Since the beginning of agriculture, farmers have always been looking at innovative ways to improve the characteristics and traits of plants to specifically select for more nutritious , tastier crops with better yields. Chantel Arendse, plant biotechnology lead at CropLife SA, gives insight into plant biotechnology, and the importance of quality and safety.
Improving crops is not something new, as the breeding process evolved, new tools evolved for the enhancement of plants/crops. Each year, millions of farmers around the world plant biotech crops for numerous reasons, but essentially to improve crop quality.
“Plant biotechnology is just a continuation of the breeding process, and it uses a collection of more advanced genetic tools that enable plant breeders to link a specific gene to a particular trait and introduces this directly into plants in a faster more efficient manner,” says Arendse.
Genetically modified crops
The outcome or products resulting from the application of plant biotechnology tools is known as genetically modified (GM) plants or crops.
Arendse adds that the most widely known example of GM crops developed with plant biotechnology tools are insect-resistant crops.
She uses the example of the Bt crops, which is a crop that produces an insecticidal protein from a soil bacterium. The insecticidal protein gives these crops built-in protection against targeted insect pests.
Arendse further explains that insect resistant crops is only one of many examples, as there are several other biotech traits being introduced to address the many challenges farmers face such as adverse climate conditions including drought.
“Due to the superior performance of these crops, it has meant that more benefits have been passed on to farmers and these benefits mean farmers have better weed-management practices and are able to control and reduce the use of pesticides,” says Arendse.
Understanding the lingo
According to Arendse, in different parts of the world, terminologies such as GMOs (genetically modified organisms), bioengineered crops, and biotech crops are all synonyms for different tools that are used in plant biotechnology.
“Depending on where in the world you are, various countries have different preferences for the terminology that they use to describe the products resulting from biotech applications,”
In South Africa. we refer to genetically modified crops or GMOs as prescribed in our legislation. But in a country like the United States, the preferred terminology used to describe GMOs is bioengineered or genetically engineered crops, she adds.
Invest in quality seeds, resources
Within our current global contexts, the inputs required for farming are quite capital-intensive. If farmers are going to make this investment, it is important that they invest in good quality seeds, Arendse advises.
This helps to improve their prospects for good yields, including safe and healthy crops. “Yes, developing farmers, not only in South Africa but also across the continent, are known for saving and replanting their seeds every year. However, over time, repeatedly using this practice results in a decline in the quality of seeds.”
This practice can affect farmers’ potential to deliver a good harvest, therefore its important that farmers are encouraged to consider seed quality when they make this kind of investment.
Arendse adds that bringing new innovative tools to farmers requires an extensive investment of time and resources.
“Delivering a new biotech trait to marketing requires, on average, an investment of $115 million USD. Even though these investment costs have decreased over the last 10 years, this is quite a substantial amount of money,” says Arendse.
Though it is capital intensive, there is another delay that plays a role when it comes to farmers receiving the tools. “It takes a while to meet the regulatory requirements of the different governments.”
Safety is paramount
Arendse reassures farmers who are hesitant about plant biotechnology to not be alarmed about the safety of these tools.
“The health and the safety of GMOs have been verified by many independent scientists and organisations around the world, including the World Health Organisation, several food safety authorities and all the different country governments where the GM crops are approved for cultivation and feed,” Arendse explains.
GM foods are also one of the most stringently regulated foods available to date. In the past 20-25 years of GM crop cultivation and safe consumption, there has not been a food safety issue or even a rejection of an approval by authorities , she adds.
Arendse advises farmers to educate themselves on biotech crops, by asking questions and obtaining information from credible sources so that thy are informed about available tools that can benefit their farming practices.
“Make sure that you have all the information that you need, that [farmers] are equipped to make an informed decision about whether biotech seeds are the right choice for [their] farm, and to help deal with the challenges that farmers face,” says Arendse.
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