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Business.2010 newsletter: Agribusiness

Volume 3, Issue 2 - February 2008: Agribusiness

Helping the world's farmers go green

Plants are the lungs of the world, transforming sunlight into the food that sustains all life and producing the oxygen we breathe. The trees of vast forests are the major terrestrial contributor to global photosynthesis. But Earth’s great woodlands are daily diminished by rapid increases in demand for wood products and for land to feed and house an exploding world population. The pressures are made more acute by economic growth and higher incomes. This is an outcome most would welcome, and it is accompanied by society’s desire for higher consumption of animal protein. In combination, these challenges increase the environmental impact of the human diet. As president and CEO of BIO, I have met many of our members who are using biotechnology to develop tools that will help reduce our environmental footprint in a myriad of ways.

Crop production and protection
Pre- and post-harvest losses of food are estimated to consume about half the grain grown around the world. Research teams are developing tools for crop improvement and protection that result in increased crop yields per unit area and decreased production costs and impacts. Losses to destructive insect pests are reduced by improvements targeting specific pests without harming other animals and plants. Farmers growing these crops report much higher levels of beneficial insects and associated biodiversity, like songbirds and hawks, than are seen with conventional agriculture. The best available studies indicate that in the first ten years of substantial biotech crop plantings, farmer income around the world was increased by USD 27bn while the environmental footprint of agriculture was cut by over 15%, with pesticide applications dropping by seven percent (volume of active ingredient). A major benefit has been the widespread adoption of no till weed control — measures that conserve soil quality, moisture content and biodiversity (1).

Trees are the world’s most plentiful and versatile source of renewable materials, and a potentially important source of biofuels. Increasing yields on existing cultivated land is one way to reduce agriculture’s pressure to impact native forest land. Increasing the efficiency of commercially-grown trees is another. Researchers in Asia Pacific, Europe, and the U.S.A. are leading efforts to make trees grow more wood of higher quality on less land in less time with fewer inputs and reduced impacts. Research to reduce the levels of certain compounds, like lignin, thereby reducing chemicals and energy required during processing, is a high priority. If we could grow all the wood we need in smaller areas close to where we use it, we would dramatically reduce the pressures on native forests that host so much of Earth’s biodiversity and provide the ecosystem services without which our life on earth would be impossible. It is my belief that biotechnology is helping bring this to pass.

Animal husbandry
Animal husbandry makes up a significant proportion of global agriculture, providing us with food, clothing, and companionship. Scholars look at the relationship between humans and domesticated animals as a co-evolved arrangement in which each depends upon the other. After 10,000 years of stewardship to livestock, the application of biotechnology to agricultural animals will increase biodiversity through production of healthy animals that express consumer- and environmentally-friendly desirable traits. Animal biotechnology may provide more nutritious foods, reduced environmental impact and solutions for human health.

Livestock are major consumers of the crops we grow. Nearly 80 percent of the U.S. corn harvest is eaten by animals, with about 60 percent of that used in the U.S. and the rest shipped to countries around the world. It takes significantly more than a pound of feed to produce a pound of meat — estimates vary widely, but let’s use the conversion ratios calculated by U.S. Department of Agriculture of about 10:1 for beef, 3:1 for chicken (2). This leaves room for improvement. How can biotechnology help address this problem? Biotechnology is being used to produce feed grain with improved nutrition that works better as animal feed. Making the phosphorus in soybeans easier for animals to absorb will lessen the environmental footprint of animal waste. Increasing the content of digestible energy, essential amino acids, and fatty acids in feedstuffs will cut the need for additional costly feed supplements. Applying our understanding of animal genomics is dramatically increasing animal health, animal growth rates and improving feed conversion ratios. Today’s livestock production based on biotechnology is optimizing environmental impact, while efficiently producing the high quality meat, milk and eggs desired by society world-wide.

Biotechnology is also being used to develop animals resistant to diseases, including some which are transferable to humans. Cattle that cannot contract bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) are being pioneered in Korea, the United States, and elsewhere. Chickens incapable of being infected by avian influenza are being investigated. Over 100 new biotech-derived vaccines, diagnostic devices, and biologics have been approved globally that reduce losses due to animal diseases. Some of these products treat major developing world problems like rinderpest in Africa. Biotechnology is also being used to produce safe and more effective medicines for human use. Indeed a BIO member has the first product approved in the world from a biotech-derived animal — a human pharmaceutical that is an anti-blood clotting factor produced in the milk of genetically engineered goats.

We are becoming increasingly conscious of the obligations we hold to leave a healthy and sustainable world for future generations. I strongly believe that biotechnology, with its ever-expanding knowledge of the structure and function of life on our planet, will play a vital role in responding to the challenges of feeding the world’s growing population, securing and maintaining natural habitats for the world’s animals, and replenishing the plants and fauna in the world around us. To that end, strengthening the role of business and industry within the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity has the potential to further the goals of Agenda 21 and the 2010 biodiversity target, and contribute to a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level. I encourage the Parties to consider at COP-9 various ways to more actively incorporate the expertise and resources of the business community in the implementation of the Convention – including through participation of business as part of national delegations - and to affirm a clear commitment to engage business in partnerships for biodiversity.

James C. Greenwood is President and CEO, Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).

BIO represents more than 1,100 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations across the United States and 31 other nations. BIO members are involved in the research and development of healthcare, agricultural, industrial and environmental biotechnology products. BIO also produces the annual BIO International Convention, the global event for biotechnology.

For more information, contact Sarah L. Lukie, Managing Director, Global Issues and Multilateral Affairs, Food and Agriculture, BIO.
(1) See G. Brookes and P. Barfoot, 2006. GM Crops: The First Ten Years — Global Socioeconomic and Environmental Impacts (http://www.pgeconomics.co.uk/pdf/global_impactstudy_2006_v1_finalPGEconomics.pdf)
(2) National Corn Growers Association, 1999. USDA Food Pyramid, http://www.ncga.com/education/pdf/worksheets/unit6worksheets.pdf