Modern plant breeding: Tangible benefits for Europe
By Sandra Peterson (*) | Friday 16 September 2011
Harvest time has come again and so too have concerns about food availability and prices. In Europe, after a dry spring followed by a wet summer in many areas, some farmers fear that their business may not survive. With global projections - by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Bank - that we will see the highest world food prices since the previous record set in 2008, every individual, company, government and institution engaged in agriculture should be sharpening their focus on the sustainability of food supply. Indeed, every tool should be employed to help ensure an affordable and high-quality supply of food, feed and fiber to sustain our growing world.
Which brings me to plant biotechnology. Of course, this is not the only solution to all agriculturally-related problems, but it can make significant contributions - if we in Europe allow our farmers to reap its benefits.
Plant biotechnology was discovered and first developed in Europe and has proven it can bring benefits to the environment, to the economy and to society. Despite the abundance of innovative technologies that are on our doorstep in public and private research in Europe, today’s global agricultural players are increasingly turning toward the Americas and emerging markets in Asia as they map out their long-term growth plans. While the European market continues to struggle with the question of whether to accept genetically modified crops, farmers in other parts of the world are promptly and eagerly adopting the technology. As these foreign markets grow, research and development programmes are growing with them. But to date, innovations from this field have no real chance to be put into practice in Europe.
Advanced breeding is spawning new plant varieties that bring tangible benefits. Studies estimate that up to 60% of yield increases gained over the past decades are due to improved crop varieties made possible by plant breeding. Not only are innovative products helping to produce more food for the growing world population and are keeping production costs under control, they are doing so in a more environmentally sustainable way. If we look at the environmental benefits alone, biotech crops are for example contributing to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices by allowing farmers to use less fuel for tractors and by increasing soil carbon storage due to reduced tillage. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, in 2009 these savings were equivalent to removing 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - the same as removing approximately eight million cars from the road for one year. Contrary to popular belief, biotech crops also promote biodiversity by saving 75 million hectares of land that would otherwise need to be used for agriculture.
These are not small numbers - they are significant contributions towards helping combat climate change and secure affordable food supplies.
Advanced plant breeding, including genetic modification, furthermore aims to increase water, nutrient and other input efficiencies. As research continues to yield new advancements in biotechnology, these characteristics will become more common - and the contribution genetically modified crops make to sustainability will become more obvious.
Meanwhile, even though the technology is available to potentially provide all these benefits to the farmers and citizens of Europe - and to our environment - Europe continues to hesitate.
And while Europe continues to be one of the largest importers of agricultural commodities worldwide, its own agricultural production is declining. At the same time, agricultural demand is rising in the emerging markets. If we want to mitigate supply scarcity from competing demands and to contribute to the prosperity of the developing world, we should increase sustainable production in Europe by applying all advanced technologies available.
While we respect the opinions of those who take a contrary view and believe they should be given a choice as to what technologies they use and the food they consume, this should not prevent others from leveraging the advantages of innovative solutions in the face of increasingly complex social, economic and environmental challenges. By choosing to accept plant biotechnology, Europe can choose to take a significant step forward towards driving sustainability within agriculture.
(*) Sandra Peterson is chair of the Board of Management of Bayer CropScience AG, Germany