Potential benefits for agricultural productivity

  • Better resistance to stress: If crops can be made more resistant to pest outbreaks, it would reduce the danger of crop failure. Similar benefits could result from better resistance to severe weather, such as frost, extreme heat or drought - although this would require manipulation of complex combinations of genes and appropriate pest management practices to avoid excessive selection pressure on the pest.

  • More nutritious staple foods: By inserting genes into crops such as rice and wheat, we can increase their food value. For example, genes responsible for producing the precursor of vitamin A have been inserted into rice plants, which have higher levels of vitamin A in their grain. This is called Golden Rice. As rice feeds more than 50 percent of the world's population, it could help reduce vitamin A deficiency, which is a serious problem in the developing world. Many other similar products aimed at bio-fortification are in the production pipeline.

  • More productive farm animals: Genes might be inserted into cattle to raise their milk yield, for example.

Potential benefits for the environment

  • More food from less land: Improved productivity from GMOs might mean that farmers in the next century won't have to bring so much marginal land into cultivation.

  • GMOs might reduce the environmental impact of food production and industrial processes: Genetically engineered resistance to pests and diseases could greatly reduce the chemicals needed for crop protection, and it is already happening. Farmers are growing maize, cotton and potatoes that no longer have to be sprayed with the bacterial insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis - because they produce its insecticidal agent themselves. Scientists are developing trees that have a lower content of lignin, a structuring constituent of woody plant cells. This could reduce the need for noxious chemicals in pulp and paper production. These developments could not only reduce environmental impact - they could also improve the health of farm and industrial workers.

  • Rehabilitation of damaged or less-fertile land: Large areas of cropland in the developing world have become saline by unsustainable irrigation practices. Genetic modification could produce salt-tolerant varieties. Trees might also be improved or modified to become more tolerant of salt and drought. They might also be selected or bred for rehabilitation of degraded land. While there is some advanced research in this area, salt and drought tolerance are the result of quite complex gene combinations, and positive results will take longer than those providing insecticide and herbicide resistance.

  • Bioremediation: Rehabilitation of damaged land may also become possible through organisms bred to restore nutrients and soil structure.

  • Longer shelf lives: The genetic modification of fruits and vegetables can make them less likely to spoil in storage or on the way to market. This could expand trade opportunities as well as reduce massive wastage incurred in transport and supply.

  • Biofuels: Organic matter could be bred to provide energy. Plant material fuel, or biomass, has enormous energy potential. For example, the waste from sugar cane or sorghum can provide energy, especially in rural areas. It may be possible to breed plants specifically for this purpose. And other unexpected, useful products could prove of huge value.

Potential benefits for human health

  • Investigation of diseases with genetic fingerprinting: "Fingerprinting" of animal and plant diseases is already possible. This technique allows researchers to know exactly what an organism is by looking at its genetic blueprint. One benefit may be that veterinary staff can know whether an animal is carrying a disease or has simply been vaccinated - preventing the need to kill healthy animals.

  • Vaccines and medicines: Similar to the long-established development of biotechnological vaccines for humans, the use of molecular biology to develop vaccines and medicines for farm animals is proving quite successful and holds great promise for the future. Plants are being engineered to produce vaccines, proteins and other pharmaceutical products. This process is called "pharming".

  • Identification of allergenic genes: Although some are worried about the transfer of allergenic genes (see Brazil nut example under arguments against GMOs), molecular biology could also be used to characterize allergens and remove them. Indeed, the Brazil nut incident actually led to identification of the allergenic protein.

March 2003