By Margaret Mellon and Doug Gurian-Sherman
By 2050, the world will have to feed 9 billion people, adapt to climate change, reduce agricultural pollution, and protect fresh water supplies – all at the same time. Given that formidable challenge, what are the quickest, most cost-effective ways to develop more productive, drought-, flood- and pest-resistant crops?
Some will claim that genetically engineered (GE) crops are the solution. But when compared side-by-side, classical plant breeding bests genetic engineering. Coupled with ecologically based management methods that reduce the environmental harm of crop production, classical breeding could go a long way toward producing the food we will need by mid-century.
Producing better crops faster certainly would help the world feed itself, but genetic engineering has no advantage on that score. Not only can classical breeding programs introduce new varieties about as fast as genetic engineering, technical improvements are making classical practices even faster.
Early steps in the genetic engineering process avoid the multiple rounds of cross-breeding inherent in classical plant breeding by directly inserting engineered genes into the crop. But seed companies then use classical breeding to transfer engineered genes to the crop’s numerous varieties for different markets and climates – and that takes time. And just as in classical breeding, new engineered varieties must be tested in the field for several years to ensure they perform as expected.
Second, GE crops are significantly more expensive to develop. Industry estimates of the cost of developing a single GE trait are in excess of $100 million. By contrast, a classical breeding program for similar traits typically costs about $1 million. Most of the cost differential is attributable to GE crops’ research and development requirements, which include DNA synthesizers and sequencers and other expensive equipment, in addition to classical breeding facilities.
Genetic engineering might be worth the extra cost if classical breeding were unable to impart such desirable traits as drought-, flood- and pest-resistance, and fertilizer efficiency. But in case after case, classical breeding is delivering the goods.
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