We’re a planet of 7 billion people on the way to 9 billion by 2050. Growth on that scale means the world faces tremendous pressure to boost agricultural production and meet the growing demand for food.
Sally Mackenzie, who holds an endowed chair in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Plant Science Innovation, gave a major address at UNL last week and described an important tool in the world’s effort to boost ag productivity: genetically modified crops.
“Recombinant DNA is the biological driving force of nature,” Mackenzie said of seed engineering. “ ... We’ve simply taken advantage of a very natural process that goes on in nature all the time.”
Selective breeding of plants and animals with the most desirable traits goes back centuries. As we noted in a 2008 editorial, the use of specially engineered seeds “can lower the costs of production, cut the amount of pesticides and herbicides needed to grow crops and lessen the amount of energy and time a farmer must put into raising crops. The seeds generally produce more dependable, higher yields with the same or less input, a particular blessing for subsistence farmers.”
Because of such benefits, leading philanthropic organizations such as the Rockefeller and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations have promoted ag research into engineered seeds. Indeed, it was those two foundations, not corporations, that provided the funding for research that produced “golden rice,” genetically modified seeds that greatly enhanced the nutritional value of rice in developing countries.
Government monitoring and regulation are obviously appropriate in overseeing scientific research in agriculture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture so far has approved more than 80 genetically modified crops, and these days a large amount of the corn, soy, cotton and canola seed in the United States is genetically engineered.
Claims that genetically modified crops are unsafe to eat lack scientific basis, Mackenzie told the UNL audience, and she rightly described the debate over such crops as less a scientific one than “a sociological and psychological discussion.”
She was right, too, in saying the central focus in global food debates shouldn’t be on genetic modification of crops; it should be on workable ways to boost ag productivity to meet the growing demand and deal with widespread challenges and with water shortages.
Facing forward, that needs to be the priority, and it’s good to see that UNL’s ag specialists in plant science and water use are contributing significantly to that effort.