ABIC Speaker Highlights “We live in a world whose major problems have no borders,” says Nina Fedoroff, who is a keynote speaker at this year’s Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC2014) in Saskatoon.
“What affects developing nations affects all of us. Helping them bridge the knowledge and technology gap helps us, too.”
Fedoroff is a Distinguished Professor at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), and Evan Pugh Professor at the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences, a seven-college organization devoted to the promotion of multi-disciplinary research and teaching in the life sciences at Penn State University. She is currently establishing a new centre for desert agriculture in Saudi Arabia. Researchers there will work with some of the most extreme conditions on earth to enhance knowledge and develop plant strains that can be used in regions that may become less hospitable to agriculture as climate change intensifies. Over her career, Fedoroff has distinguished herself in several areas of plant science. Her current focus is on the genetic organization and molecular dynamics of plant stress and hormone responses, as well as the molecular basis of epigenetic regulation—the ways that gene expression is modulated through chromosome structure and DNA modification.
In addition to hard science, Fedoroff is also committed to increasing international collaboration and scientific communication. The role of biotechnology in agriculture is limited by the public’s perception of it, and the effect that public perception has on government policies. As president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Fedoroff worked to make knowledge available across borders, and also closer to home.
Fedoroff has published a book with the intent of increasing the public’s understanding of genetic modification: Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods. “I think people often fear–and even denigrate–what they do not understand,” she says. “We live in a world of faster technological change than humans have ever experienced. Since science is the fundamental source of the technological advancement, it isn't surprising that it engenders negativity in some.”
Our ability to feed ourselves in the face of rapid climate change and equally rapid increase in demand from a human population that is growing in both numbers and affluence is an issue whose importance cannot be over-stated. Agriculture must produce more food—and produce it more sustainably. Fedoroff notes that genetic modification (GM) has played an important role in maintaining and increasing agricultural productivity—where it is allowed.
“However, the idea that it is dangerous continues to dominate public discourse and prevents the easing of restrictions on the use of biotechnology that should come with the continuing absence of evidence that GM techniques hold intrinsic dangers.” Unfortunately, public understanding of GM is tangled with mistrust of large companies. “Large companies are currently the only organizations that can afford to bring the fruits of biotechnology to the marketplace because of the huge regulatory burdens we’ve imposed on genetic modification,” explains Fedoroff. “It is not surprising that they focus on the major commodity crops, since those are the only ones widely enough grown to recover profits on the investments required to develop and bring biotech products to market.”
Accumulating evidence that genetic modification by molecular techniques is as safe as genetic modification by older techniques (such as chemical mutagenesis), should translate to changes in the regulatory framework. This would reduce the regulatory burden and make it more economically feasible to bring GM crops to market. Such changes could also aid in the acceptance of biotechnology as a positive force for increasing food production on a global scale.
“In the best of worlds, governments would invest in helping academic scientists and small companies to test and bring GM products to market. They could also undertake a review of regulations and reduce the regulatory burden in response to increasing confidence that biotechnological approaches are not inherently dangerous. That is, regulation should be on the properties of the product or organism created, not the methods by which it was created.”