The biotech plant breeding industry will break new ground over the next 10 years with a second generation of genetic traits. Just like the first generation of trait development, the production and agronomic benefits to farmers will be immense as the results will be higher yields, healthier plants and increased production efficiency. What will make the next generation of biotech different from the first is that the benefits will not stop at the farmer’s gate. General society will finally be able to see the direct beneficial impact of biotech, and therefore general acceptance of GMOs will increase.
Examples of second-generation traits are drought tolerance and improved nitrogen use efficiency. As general society sees the benefits of these traits, this will create more of a “pull” type mechanism on product development and demand. The push or pull concept is the key difference between first and second generation trait development. It has the potential to restore agriculture to its former glory in the eyes of the public and will make transgenic traits more acceptable to all citizens of the world, just like they are with most farmers already.
All it takes is a little understanding. Monsanto’s application for GM drought tolerant corn for feed and food use in Canada and the United States has already caused some confusion. The application has been made and could be ready, if approved, for commercialization in 2012 or 2013. This gene will provide farmers with the ability to stabilize yield during rainfall shortages. In my mind, this is the kind of second generation development that will provide excellent production benefits to farmers and have added benefits to the general public.
Trish Jordan, public relations lead at Monsanto Canada in Winnipeg, says agriculture globally accounts for 70 per cent of the world’s annual water usage. Traits that allow corn and other crops to use less of it will have a major positive impact on the environment. The same goes for a trait that will allow plants to better utilize fertilizer in the soil. This will decrease the amount of synthetic fertilizer needed in order to achieve a current yields — another substantial benefit to the environment. Corn needs substantial amounts of water and nitrogen to achieve high yields so that farmers can maximize returns per acre. Using less of both inputs without losing yield will create more wealth for the farmer and will improve the environmental impact of corn production globally.
If you really let your mind run wild you can imagine the endless possibilities, as breeders continue to develop traits that increase yields, improve plants health and allow agriculture to have a more positive impact on society and the environment. For example, wheat that makes tastier bread, healthier oilseeds, beers with longer shelf life, or plants that provide nutraceutical value are all possibilities.
PULL VERSUS PUSH
Pull type trait development is much bigger than glyphosate tolerance and Bt protection. It is about developing plants that fit the demands of the consumer. Those demands can be product related, like better tasting bread, or more general societal improvements, such as reducing the carbon footprint of corn production.
More and more breeding programs are starting at the end users and developing products that fit their needs and demands. End users pull these traits into production. Traditionally as an industry we have bred plants to fit general agronomic criteria and then tried desperately to find end use markets. In many cases, we had to work hard to push these traits and varieties onto the already flooded system.
Lately on Twitter, there has been a lot of public criticism of Monsanto “pushing” these kind of traits on the public. I firmly believe that this not the case. This is biotech potentially achieving what the industry has been talking about for years. Ask any city dwelling friend who knows nothing about agriculture if they think we should develop plants that use less water but remain just as productive. I would imagine they’d think it was a great idea. Pull type traits will become more acceptable for the general public because they provide benefits to all of society. Push type traits really only provide direct benefits for farmers because they were strictly production based and do not affect the general public directly.
As these second generation traits come to commercialization, take the opportunity to explain to anyone who will listen how agriculture is changing the way it does business. Through the utilization of biotechnology, agriculture is going to become better stewards of the environment and increase food production around the world. To get to this point, the difference is going to be pulling traits through the system because the benefits to general public are more than obvious to all stakeholders.
Shaun Haney publishes the Haney Farms Quarterly and his blog, which can be found at www.realagriculture.com.Haney Farms is located in Picture Butte, Alta., and is involved in the grain, seed and beef business. You can contact Shaun at 1-877-738-4517 or [email protected]