Seed Biotechnology Center
Seed Biotechnology Center
Seed Biotechnology Center
University of California
Seed Biotechnology Center

Biotechnology for Sustainability

What is sustainability?

The World Commission on the Environment and Development defined sustainability as follows:

Sustainability "is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Scientists around the world have been working diligently on means of producing crops with less required inputs for over three decades. Much advancement has been made to increase production while improving environmental protection, both through conventional breeding and the use of biotechnology.  Genetically engineered (GE) crop varieties offer many promising traits which will help increase health and nutrition, sustain farming on marginal lands and decrease concerns with pests and disease. Through the use of GE, a greater variety of traits can be incorporated into a particular crop in a more efficient and cost effective fashion than through traditional breeding alone. 

There are over 100 agricultural crops which have been genetically modified in research stations around the world. Five of the most promising traits which are being analyzed in numerous crops include:

  1. Herbicide Tolerance
  2. Insect resistance
  3. Stress Tolerance
  4. Nitrogen Use Efficiency
  5. Nutritional Traits

What is genetic engineering?

Plant traits are encoded in the DNA of their genes. In 1973 it became possible to identify and splice, or recombine, specific DNA molecules, leading to recombinant DNA technology, or genetic engineering, which allows scientists to copy and exchange genes among organisms to introduce new characteristics, such as resistance to herbicides or insects. Plants developed using genetic engineering are often called transgenic plants.

Although genetic engineering of foods was commercialized first in yeast to produce rennet for making cheese in the late 1980s in Europe, the first commercial genetically engineered crop was the FLAVR SAVR tomato from Calgene Inc., first sold in 1994. The first large-scale introduction of a transgenic crop occurred in 1995 with the release of herbicide-tolerant soybeans. 

Along with insect resistance conferred by the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) protein, this first generation of genetically engineered crops exhibited improved agronomic traits.

Brief 51: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2015
Brief 51: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2015
In 2009 in the United States, 91% of soybean, 68% of corn and 71% of cotton were herbicide tolerant.  In addition, 65% of cotton and 63% of corn were varieties enhanced by genetic engineering to confer insect resistance (USDA/ERS, 2009).

Worldwide, 25 countries produced 130 million hectares of transgenic crops in 2008. Notably, 90% of the 1.3 million biotech crop farmers were small and resource-poor farmers in developing countries (ISAAA, 2008).

The second generation of transgenic crops to enter the market is expected to incorporate many value-enhanced qualities, such as higher nutrient contents, increased fertilizer use efficiency and resistance to environmental stresses such drought. One example of quality enhancement is Golden Rice®, a rice variety that accumulates beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) and iron in the grain, potentially reducing childhood blindness and anemia in countries where rice is a staple food.

Global agriculture today is being challenged to produce greater amounts of food while striving to reduce pressure on land, water and fuel. As the population continues to increase, the world’s food supply needs to double by the year 2050 to keep up with demand. However, the amount of arable land is unlikely to increase during this time, as urbanization, saline soils and desertification are on the rise. New technologies including genetic modification of crops offers a means of addressing these environmental and economic constraints while putting well-tested and robust crops into the hands of local farmers.

This project is supported in part by the American Society of Plant Biologists Grant Awards Program.

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