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Impact of GMOs on the Future of Agriculture

On August 10, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture revised its estimated for this year’s corn crop, cutting it by nearly 17% due to the severe drought the United States experienced this spring and summer. And yet, this year’s corn harvest is expected to be perhaps the fifth largest on record. Recently, Kelly Hensel, IFT Digital Media Editor, spoke with Colin Carter, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis, to get his insight on how techniques, including genetic modification, have helped U.S. farmers meet increasing demands under extreme weather variation. In addition, Carter addresses the concerns surrounding GM crops. Listen to the interview on IFT’s ePerspective blog and don’t forget to add your opinion to the dialog by commenting.

Colin CarterColin Carter
Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics
Univ. of California, Davis



Kelly: Hi, I’m Kelly Hensel with the Institute of Food Technologists. On August 10, the USDA revised its estimates for this year’s corn crop, cutting it by nearly 17% due to the severe drought facing the United States. The agency forecasts the nation’s corn yields to be about 123 bushels per acre, the lowest level in 17 years. With climate models suggesting that drought will become more frequent, and water becoming increasingly precious, we need to find ways to produce more food on less acres of land. Today, we are joined by Colin Carter, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California at Davis, to discuss the role of genetic modification on crops today, and in the future. Welcome, Colin.
Colin: Thank you Kelly.
Kelly: In addition to genetic modification and genetic engineering, farmers rely on a number of methods to improve crop yields and that includes better farming practices and improved plant breeding techniques. Which one of these methods, or which combination, do you think will have the largest impact on crop yields for the future?
Colin: Well, Kelly, you mentioned the issue of climate change and water becoming increasingly precious. Given that, and given the expected pressures to continue to expand food production due to the growing population and urbanization, I think there’s no question that genetic engineering is going to play the most significant role. One reason I say that is that it’s a technology that allows for zero tillage, which not only conserves soil, but also conserves water. And this has been a significant factor, let’s say, in Latin America to date, but hasn’t spread to parts of Asia or other important parts of the world yet in a significant way.
Kelly: So it seems like genetic engineering can help in using these other techniques to make the best crops. So, no-till farming in combination with genetic engineering seems to be working really well?
Colin: That’s right, Kelly. In fact, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome recently came out with a report on world food issues, and they talked about the growing population and growing urbanization, and the world may need to increase food production by about 60% over the next 40 years to meet the rising demand, and this report highlighted the role of genetic engineering as being a key factor in tackling this issue.
Kelly: It’s not just drought that we have to be worried about in the future. There’s more extreme weather going on, so we could experience a flood one year, followed by a drought. How can our farmers and our food scientists prepare seeds and crops to meet these challenges?
Colin: You’re right, extreme variation is a concern, and I think the answer to your question is we need more investment in public and private research. The investment in public research and agriculture in places like the United States has really been languishing. There’s been expansion of private research, but overall, given these problems, it would be nice to see the government step up and expand the level of public research. Instead, they’re moving the other direction.
Kelly: Genetic engineering, or engineering crops and seeds is a challenge. What are some challenges involved in doing that for scientists?
Colin: Just the acceptance of this technology. There’s still a lot of controversy regarding this technology, so it’s very difficult to conduct research in places like Europe or Japan, for example, and that’s clearly a challenge as well.
Kelly: There is kind of a stigma surrounding genetic modification in crops, and I know that some are worried about the seeds from genetic crops being interspersed and making their way into organic crops, and there’s a fear that this will result in mutations that no one can predict or control. Is that a valid concern?
Colin: You know, I’m not a plant scientist. I know that there is a concern there, but from what I’ve read, it’s not one of the biggest concerns with GM crops. Kelly, I think with any technology, there are pros and cons, and with GM crops, there are some cons. Another is herbicide resistance. But this is not only an issue with GM crops, it’s an issue with all crops. So yeah, GM technology offers great potential, but there are some risks that must be addressed.
Kelly: I think that’s a fair assessment. And it is interesting to point out to people that do have concerns that they allow for less pesticides to be used. They do offer drought resistance. So it’s an interesting perspective to make sure that the public is aware of.
Colin: You’ve really put your finger on an important one, which is reduced chemical load on the environment. The original founder of Greenpeace came out in favor of GM crops, and then he got kicked out of that organization because he recognized that look, this is actually an environmentally-friendly technology that reduces the chemical load. We’ve seen that in spades in China and India where they’ve adopted GM cotton, and its reduced farmer deaths from pesticide poisoning, and it’s really helped the environment over there. And I think you’re right. The average consumer is unaware of the environmental benefits. You only hear about the possible environmental risks.
Kelly: It does seem that looking towards the future, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, will help feed our growing population. We’re already surpassing seven billion in population. What are your final thoughts in how GMOs can help us feed that population?
Colin: There’s no question it will play a huge role. If you look at some parts of U.S. agriculture, this technology has really not been adopted yet because the research hasn’t caught up. For example, in California, which is the largest agricultural state in the United States, they’re not too many GMOs. We have GMO cotton and some other smaller crops, but a lot of the crops in California are not using GMO technology. Presumably, that will change dramatically in the next 10 to 20 years to expand food production.
The United States and other parts in the world have a huge stake in this technology, and to answer your question in terms of how will it feed the world? Well, it comes back to increasing productivity. There’s a limit in terms of the amount of arable land out there that can be expanded. That might be 5% or something, Kelly, in that order, which means that we must increase our productivity to meet this growing food demand. More production per acre. This is a technology that can deliver on that.
Kelly: I do want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us today, and offering your very valuable insights. We’ve been talking to Colin Carter, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis. You can share your thoughts on today’s topic by commenting on IFT’s ePerspective blog. For IFT, I’m Kelly Hensel.

2 Responses

  1. Very interesting, I am especially pleased to hear that the environmental impact is a positive one. The reduction of pesticides alone would be reason enough pursue further research. The ability to conscientiously adapt to a changing world environment is a uniquely human characteristic.

  2. “I’m not a plant scientist”…Why is he talking about this then?

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