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Food and Energy Security: Raising AgriBio’s Profile

February 12, 2010
The world’s population is projected to reach 9.1 billion by the middle of this century. Feeding that number of people — in addition to producing animal feed, fiber and biofuels — will require a 70 percent increase in overall agricultural production, primarily in the developing world, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO).

That is why the priorities for BIO’s Food and Agriculture Section in the coming year start with increasing policymakers’ understanding of two things:

  • First, biotechnology can contribute to meeting demand for abundant, safe food products and reliable energy sources.

  • Second, there’s an urgent need to get these tools into farmers’ hands.

Food security is an issue of paramount importance; UN FAO estimates that one out of every six people in the world today — more than 1 billion total — go hungry.

The Obama administration made a commitment to global food security by launching a new initiative in September 2009 to increase worldwide food supplies by 50 percent. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Africa, outlined the United States’ pledge to help improve output by small farmers, increase the availability of affordable food and improve the quality of life for the poorest of the poor. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, meanwhile, has highlighted the role of technology in meeting those goals, saying, “We need to do a better job of marketing our science.”

Investing in Survival

Investing in technologies and infrastructure that make farming in developing countries more productive will make it easier for food to reach the people who need it most. Agricultural biotechnology is integral to the goal of enhancing global food and energy security because it can help farmers sustainably increase productivity, essentially allowing them to grow more with less. With the tools of biotechnology, we can enhance the nutritional content of foods, improve human health through therapies derived from plants and animals, better control pests and diseases of crops and livestock, and help plants and animals adapt to environmental stress and climate change.

More than 12.3 million farmers in developing countries are already using agricultural biotechnology, sowing seeds that yield more per acre, resist insect pests and reduce farming’s impact on the environment. Overall, 25 countries have approved the use of biotech seeds that enable plants to more effectively fight diseases and enable growers to optimize pesticide and herbicide applications. The industry is preparing to introduce and seek approval for seeds that enable plants to adapt better to environmental stress and climate change.

Biotech crops have helped farmers increase the sustainability of agricultural production. With the adoption of these crops, many farmers have reduced tilling needed to control weeds, resulting in better containment of carbon in the soil (sequestration) and less fuel needed for plowing the land. The use of pest-resistant crops means that farmers can use more targeted protection products, which helps further reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint. New developments will help farmers around the world produce crops that use water more efficiently.

Addressing the Challenges

But delays and uncertainty in gaining approval for agricultural biotech products present a risk that can hinder the spread of innovation. BIO and the global biotechnology industry seek to ensure science- and risk-based safety regulations and policies for existing and new agricultural biotechnologies, which will enhance worldwide confidence in biotech-derived products.

Such crops are among the most heavily regulated agricultural products. Throughout the world, biotech crops undergo intense scrutiny — from research labs to field trials and commercial production by farmers — to ensure they are safe for people to consume and for the environment.

Regulatory oversight of agricultural biotechnology in many countries is conducted by multiple agencies representing health, the environment and agriculture. For example, in the United States the regulatory agencies include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department (USDA). Agricultural biotechnology products do not enter the food and feed supply until the appropriate agencies have determined that they are as safe as conventional crops.

As an industry, we must emphasize to policymakers that timely, effective and science-based approvals for agricultural biotechnology products are vital to meeting global food and energy security goals.

The number of biotechnology-derived products awaiting authorization — and the time to review those products — is increasing. In the United States, when companies sought authorization for the first agricultural biotechnology products in 1995, they received decisions relatively quickly: 141 days, on average, in 1996. Since then, the average length of time for USDA deregulation has increased five-fold. In the U.S., various legal actions challenging regulatory processes and decisions have caused further delays and have undermined the deregulation process for products. The increase in review time comes at a stage when we know even more about the safety of this technology and the benefits it holds.

The European Union’s approval system for agricultural biotechnology products continues to be plagued by delays and member-state prohibitions. In the EU, there are now nearly 70 products awaiting approvals, and there are no new cultivation approvals. In fact, France and Germany have imposed cultivation bans within the past two years. Change is needed now to meet global food and energy security goals.

Meeting the Need

During the first half of this century, the challenge of increasing global food security by helping farmers across the globe increase their productivity can be met. Agricultural biotechnology is a key tool that can contribute to alleviating hunger, raising farmers’ incomes, improving health and nutrition, expanding opportunities and strengthening regional economies.

Expanding the adoption of agricultural biotechnology requires the implementation of appropriate science- and risk-based policies and regulation by governments. Timely approval of agricultural biotech products is essential to enable farmers’ access to this valuable technology.

*Dr. Joachim Schneider is head of BioScience at Bayer CropScience and chairman of BIO’s Food and Agriculture Section Governing Board.