Biotechnology continues to expand its range of applications, with numerous innovative solutions being developed, especially for the developing world.
In 2016 developing countries continued to plant more biotech crops compared to industrial countries. Starting 2012, developing countries consistently increased in hectarage and by 2016, a difference of 14.1 million hectares between developing and industrial countries was achieved. Developing countries grew 54% of the global biotech hectares compared to 46% for industrial countries. The trend for a higher share of global biotech crops in developing countries is likely to continue in the near, mid and long-term, firstly, due to more countries from the southern hemisphere adopting biotech crops and secondly, adoption of crops such as rice, 90% of which is grown in developing countries, are deployed as “new” biotech crops.
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Viruses and insects cause proportionally more damage to tropical crops than to those in the temperate regions of the developed world. Classical pest and disease control measures are often more limited in developing regions due to scarcity of equipment like application equipment, and resources like water and the availability of suitable products. The introduction of insect and virus resistance characteristics into these tropical crops is likely to make important contributions to the development of efficient agricultural production, thus alleviating the demand to clear new land for agricultural production. However, in practise, these potential environmental and societal benefits have not often been realised as difficulties are experienced when seeking regulatory approval.
The next generation of traits reflect the results of over twenty years of research in the molecular composition of food. Applications that are technically ready for deployment, or that are a long way down the R&D pipeline, include oil crops with substantially improved fatty acid composition (to reflect our increased knowledge of human needs and effects on human health of differences in oil and fat composition), as well as enhanced micro nutritional content, such as Golden Rice, the new rice type developed to remedy one of the most devastating causes of malnutrition: Vitamin A shortage.
Another important range of biotechnology applications now appearing on the research horizon is the development of abiotic, stress-tolerant plants. To modify plants so that they improve their resistance to drought, to salinity, to acid soils and to other stress factors, has been a major goal for the applications of biotechnology. Until recently, the molecular understanding of natural resistance mechanisms to these stress factors was insufficiently advanced to allow directed resistance strategies based on biotechnology. That has changed in the last few years, and the number of experimental releases of stress-tolerant plants (especially drought) is rapidly increasing. These crops offer significant advantages in the reliability of food production in large areas of the tropics where farming is regularly disrupted by unpredictable rainfall. It is also possible that these innovations will help to relieve pressure on the scarce irrigated water resources. Irrigated water resources have already been identified as a top-level policy concern by the United Nations.
As biotechnology matures, more innovative applications will become possible. Strategies for production of GM vaccines for farm animals are well underway, and, in fact, a recombinant vaccine for the control of rabies was the first example of commercial scale release of a GMO in the early nineties.