This study was originally published at the American Council on Science and Health, coauthored with Martina Newell-McGloughlin and Bruce Chassy.
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Global demands on agriculture are certain to increase in tandem with increasing world population, living standards and longevity, particularly among developing countries. With limited arable land, innovative techniques will be required to improve the efficiency of the global agriculture sector to ensure an ample supply of healthful food. Biotechnology offers the most efficient, cost-effective means of raising agricultural productivity worldwide.
As long ago as 1987, an analysis published by the National Academy of Sciences (USA) examined the available literature and concluded that plants and other organisms produced using genetic engineering techniques posed no new or different risks to human health or the environment than those produced using other breeding methods. Since then, the same conclusion has been reached by a number of other respected scientific organizations.
Research has shown the insertion of transgenes (i.e., genes from another source) produces less unintended DNA modification than classical plant breeding methods. The consensus of scientific opinion is that the application of genetic modification technology introduces no unique food safety or environmental impact concerns and that there is no evidence of harm from those products that have been through a regulatory approval process.
The U.S. National Research Council in 2000 determined that no difference exists between crops modified through modern molecular techniques and those modified by conventional breeding practices. The NRC emphasized that the authors were not aware of any evidence suggesting foods on the market today are unsafe to eat because of genetic modification. In fact, the scientific panel concluded that growing such crops could have environmental advantages over other crops.
The very first commercial approval of a biotech crop was granted in 1993. Biotech crops are now grown on roughly 10 percent of global cropland, even though the cultivation of biotech crops is banned in most countries. The first biotechnology products commercialized in agriculture were crops with improved agronomic traits (primarily pest and disease resistance and herbicide tolerance) whose value was unclear to consumers. Currently under development are crops with a more diverse set of new traits that can be grouped into four broad areas:
- improvement of agronomic traits (e.g., increased yield, and resistance to climate or soil aberrancies);
- crop plants for use as biomass feedstocks for biofuels;
- the introduction of value-added traits, such as improved nutrition, of special importance to those populations often suffering from malnutrition; and
- the use of plants as production factories for therapeutics and industrial products.
Two of the biggest impediments to the use of biotechnology in agriculture are governmental biosafety rules and adverse public opinion. Therefore, the actual commercialization of biotech products in the future may have less to do with technical challenges and more to do with external constraints, primarily overly stringent regulatory approval standards based on a hazard, or precautionary standard, rather than on a risk-based evaluation.