The Institute of Food Technologists’ recently published IFT Expert Report on Biotechnology and Foods is a definitive treatise on the significant role that biotechnology will play in supplying the world’s masses with food. The report appeared in four parts in the August, September, and October 2000 issues of Food Technology and is available on IFT’s Web site at www.ift.org/resource/pdf_files/report.pdf. The report was timely and will prove to be a meritorious publication.
The report confirms that the food industry promotes safe and environmentally sound practices in the use of genetically modified organisms. It emphasizes the greater preciseness and predictability of recombinant DNA (rDNA) biotechnology methods over conventional cross-breeding techniques. And it provides extensive arguments, based on good science, to contradict biotechnology’s critics. Therefore, it is time that we truly embrace biotechnology as the tool we will use to fulfill our destiny in this country in ensuring sustainable agriculture.
An evolving movement during the past two decades, sustainable agriculture is a set of practices that accentuates careful use of processes so that the environment is protected and argues against agricultural practices that contribute to social problems. It integrates the goals of environmental health, economic profitability, and socioeconomic equity.
Its principal objective is that we must meet the needs of the present without jeopardizing the ability of future generations. Meeting this objective is the responsibility of all participants in the system, which includes farmers, laborers, policymakers, researchers, retailers, and consumers—each with their own part to play, their own unique contribution to make to strengthen the sustainable agriculture community, and their own needs, i.e., profits, research/development, and education. The participants must work together to promote the goals within the various features of sustainable agriculture, such as natural resources (water quantity and quality, wildlife, energy, air, and soil); animal and plant production (diversity); and economic, social, and political concerns.
Biotechnology is one tool of agricultural research and development that will help to promote sustainable agriculture. Others include integrated management of soil and water; integrated pest management; and recognition of the socioeconomic realities of farmers, such as gender (women produce the bulk of food crops in developing countries). Here are some examples of how biotechnology can promote sustainable agriculture:
• Development of salt- and drought-tolerant crops/forages and crop varieties tolerant to or capable of degrading herbicides can maximize use of arid lands and lead to minimal-tillage soil conservation and minimal pesticide usage, respectively.
• The use of biotechnology can result in increased yields on the same or less acreage, less deforestation or change in sensitive ecosystems (reduction of air and soil pollution), and hardier breeds of animals and plants that can contribute more efficiently to feeding the world’s masses.
As summarized in the IFT report, there are many benefits of biotechnology which will support sustainable agricultural practices: inexpensive food supply in abundance; food with improved nutrient quality; food supply with fewer storage problems; foods with little allergenicity, particularly for sensitive populations; better food production from variable soil conditions; efficient production of food by environmentally sound techniques; and new knowledge of functional or medicinal food products.
Biotechnology serves as a useful tool that will keep us ahead of population growth and world changes. The economic concerns become evident with the world’s population growth projected to reach 8.3 billion in the next 25 years, with a particular impact in the poor nations. Genetic improvements will improve the nutritional value of crops (e.g., “golden” rice) and help reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers. In contrast, although its intent was lofty, “organic” farming will never be able to meet the damage of our growing population, except by increasing development of vast areas of semi-wilderness and at the expense of serious soil loss from erosion.
Also, wise use of biotechnology in foods will yield more profits to growers/producers, with fewer demands on resources (fuels, fertilizers, pesticides, water usage). The alternative to the abundance that can be provided by biotechnology is deprivation, scarcity, hunger, and inhumane elitism, whereby only the rich can afford “organically” grown products.
I applaud the accomplishments of the IFT expert panel and call for the food industry to move forward with this tool. Such technology will help ensure that this nation will be at the forefront in the global movement for sustainable agriculture. I look forward to the future when the tools of biotechnology can select genes from virtually any source, to increase the diversity and abundance of useful and healthy foods.
It behooves the regulatory agencies to take heart of the many advancements for foods that have become available because of the tools of biotechnology. Regulatory agencies need to move forward toward promoting actions that will continue to keep this country at the forefront in producing an abundance of high-quality, safe foods. Research scientists and educators must work more with the agencies to ensure that the consumer is not misled by scientifically unsubstantiated claims regarding the human or environmental safety of biotechnology-derived foods.
by STANLEY T. OMAYE