Re-Examining Agricultural Regulations in a Changing Climate

Reporting for ThePigSite, Rachel Ralte provides an outline of agricultural necessities as presented by Dr Nina Fedoroff, Science & Technology Advisor to US Secretary of State and to the USAID Administrator, at the 86th annual USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum earlier this year.
calendar icon 14 May 2010
clock icon 5 minute read

Food security has always been a problem since the dawn of time, but fortunately, with the entry of science into agriculture, "science has powered enormous gains in agricultural productivity through fertiliser production, mechanisation and plant breeding as well as chemical additives," according to Dr Fedoroff.

She explained that, before science entered agriculture, crops were being genetically modified to be made into suitable food crops, for example, teosite, the closest relative of modern corn plant. Initially, it was assigned to a different species. When it was discovered that corn and teosite could be crossbred, people began to appreciate how closely related they are. "The outcome of crossing of these two plants yields everything from the teosinte rachis, which is at the top of the plant just as it is in other grasses, and small ears of corn," said Dr Fedoroff.

What we presently feel about genetically modified crops is what people felt about hybrid corn. "Farmers didn’t want to be compelled to buy seeds over and over again. They didn’t want companies running their business, and so forth. But all that is history," said Dr Fedoroff.

A few genetically modified crops are grown on about 300 million acres in 25 different countries. Many countries are trying to resist them. Re-examination of regulatory processes is a necessity, she said.

"We have a regulatory apparatus in this country that allows big biotech companies to get crops out to farmers. But I think one of the challenges for us going forward in creating a more sustainable agriculture is to reexamine those regulations in the light of accumulating evidence of the safety of GM crops," Dr Fedoroff said.

"Improving both the productivity and environmental sustainability of food production in a changing climate are among the most profound challenges facing humanity in the 21st century"
Dr Nina Fedoroff

She stressed the importance of re-examining the regulations because people involved in the plant sciences cannot afford the expense or time to go through the regulatory apparatus and get things out to farmers in the way that they have done in the past.

"So I think that’s one of the challenges. Not all crops will be developed by biotech companies, and we need to develop mechanisDr that will allow our public sector scientists to get crops to farmers," Dr Fedoroff said.

The 2008 food crisis was a preview of things to prevail in the future. Climate change too is making a huge impact on agriculture. "By the end of the century, it is projected that we will be experiencing summers warmer than the warmest now on record," she said.

Another important variable to be taken into account is water. Presently, about 40 per cent of the Earth's surface comprises dry lands. About 35 per cent of the world's population lives in drylands areas. Water tables in many of these dry regions are being drawn down more rapidly than they can be renewed.

"So we are approaching water crises, not only from increasing competing demands from energy production, urbanisation and others, but there will be additional drying and heating in some of the most populous places on the earth," Dr Fedoroff said.

An important question is how we can adapt agriculture to climate change while continuing to increase productivity and decrease environmental impact. Tolerance to heat, drought and salinity seeDr to be the buzz word today, she explained, and this is what is now going on in biotech companies and in public plant breeding programmes.

Another matter of importance is increased pest resistance because of the shifts in distribution of pests and diseases. There are also big issues such as addressing the limits on photosynthetic efficiency, although this is not a major focus for research at the moment, said Dr Fedoroff.

The kinds of techniques that are being used and will be used include conventional breeding and marker assisted breeding. In the future, however, it will require some combination of even more sophisticated marker assisted breeding and molecular modification, she said.

To bring about more crop development in the public sector, a re-evaluation of the current regulatory system in the light of accumulated evidence on the safety of genetically modified crops is becoming a necessity. Dr Fedoroff says that "thinking out of the box" is becoming increasingly important.

Making better use of what is abundant in nature – sunshine, salt water and desert – is of extreme importance, according to Dr Fedoroff. "But there’s another aspect at the heart of making agriculture more sustainable, and that’s closing the nutrient loop between animals and plants," she said.

"Improving both the productivity and environmental sustainability of food production in a changing climate are among the most profound challenges facing humanity in the 21st century," Dr Fedoroff concluded.

Further Reading

- You can view our previous report from the 2010 Outlook Forum by clicking here.

May 2010
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