THE NEED FOR GM TECHNOLOGY IN AGRICULTURE
Today there are some 800 million people (18% of the population in the developing world) who do not have access to sufficient food to meet their needs (Pinstrup-Anderson and Pandya-Lorch 2000; Pinstrup-Anderson et al. 1999), primarily because of poverty and unemployment. Malnutrition plays a significant role in half of the nearly 12 million deaths each year of children under five in developing countries (UNICEF 1998). In addition to lack of food, deficiencies in micro-nutrients (especially vitamin A, iodine and iron) are widespread. Furthermore, changes in the patterns of global climate and alterations in use of land will exacerbate the problems of regional production and demands for food. Dramatic advances are required in food production, distribution and access if we are going to address these needs. Some of these advances will occur from non-GM technologies, but others will come from the advantages offered by GM technologies.
Achieving the minimum necessary growth in total production of global staple crops—maize, rice, wheat, cassava, yams, sorghum, potatoes and sweet potatoes—without further increasing land under cultivation will require substantial increases in yields per acre. Increases in production are also needed for other crops, such as legumes, millet, cotton, rape, bananas and plantains.
It is important to increase yield on land that is already intensively cultivated. However, increasing production is only one part of the equation. Income generation, particularly in low-income
areas, together with the more effective distribution of food stocks, are equally, if not more, important. GM technologies are relevant to both these elements of food security.
In developing countries, it is estimated that about 650 million of the poorest people live in rural areas where the local production of food is the main economic activity. Without successful agriculture, these people will have neither employment nor the resources they need for a better life. Farming the land, and in particular small-holder farming, is the engine of progress in the rural communities, particularly of less developed countries.
The domestication of plants for agricultural use was a long-term process with profound evolutionary consequences for many species. One of its most valuable results was the creation of a diversity of plants serving human needs. Using this stock of genetic variability through selection and breeding, the “Green Revolution” produced many varieties that are used throughout the world. This work, carried out largely in publicly supported research institutions, has resulted in our present high-yielding crop varieties. A good example of such selective breeding was the introduction of “dwarf” genes into rice and wheat, which in conjunction with fertilizer applications, dramatically increased the yield of traditional food crops in the Indian sub-continent, China and elsewhere. Despite past successes, the rate of increase of food crop production has decreased recently (yield increase in the 1970s of 3% per annum has declined in the 1990s to approximately 1% per annum) (Conway and Toennissen 1999). There are still heavy losses of crops owing to biotic (e.g., pests and disease) and abiotic (e.g., salinity and drought) stresses. The genetic diversity of some crop plants has also decreased and there are species without wild relatives with which to cross breed. There are fewer options available than previously to address current problems through traditional breeding techniques, although it is recognized that these techniques will continue to be important in the future.
Increasing the amount of land available to cultivate crops
without having a serious impact on the environment and natural resources is a limited option. Modern agriculture has increased production of food, but it has also introduced large-scale use of pesticides and fertilizers that are expensive and can potentially affect human health or damage the ecosystem. A major challenge faced by humankind today is how to increase world food production and people's access to food, which requires local and employment-intensive staples production, without further depleting nonrenewable resources and causing environmental damage. In other words, how do we move towards sustainable agricultural practices that do not compromise the health and economic well-being of current and future generations? In order to think in terms of sustainable agriculture, factors responsible for soil, water and environmental deterioration must be identified and corrective measures taken.
Research on transgenic crops, as with conventional plant breeding and selection by farmers, aims selectively to alter, add or remove a character of choice in a plant, bearing in mind regional needs and opportunities. It offers the possibility of not only bringing in desirable characteristics from other varieties of the plant, but also of adding characteristics from other unrelated species. Thereafter the transgenic plant becomes a parent for use in traditional breeding. Modification of qualitative and quantitative characteristics, such as the composition of protein, starch, fats or vitamins by modification of metabolic pathways, has already been achieved in some species. Such modifications increase the nutritional status of the foods and may, in some characteristics, help to improve human health by addressing malnutrition and under-nutrition. GM technology has also shown its potential to address micro-nutrient deficiencies and thus reduce the national expenditure and resources required to implement current supplementation programs (Texas A&M University 1997). These nutritional improvements have rarely been achieved previously by traditional methods of plant breeding.
Transgenic plants with important traits such as pest and herbicide resistance are most necessary where no inherent resistance has been demonstrated within the local species. There is intense research on the development of resistance to viral, bacterial, and fungal diseases; modification of plant architecture (e.g., height) and development (e.g., early or late flowering or seed production); tolerance to abiotic stresses (e.g., salinity and drought); production of industrial chemicals (plant-based renewable resources); and the use of transgenic plant biomass for novel and sustainable sources of fuel. The benefits from transgenic plants under study include increased flexibility in crop management, decreased dependency on chemical insecticides and soil disturbance, enhanced yields, easier harvesting and higher proportions of the crop available for trading. For the consumer this should lead to decreased cost of food and higher nutritive value.
A large proportion of developing world agriculture is in the hands of small-scale farmers whose interests must be taken into account. Concerns regarding GM technology range from its potential impact on human health and the environment to concerns about private sector monopolies of the technology. It is essential that such concerns are addressed if we are to reap the potential benefits of this new technology.
We conclude that steps must be taken to meet the urgent need for sustainable practices in world agriculture if the demands of an expanding world population are to be met without destroying the environment or natural resource base. In particular, GM technology, coupled with important developments in other areas, should be used to increase the production of main food staples, improve the efficiency of production, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and provide access to food for small-scale farmers.