Front Lines is a guest viewpoint section offering perspectives on current issues and events from people working on the front lines of Canada's technology industry. Robert Wager is a member of the Biology Department at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo, B.C.
Although it can be argued that food biotechnology has been around for many decades, most people consider the "Flavr Savr" tomato of 1994 to be the first product to reach the market.
This tomato was engineered to ripen slower than conventional tomatoes. This allowed the fruit to ripen longer on the vine before it was picked and shipped. Better flavour and firmer texture made it popular until newer varieties replaced it in the late nineties.
By 1995 other genetically engineered (GE) crops had arrived in the marketplace.
Corn, canola, cotton, soybeans and potato varieties, that had specific traits engineered into them by recombinant DNA technology, were being planted in North American fields. The first year saw only a few thousand acres. Farmers who grew these new biotechnology varieties saw better yields with less or no insecticide spraying. They saw better weed control combined with reduced soil erosion and less ground water contamination.
2005 marked a milestone for the agricultural biotechnology industry with the billionth acre planted with GE crops. After 10 straight years of greater than 10 per cent annual growth, today more than 200 million acres of GE crops are planted each year. Globally, over 60 per cent of soybeans, 23 per cent of corn/maize, 11 per cent of cotton and 6 per cent of canola (80 per cent of canola in Canada) are products of biotechnology. China is about to add rice to the growing list biotechnology products.
Critics of GE crops have claimed that there is no testing, and that we do not know what will happen by growing these crops. In fact, the arrival of a biotechnology product on the market is not the beginning, but the end result of eight to 13 years of research. The level of pre-market evaluation done on every biotechnology crop is far greater than for any other type of food crop. The tests include both food safety and environmental impact assessments.
Researchers look at the levels of macronutrients, micronutrients and anti-nutrients, as well as fats, sugars and proteins. Every inserted gene is compared to over 500 known allergens to look for similarities. There has never been a GE food product marketed that contained a protein similar to a known allergen. This probably makes GE foods safer than all other new variety of food crops that are not analyzed for potential allergens.
The environmental analyses are just as thorough. Researchers examine how every GE crop interacts with other plants, animals and insects to ensure there are no significant threats to biodiversity.
Insect-resistant GE crops protect themselves from pests and do not require insecticide sprays. This reduced spraying benefits all insects and the birds that feed on them. Worldwide, approximately 100 million pounds of organophosphate insecticides are not sprayed because farmers now grow GE crops that protect themselves from insect pests. It has also been well documented that insect-resistant GE corn has far less fungal toxin than conventional, and particularly organic, corn. Increased yields, less environmental impact and even better health for farmers, who are no longer exposed to insecticides, are a few of the well documented benefits of growing insect-resistant GE crops.
It is sad that insect-resistant Bt potatoes are no longer grown in North America because French fry makers stopped buying these environmentally friendly potatoes. Instead, farmers continue to use insecticides. It does not make sense that the whole living bacteria (Bt) are considered safe for organic food production, but one gene taken from the bacteria and engineered into Bt potatoes is considered unsafe.
Modern herbicides are also far superior to products from the past. These modern herbicides replace older more persistent ones. The newer compounds also biodegrade into non-toxic compounds that do not threaten our ground water or the wildlife in our streams and rivers. They are even safer than some pesticides used in organic agriculture.
A report from the UN-Food and Agriculture Organization has stated that developing countries are getting into the biotech crop game in a big way. Eighteen countries now grow GE crops and 71 countries have ongoing research programs in agriculture biotechnology. Products soon to reach the market include virus-resistant papayas, sweet potatoes and cassava, as well as several new varieties of rice resistant to insects, salty soil or drought. Clearly these traits will be of tremendous interest to farmers in developing countries. Down the road we will see fungal resistance in a variety of crops including bananas that are threatened by the Black Sigatoka fungus.
Most bananas are sterile, and new plants come from cuttings of other plants. This means we can't cross varieties to obtain traits like fungal resistance. The best hope we have to maintain a world supply of Cavendish bananas is through biotechnology. Fungal resistance is being engineered into bananas in several research facilities around the world.
Ever taken a cruise? Want to? Have the reports of Norovirus outbreaks aboard cruise ships given you reason to pause? Now consider if you lived where medical treatment is days away or non-existent. This is the reality for hundreds of millions of people in the developing world. Now imagine that a banana that contained a vaccine for Norovirus was available. It could stop millions of deaths from the diarrhea caused by Norovirus infections. I suspect one's opinion of this particular product biotechnology crop depends on where one lives.
Up to 500,000 children go blind each year from Vitamin A deficiency. Many of these unfortunate children eat rice diets almost exclusively. Researchers have found a way to make rice produce the vitamin A precursor, beta-carotene. This new variety of rice is called "golden rice" as the grains have a yellowish colour from the beta-carotene. After the safety evaluations are complete it will be given away free to subsistence farmers. But certain environmental groups have been doing everything in their power to stop this humanitarian endeavour. Perhaps it's time we start asking these groups to justify their activities that threaten benefits of golden rice reaching the children.
The scope of products in the development pipeline is quite impressive. Everything from nutritionally improved crops like trans-fat-free canola and soy oils, to bio-fuels, to cheap pharmaceuticals, to salt or fungal resistant cereals and grains. Agricultural biotechnology is not a panacea. It will not stop hunger or disease everywhere. But it will help with these very difficult issues generated by an ever-increasing global population. Acreage of GE crops continues to expand and the entire globe will realize the benefits.