The past 20 years have seen revolutionary biotech innovations that have helped farmers improve their harvests, farm more sustainably and feed the world a more nutritious diet. Here’s a snapshot of five key breakthroughs that have truly revolutionized agriculture:
1. Drought Tolerance
Drought is a huge threat to agricultural productivity. With rising temperatures and limited rainfall, many farmers can see their crops wither. The problem is getting worse as climate change threatens to lengthen and intensify droughts. Fortunately, biotechnology can help farmers cope. In 2013, farmers successfully planted the first ever biotech drought-tolerant maize in the Corn Belt—a region of the Midwestern United States known for drought. Plant scientists are now working to make this technology available to farmers around the world. In Africa, where over 300 million people rely on maize as a staple food, the Water Efficient Maize for Africa public/private project has made significant steps to bring drought-tolerant technology to East Africa. They hope to plant the biotech maize in 2017, as a recent study from the International Food Policy Research Institute estimated drought-tolerant maize could raise yields by 17 percent in East Africa during severe droughts in 2050.
2. Disease Resistance
Discovering genes that can enable resistance to devastating fungi, bacteria, nematodes and other pathogens can protect entire agricultural industries from devastation. In Hawaii, for example, disease-resistant biotech papaya has been cultivated since 1998 and was key to overcoming the deadly papaya ringspot virus, which threatened to wipe out the country’s papaya production. The technology rescued the Hawaiian papaya industry and has encouraged the development of other disease-resistant crop varieties, such as fruit trees resistant to the plum pox virus. In the future, disease-resistance traits could save the global orange juice industry from citrus greening and even revive the American Chestnut tree.
3. Herbicide Tolerance
With biotech crops that are tolerant to herbicides, farmers have a powerful tool for fighting weeds. These crops give them the flexibility to choose herbicides with preferred environmental characteristics and to apply them only when needed. They also support no-till farming methods, which reduces the environmental footprint of farming by helping preserve topsoil – a vital resource for farmers – and reducing carbon dioxide emissions in farming. Herbicide-tolerant crops have been grown since 1996, and today farmers can grow varieties of maize, soybean, cotton and canola that contain this useful technology.
4. Insect Resistance
The ability to grow crops with a built-in resistance to insects has helped farmers around the world avoid significant crop losses. Varieties of maize, for example, have been modified to contain an insecticidal protein from a naturally occurring soil microorganism (Bt) that provides plants protection from corn borer worms. There are also insect-resistant varieties of soybean and cotton, and in 2014, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to approve the commercial planting of insect-resistant brinjal (eggplant). Researchers estimate that if Bt brinjal were brought to farmers in other countries like India, it could increase yields by 37 percent and reduce insecticide applications – saving farmers time and money.
5. Improved Nutritional Quality
Plant scientists are using biotechnology to develop healthier cooking oils, such as high-oleic canola and soybean oils, which eliminate trans-fats, increase omega-3s and ultimately help reduce the risk of heart disease. There is also huge potential that can be realized in the developing world. Biotech foods with improved nutrition content could provide essential nutrition to children, especially during the critical first 1000 days of life, transforming the lives of millions. For example, a new variety of biotech rice could help reduce the impact of vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which is responsible for 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness and up to two million deaths each year. Golden Rice is fortified with beta-carotene, an organic compound that the body uses to produce vitamin A.