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Giant conference highlights the benefits of agricultural biotechnology

San Diego in mid-June rolled out the red carpet for thousands of people who descended upon the city during the Bio International Convention held downtown.

The last time the massive annual event was held in California was in 2004, with San Francisco as host. (Last year it was in Boston.) This year, event organizers reported that more than 22,000 people from 220 countries attended the conference held over four days from June 17-20.

In paying homage to some of the best and brightest scientific minds on the planet, the conference offered up an impressive list of speakers, including former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and keynote speakers Craig Venter, the scientist who is known worldwide for his pioneering work in sequencing the human genome, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“This room is sizzling with brain power and creativity,” the governor cracked during the opening of his luncheon speech. “I will walk out with a 10 percent increase in my IQ just for being here.”

And the governor was right on target as the conference featured experts discussing the latest advances in pharmaceutical, medical and agricultural biotechnology in dozens of educational workshops.

The various seminars that focused on food and agriculture included: How agricultural biotechnology can help crops flourish with less water under the challenging conditions of climate change; the fight to use modern biotechnology and the countless governmental regulations and public perceptions making it difficult; the rise of functional foods; global stewardship practices; communicating food biotechnology using new media strategies; and an update on the growth of bio crops in Brazil, China, India and Africa.

The stark importance of plant biotech can be realized by considering the fact that today’s global population of 6.6 billion inhabitants will spiral to 9 billion by mid-century. How will all these people be fed? Currently, 852 million people worldwide are malnourished, and it is estimated that as many as 20,000 people starve to death globally each day. Answering this question of food scarcity is what keeps microbiologists and genetic engineers busy working outside the realm of traditional plant breeding to develop new varieties of crops that can better withstand heat, drought, flooding and other extreme weather, as well as insect damage and plant diseases.

“Technology can solve the problems (of starvation) in the 21st century if we’re allowed to use it,” commented David Davis during a workshop on maintaining a safe and sustainable food supply. Davis is president and co-founder of Performance Plants Inc., in Canada. “Some want us to go back to agricultural technology from many years ago. You wouldn’t want to drive a Model T Ford on a super highway,” he said. “You can’t solve 21st century problems with 1920s technology.”

Davis obviously was referring to detractors who push only organic foods or want pesticides eliminated from the planet entirely, while spreading suspicion and fear that genetically engineered plants (GM) are “Frankenfoods” that are pretty much untested and unsafe. Nothing could be further from the truth, speaker after scientific speaker was quick to point out. It’s worth noting that after 12 years on the commercial market there isn’t a shred of evidence anywhere in the world to prove any adverse effects of GM food on humans, animals or the environment.

Furthermore, from the mouths of those in the know, GM crops yield more food per acre, reduce the use of pesticides and carbon emissions from farm vehicles because of fewer chemical applications, and keep food affordable for everyone.

One session that I found notable was a workshop entitled “How Agricultural Biotechnology Can Help Crops Flourish With Less Water.” At least one-third of U.S. corn acres suffer from yield-reducing drought stress each year. As agriculture prepares for the possibility of warmer temperatures and reduced snowpack from climate change, more growers are anticipating technology that allows them to plant a crop that requires less water. One of the most highly anticipated second-generation biotech traits in agriculture is seed that makes crops drought tolerant.

“One-third of the world’s population is exposed to water scarcity,” said panelist Chris Zinselmeier, program leader for Water Optimization Technologies for Syngenta. He said due to climate change, water scarcity is expected to double during the next 30 years.

To meet this challenge, scientists are engaging in field trials in Canada and elsewhere experimenting with major commodities armed with new tools to measure water stress on plants, ways to modify “gene expression,” improving contemporary plant breeding, studying various plants’ ability to photosynthesize under extreme drought conditions, and observing how drought interacts with heat and diseases inside plant cells. One test sample plant went 18 days under severe drought conditions and immediately “perked up” after receiving some water following this trial period.

Zinselmeier and other speakers predicted that several types of drought tolerant crops should be available for commercial use in seven or eight years.

Lastly, work has been sped up in the field of genomics, the careful cataloging of the genetic material of individual plants. Zinselmeier pointed out that 292 genomes have been sequenced in many multi-cellular organisms.

I am encouraged and excited about the growing acceptance of agricultural biotech around the world. Each year the annual Bio conference seems to be getting bigger and better. In light of the world’s growing demand for food it seems obvious that biotech will be leading the way in meeting this demand, as more countries around the world lower their shields as it becomes apparent that this new technology is the wave of the future.

I’ll close with some comments from our governor, who lauded the biotech industry for tackling a pile of complicated issues – therapies for disease, diagnostics to improve health care and alternative fuels that may one day create “a carbon-free world.”

Schwarzenegger took the opportunity to brag about California’s dominance as the national and world leader in biotechnology. Its 3,000 life-science companies generate about $73 billion in revenue annually — “and that’s without counting the sales of Botox to Joan Rivers,” he said.

Nice touch, Mr. Governator.

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