The Future of Engineered Agriculture

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Engineered agriculture uses the tools of biotechnology to analyze and manipulate plant DNA to create varieties with new or enhanced characteristics, explains Social Technologies futurist Justman says. "This allows traits developed in other, incompatible plants or even other organisms (e.g., bacteria) to be integrated into the DNA of commercial plant varieties."

The DC-based research and consulting firm Social Technologies recently released a series of 12 briefs that shed light on the top areas for technology innovation through 2025. The brief on engineered agriculture, by futurist Mark Justman, is the tenth trend in the series.

Engineered agriculture uses the tools of biotechnology to analyze and manipulate plant DNA to create varieties with new or enhanced characteristics, Justman says. "This allows traits developed in other, incompatible plants or even other organisms (e.g., bacteria) to be integrated into the DNA of commercial plant varieties."

Generally, the crops developed through engineered agriculture can be considered to have three generations of evolution:

  • First generation. Crops that are modified to resist herbicide treatments or infestation by insects.
  • Second generation. Crops that have improved plant characteristics, such as better nutritional composition, greater tolerance for heat or cold, or greater tolerance for drought or high-salinity conditions.
  • Third generation. Crops modified to create useful molecular compounds, such as biopharmaceutical products, complex proteins, bioplastic compounds, or vaccines.

Challenges ahead

Today's GM crops have already achieved significant commercial success in global agriculture. However, their growth has been paralleled by widespread fears and concerns about the safety and efficacy of genetically modifying foods designed for human and animal consumption.

Unless these concerns are addressed, Justman believes public and regulatory resistance to new forms of engineered agriculture could be a roadblock for the deployment of the more exotic applications of engineered agriculture that will emerge in the future:

  • Public fears. Public concerns about modified crops can trigger higher regulatory burdens and slow the adoption of GM food products. The US public is generally accepting of GM foods, with a 2006 Pew survey finding 34% of US consumers believing they were safe, and 29% believing they were unsafe. When consumers are told the extent to which GM products are currently present in the food supply, the percentage of consumers who feel GM foods are safe increases by 11%.

"However, US consumers are generally ignorant of their consumption of GM foods: 60% believed that they had not eaten GM foods during 2006. In reality, though, Americans are eating modified foods all the time," Justman says, noting that estimates suggest that 75% of processed foods in the US contain some genetically modified ingredients. In Europe, public opposition is much stronger, with 58% of participants in a 2006 Eurobarometer survey saying that GM foods "should not be encouraged."

  • Gene deletion. Justman notes that one of the technologies in the report could play a role in shifting public perceptions about the safety of GM crops. "Gene deletion is a new approach to the genetic modification of plants that allows GM traits to be eliminated before the plant matures. In a sense, the modified genes will 'uninstall' themselves like a piece of software before plants reach a growth stage where GM traits can spread in the environment or before final harvest for human consumption."

For a trait like herbicide resistance, gene deletor technology could allow the resistance genes to remain during the critical, early growth phases, but then delete them before plant maturation, fruiting, or pollen production. The mature plant would not have the genetically modified traits in harvested fruits or grains, and the risks of cross-pollination with other plants would be dramatically reduced.

Justman notes that previous attempts to use genetic encoding to keep GM plants sterile, such as Monsanto's "terminator gene" technology, met wide widespread public condemnation. These criticisms stemmed from the fact that programmed genetic controls on plant reproduction would force farmers to purchase new seeds every year.

Gene deletion technology addresses this concern by confining its genetic interventions to specific genetically modified plant traits, allowing farmers to reuse the seeds, but without the benefit of GM traits. Plants with a gene deletor mechanism would produce fertile seeds that could be planted by subsistence farmers, but these seeds would not express any of the GM traits.

According to Justman, "Gene deletor technology would allow a compromise between intellectual property protection for GM traits, and subsistence farmers who rely on seed storage for next year's crop. It has the potential to be a win-win for both agribusiness and small-scale farmers."

This technology could allow biotech and agricultural companies to have a better chance of recouping the R&D costs on GM crops, potentially making it more cost-effective to develop new GM crops for niche markets. This could be especially important for the second- and third-generation GM crops that will offer unique characteristics, but as a result will have smaller potential markets for a given plant variety.

Learn more
To talk to Mark Justman about the forecasts and business implications surrounding the concept of engineered agriculture, contact Hope Gibbs, Social Technologies' leader of corporate communications: hope.gibbs@socialtechnologies.com.

Mark Justman ) Futurist
Mark Justman joined Social Technologies in 2003 as a senior writer/ analyst. His work has focused on tracking and analyzing consumer and technology trends in the automotive, retail, and energy industries. A professional futurist since receiving his MA in future studies from the University of Hawaii in 1999, Mark's primary interest is identifying the emerging issues and discontinuities that have the potential to impede, accelerate, or modify extrapolative trends. Prior to Social Technologies, Mark worked at the Institute for Alternative Futures, where his project work included construction of biotechnology scenarios for the UK's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and creation of an interactive forecasting tool for healthcare on behalf of the World Health Organization. Areas of expertise: Energy (green, renewable, oil), the future of US politics, future of technology.

About ) Social Technologies
Social Technologies is a global research and consulting firm specializing in the integration of foresight, strategy, and innovation. With offices in Washington DC, London, and Shanghai, Social Technologies serves the world's leading companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. A holistic, long-term perspective combined with actionable business solutions helps clients mitigate risk, make the most of opportunities, and enrich decision-making. For information visit http://www.socialtechnologies.com, our blog: http://changewaves.socialtechnologies.com, and our newsletter: http://www.socialtechnologies.com/changewaves.

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