Last year 350 million acres – about 10% of global cultivated area, or the same area as Germany, France and Spain together - were planted to Genetically Modified (GM) crops. And about 15 million global farmers benefit from the technology, says Peter Eckes, president of BASF Plant Science.
Yet, European consumers still remain wary about the benefits of this growing agricultural practice, Eckes told a group of agricultural journalists today at the company’s headquarters in Ludwigshafen, Germany.
Farmers in the United States, Brazil and Argentina are the leading users of GM technology. Among European countries, Spain ranked highest at sixteenth with 200,000 acres. Germany took last spot in the ranking with 5 acres of GM last year. France, the largest European agricultural country - grew zero. Why?
The first generation of GM products offered herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, which mainly benefited farmers and the companies that sold herbicides, he says. These traits increased productivity but did nothing for consumers, other than to increase skepticism.
Next generation Ahead
Eckes believes new GM crops now in the R&D pipeline will change those attitudes. “There will be GM crops that offer substantially more yield and more resilience to biotic stress, but also more healthiness and nutritional value of food,” he says. “For example, they will enrich crops with vitamins, enzymes or healthy fatty acids.”
BASF has a robust biotech pipeline in partnerships with Monsanto, Bayer and Cargill. GM crops in the pipeline include drought-tolerant corn, improved nitrogen utilization, drought-tolerant cotton, healthy fatty acids in canola and blight-resistant GM potatoes. The company is also working on GM traits for higher yielding cotton, soybeans, rice and sugar cane.
“I’m confident we will be the first to bring this next generation to the market,” he says. “I am convinced that these products will push the needle on consumer acceptance. Once end consumers can be addressed directly with products that offer a clear health benefit, they will appreciate the positive effects from GM products.”
Genetically engineered canola plants, for example, will contain EPA/DHA-omega-3 fatty acids that can improve human health. If regularly consumed, these two fatty acids (EPA and DHA) substantially decrease the risk of hearth attacks, the number one cause of death in the developed world.
Currently EPA and DHA are most commonly consumed through fatty acids found in fish. BASF signed a partnership with Cargill, and expects the first products to be marketed by the end of the decade.
“It is impossible to express this trait in canola through conventional planting breeding,” he says. “I’m very proud we will achieve this and bring about this consumer benefit.”