Plant biotechnology: Is it the way forward

Updated: Aug 3 2012, 07:14am hrs
C S Prakash

With the world population expected to top nine billion people by 2050, it is critical to create and implement sustainable agricultural practices and technologies.

As more space is being taken up by homes and businesses, farmers will have to produce about 70% more food on less land. Using modern biotechnology to grow more productive and nutritious crops is essential for meeting the growing needs of both farmers and consumers. People have been improving plants since the advent of civilization and using genetics since the late 1800s. This has led to crops that are higher-yielding, resistant to insects and diseases, and able to grow in different climates and environments. In traditional plant breeding, undesirable genetic traits can appear along with desirable ones and it can take a long time to get rid of the unwanted traits.

With modern biotechnology, scientists can produce plants with new, useful characteristics without getting unwanted traits. These modern techniques are more precise and quicker than traditional plant breeding.

In the past 16 years, yield increases from biotech crops have added more than 276 million tonne of soyabeans, corn and cotton to global agricultural production.

Plant biotechnology has been adopted by farmers worldwide at a very high rate. In 2011, nearly 17 million farmers globally grew 160 million hectares of biotech crops90% of which were small-holder farmers in developing countries, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. Plant biotechnology can increase the global food supply, reduce agricultures impact on the environment and create more income opportunities for farmers.

Biotech crops are carefully tested to make sure they are as safe and nutritious as conventional or organic crops. They have been cultivated for more than 16 years and consumed by billions of people without a single documented health problem. In fact, they are tested more rigorously than any other plant product in the world. In India, agriculture is the main source of income for about 60% of its population. It accounts for less than one-fifth of the countrys gross domestic product and about 10% its export earnings.

Bt cotton, which protects cotton against key damaging insects, is Indias first and only commercially approved biotech crop. It has helped smallholder farmers cut down the use of insecticides and increase profits. Since Bt cotton was introduced in 2002, insecticide applications in India have fallen by around 54%. Additionally, farmers can spend less time doing the exhausting work of weeding and insect picking, giving them more time to manage their land. Bt cottons higher yields have created more jobs in India, raising the total wage income by $40 per hectarethe largest increase is for women with an average income gain of 55% .

Although India used to import more cotton than it exported, the adoption of biotech cotton has helped it become the second-largest producer of cotton worldwide.

The story of Bt cotton in India demonstrates the potential benefits of biotech crops. Farmers need to be educated about and given access to agricultural technologies so they can produce more crops with fewer resources. It is time for India to have another Green Revolution and exploit all that plant biotechnology has to offer from increasing farmers profits and creating jobs to ensuring that the country can feed its growing population.

The author is professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, USA. He has also served on the US Department of Agricultures Biotechnology Advisory Committee