Agricultural Biotechnology Overview

Agricultural Biotechnology Overview

July 17, 2008

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Every year, millions of people worldwide die from starvation and nutritional deficiencies. Although these challenges remain significant, we are making some progress. During the past 50 years, agricultural technologies have increased food availability and caloric intake on a per capita basis in nearly every nation of the world. Much is left to be done, however. Some 740 million people go to bed daily on empty stomachs, and nearly 40,000 people—half of them children—die every day from hunger or malnutrition- related causes. Two significant and interrelated challenges are (a) to increase farm productivity in less developed countries, where food is most needed, so that today’s subsistence farmers can use agriculture for their own economic development and (2) to increase per-acre yields so that the amount of food harvested can rise without having to bring undeveloped land into agricultural production.

Technology has transformed agriculture, medicine, and other industries; the record of agricultural progress during the past century speaks for itself. Those countries that developed and embraced improved farming technologies have brought unprecedented prosperity to their people, made food much more affordable and abundant, helped to stabilize farm yields, and reduced the destruction of wild lands. But continued technological development—including, in many cases, the use of agricultural biotechnology— is crucial if we want to further reduce starvation and malnutrition and meet the needs of growing populations while also lightening humankind’s environmental impact.

Unfortunately, misperceptions about biotechnology— known variously as bioengineering, gene splicing, genetic modification, and recombinant DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) technology—have led to activist calls for heavy restrictions or outright bans. In the United States, the introduction of new bioengineered crop varieties has slowed in the past few years because of duplicative and costly regulations and because of farmers’ concerns that they would be unable to sell harvested bioengineered crops in major export markets. In Europe and parts of Asia, antibiotechnology movements are strong and have succeeded in generating stringent national regulations and international trade restrictions. While industrial nations are already using forms of innovative agricultural technologies and may be able to absorb the costs of such restrictive policies, people in less developed countries will pay a high price for imprudent regulation because many continue to suffer from food shortages and malnutrition.