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Modified crops the way of the future

The challenges associated with a global food crisis can only be overcome with the use of modified crops, according to Dr. David Dennis of Performance Plants. Only such scientific advances will be able to boost yields in the face of water shortages and climate change. 

September 26, 2008  By Regina Leader-Post

September 26, 2008

More genetically modified crops must be developed if agricultural producers are to meet the challenge of global food shortages and climate change, a Biotech Week event was told Thursday.

"Technology prevented mass starvation in the 20th Century,'' said David Dennis, CEO of Performance Plants Inc., which operates plant biotechnology facilities in Kingston, Ont., Saskatoon and New York.

"Technology will solve the problems of the 21st Century, I believe,'' added
Dennis, a former Queen's University plant scientist, who founded PPI in 1995. He
said the global agriculture industry is facing a number of challenges, namely water shortages, climate change and yield volatility that threaten to cause large-scale crop failures and mass starvation.

Agriculture biotechnology — genetically modifying plants to improve their productivity, size and resistance to drought and disease — could provide the solution to these challenges, he added.

For example, PPI has used gene-modification technology to improve crop yields in corn, canola and soybeans by 15 to 25 percent by improving their drought resistance.

GM technology has also been used to help protect crops from heat stress and use water more efficiently, as well as increase biomass and carbohydrate content for biofuels crops.

Contrary to popular misconception, GM-modified crops have "no negative impacts'' on the quality, safety or quantity of the food they produce, Dennis added.

"The technology works under a lot of conditions. There appears to be no negative impact of the technology at all."

Daren Coppock, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers in the U.S., said widespread production of GM-modified wheat could help offset the steadily declining acreage of cropland sown to wheat in the U.S.

"Seven of the last 10 years, we've consumed more wheat locally (in the U.S.) than we've produced. You just can't keep doing that without having a market response.''

Corn and soybeans are moving west and north into traditional wheat-growing areas in the U.S., pushing wheat acres to 30-year lows, Coppock said.

"Even under the most optimistic scenario, (one expert) does not see wheat acres exceeding 50 million when it used to be almost 80 (million)."

The need to improve crop yields is another "compelling case for biotechnology," Coppock added. While wheat yields have remained "flat" at around 40 bushels per acre, corn yields have been expanding four times faster — thanks to biotechnology, he said.

"The longer we wait to deal with this problem, the bigger the hole we've dug for ourselves. That's why there's a sense of urgency by our producers to get this (biotechnology) ball rolling as soon as we can.''

But even if GM-modified wheat varieties were approved tomorrow, it would take 10 years to get them into production, he added.

"Our board has set a goal of a 20 percent yield increase in 10 years, with the fundamental assumption that biotech commercialization is part of that answer. We won't get there without it.''


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