Genetic engineering, that we just mentioned, and traditional breeding and will be increasing intertwined in the future, as they will join their respective areas of expertise into combined genetic improvement programs. Actually, we can expect that these two disciplines will be merged into only one unified science of DNA. We can expect to see an increased number of joint ventures and mergers between genetic selection companies and biotech companies in the future.
So far, genetic engineering has been mostly known to the public opinion thanks to the development of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and this has been a very controversial area. Genetic engineering will move from a support activity to, for instance, herbicides, to address much more real problems and bring much more real solutions to the challenges of the agriculture of tomorrow. GMOs have served the sales of herbicides produced by the same companies quite well, but of course, this will plateau rather soon, and there will be a need for something else to impress the financial markets. It should not be a surprise to see these corporations specialize in biotech completely, and divest their chemicals “heritage” at some point in the future. The real problems to solve include a broad range of topics. They include technical performance and yields of plants and farm animals. Genetic engineering will help increase the efficiency in the conversion of nutrients and water. It will help plants and animals to have a stronger resistance to diseases, in order to avoid severe production losses. It will provide alternatives to antibiotics, to herbicides and pesticides. It will find ways for plants to absorb or fix the nitrogen of the air to reduce the use of mineral fertilizers. Another area of research will be influencing the quality of final agricultural products, in particular producing healthier foods, and have plants produce medicines.
To solve such problems, the people in charge of such programs will have a very heavy moral responsibility towards society, as the choices they will make will affect the longer term and our ability to survive. The success criteria will go much beyond the financial performance of these companies. This will be translated in the type of bonus packages that the executives will receive. One can wonder whether the correct structure for such companies is to be publicly traded, since stock markets tend to induce a very strong preference to the short-term financial performance. The reflection on such programs will need to go through a serious test of “what ifs”. As per now, money still is the main driver, especially in the arguments of the producing companies and countries. For instance, they reiterate that the decision of the European Union to limit the production and use of GMO will make food more expensive in these countries. Then let’s ask ourselves what if the EU is wrong in their decision? Well, production systems and agriculture would not change much; their food might indeed be more expensive than somewhere else. The people will buy smaller cars and travel less far for their vacation. This is not a very threatening situation if you ask me. What if the ones in favor of GMOs are wrong and the EU is right? The debate is indeed very emotional and political, but this is simply because we lack long term testing of the effects of GMOs to have certainty. This is why the GMO producers have such a hard time convincing their opponents.
A better understanding and predictability of long-term effects is paramount in agriculture and food production. Agriculture is not just about producing a particular crop, it is also about managing the total ecosystem that a field is. Actions in genetics need to guarantee the long-term balance of these ecosystems (in which weeds, although of no economic interest, are a part of), because once an ecosystem has been altered, it has been changed forever. Genetic improvement programs must ensure to preserve, in whichever form, genetic diversity and survival of vegetal and animal species, because once extinct, they are lost forever. Long-term fertility of soils is another highly critical part of the protection of our food supplies, because once sterile, the land is lost forever.
So, as you see, we are facing many challenges and genetics is a key element of our food systems. By shifting away of rather superfluous projects, even though they have been quite lucrative for the producers; and by focusing more on true improvement and sustainability of production systems thanks to technical breakthroughs, a combined breeding and genetic engineering will bring constructive solutions. All it will require from the stakeholders is vigilance.
Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.