2017 And Beyond: Experts Weigh In On GMOs & What Lies Ahead

By Kate Hall, managing director of the Council for Biotechnology Information and GMO Answers spokesperson.

GMOs will continue to improve sustainability, preserve habitats and increase farming efficiency and profitability. (Image Credit: GMO Answers)

The dawn of a new year is both a time for reflection and for excitement. 2016 was a breakthrough year for biotechnology, including the National Academy of Sciences’ findings confirming the health and safety of GMOs.

Looking ahead to this year, we spoke with several biotechnology experts about their hopes for 2017. This conversation ranged from discussing family roots in agriculture, to sharing ideas on biotechnology education. From this discussion emerged four key themes, capturing where we are and what they hope to see in the future. It’s clear, agricultural and biotechnology experts are optimistic about the potential of GMOs.

Focus On Biotech’s Ability To Help Solve Our Most Pressing Food Challenges

The promise of genetic modification is vital to low income countries and Dr. Esther Ngumbi, a research scientist at Auburn University and Kenyan native believes biotechnology has a role in helping farmers address major challenges in both the U.S. and abroad. “As climate change continues to ravage African countries, affecting the ability of many smallholder farmers to farm, I am hopeful that biotechnology will continue to provide answers in form of technologies and tools for farmers to use. Drought tolerant biofortified seed varieties that use less water or no water at all would be desirable and would go a long way in helping farmers deal with the consequences of a changing climate.”

As expert Jillian Etress, farmer, agricultural teacher and blogger based in South Alabama, points out, pest and virus-resistant crops are just one of many developments capable of lifting communities in low income countries out of poverty, improving crop yields and transforming farmers’ lives. Jillian says that she’s looking forward to hearing “how GMOs, even traditional breeding methods, are improving crops for low-income countries.”

Hunger and malnutrition stifle educational advancement, economic growth, and innovation. One way that GMOs can help is by addressing micronutrient deficiencies, allowing farmers to grow enhanced version of their native crops, like biofortified cassava.

Connie Diekman, registered dietitian and director of University Nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, is most excited about this aspect of biotech. Diekman wishes more attention were focused on biotechnology’s ability to “enhance nutrient content of native foods to help populations who do not have access to certain nutrients.”

Unlocking biotechnology for those who can benefit most from it is one of our greatest hopes for 2017.

Expand The Conversation to All Farming Technology

Expert Katie Pratt, a fourth generation farmer who farms corn, soybeans and seed corn in North Central Illinois, and serves as her county’s Ag Literacy Coordinator, hopes for greater emphasis on the fact that GMOs are just one tool in a suite of available technologies that increase farming efficiency and profitability. Pratt explains that “A genetically engineered seed is still just a seed that needs water, soil nutrients and sun to sprout and grow. Not a silver bullet just another choice.”

Incorporating more of modern agriculture’s innovative technologies into mainstream conversation is important. In addition, shedding light on new developments is also a central point for experts, such as new advancements in precision technologies for planting and cultivation.

Sustaining The Integrity Of Our Food Supply & Promoting Science Literacy Is Crucial

As climate change continues to impact crop production, sustaining the integrity of our food supply and protecting our environment are crucial. GMOs provide another tool for farmers to protect their yields in challenging conditions, even with declining land availability and limited resources. GM crops also allow for the preservation of important beneficial species by promoting better habitat management, increasing soil health, and improving water quality.

Consequently, education is crucial to creating a sustainable food culture. Expert Robert Wager, M.Sc., who has been a faculty member of the Biology Department of Vancouver Island in Nanaimo BC Canada for over 22 years, explains why he believes education and improved science literacy is so important.

“We are on the cusp of another major advancement in crop breeding. With the new gene editing technologies breeders can improve crops faster and cheaper than ever before. Everything from climate resilience and improved pest resistance to enhanced flavor and extended shelf life are just around the corner. As with the first twenty years of GE crops, farmers, the environment, and consumers will continue to benefit from the next generation of genetic engineered food crops.”

Elevate The Voices Of Farmers, Continue To Innovate

A central theme in conversations with experts continues to be about our farmers and their critical role in food production process. In expert Drew Kershen’s case, agriculture has played a central role throughout his life — his father was a farmer and brother is in the seed business. Additionally, Drew says that Norman Borlaug was and continues to be his hero.

“Borlaug sparked the Green Revolution with his wheat breeding and inspired collaborators in India and the Philippines to do the same with rice breeding. His work allowed farmers to feed hundreds of millions of people — themselves as subsistence farmers and the urban poor. His work continues today with about three billion people growing and eating the Green Revolution wheat and rice varieties.”

Professor Kershen views agricultural biotechnology as offering farmers improved seeds so that they can consistently support their families, protect their soil and occupation, and provide food and clothing to their communities and to the world. “It is certain that the soul and familial roots in the agricultural community are underrepresented in popular media, but they directly fuel the research that nourishes our communities around the world.”

Looking forward, it is important that we continue to come together to champion our shared values of food security and environmental protection. The promise of GMOs and other agricultural technologies is abundant, and those who work to bring improvements to agriculture, the environment and health, remain hopeful of the technology’s 2017 and beyond capabilities.

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