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Agriculture's Sustainable Future: Breeding Better Crops

Modern technologies can increase crop yields and reduce agriculture's environmental impact

Modern genetic tools continue to improve. Breeders are using technologies such as marker-assisted breeding, biotechnology and genomics to better measure and understand DNA alterations and thus increase the precision with which changes are achieved. Insect or disease protection through biotechnology are being successfully employed in a number of commercial species, including cotton, papaya, corn and soybeans. Several seed development programs show promise for reducing water requirements and improving nitrogen utilization (to reduce fertilizer need) in established crops such as corn and cotton, as well as in new crops such as switchgrass and miscanthus that are desirable, nonfood feedstocks for biofuels.

Some critics assert that the DNA alterations achieved through biotechnology present unique health, environmental or social concerns that are not posed by the DNA alterations that result from other breeding techniques. But the accumulated experience of having safely cultivated and harvested more than one billion hectares of crops that have been improved through biotechnology indicates otherwise. Further reassurance can come from the development of sound science-based regulatory approaches that focus on the proteins generated by DNA alterations, not the mechanism by which the alterations are created.

It is doubtful that Orville and Wilbur Wright stood on the sands of Kitty Hawk, N.C., and contemplated space travel, yet a mere 66 years later a human nonetheless stood on the moon. With modern genetics, increasing crop yields can provide more food, feed, fiber and fuels without necessarily increasing the need for land, water or fossil fuel, and we should reflect on what the next 66 years might provide. Perhaps with the right funding and incentives, perennial grain crops that would not require sowing each year or nitrogen-fixing grain crops that could drastically reduce fertilizer use might become a reality. More federal funding for plant biology research—currently dwarfed by biomedical research funding, for example—would help. As computer pioneer Alan Kay once famously remarked, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Breeding Better Crops."

This article was originally published with the title "Front Lines."

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