adapted to local needs and conditions. However, these new GM crops represent solutions to some of the key constraints that agriculture faces as it tries to feed an increasingly hungry world.

About the author

Dan Quinn has been working at the interface of government and agricultural industries for over a decade. After completing his degree in biochemistry at the Australian National University, (ANU) he joined the Federal agriculture department where he offered scientific and policy advice to Ministers for eight years. In 2008, Dan joined CropLife Australia, where he continues to work. CropLife Australia is the industry association for agricultural biotechnology companies in Australia.