Published on 10/12/00

Ag Technology Wave Keeps Industry on Toes

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Photo: GCCE

William Kirk delivers 2000 D.W. Brooks Lecture.

It's hard to believe that in today's high-tech world, more than 4 billion people don't have access to refrigerated milk. And more than 400 million people worldwide, including 180 million children, suffer from vitamin A deficiency.

All that could change quickly.

"Researchers are able to distill insights from mountains of data and immediately reapply that knowledge to continue pushing the frontiers of science," said William F. Kirk to a University of Georgia audience. Group vice president of DuPont Biosolutions Enterprise, Kirk delivered the 2000 D.W. Brooks Lecture Oct. 2 in Athens, Ga.

Baby Biotech

Biotech applications in agriculture are in their infancy, he said.

"Most current genetically enhanced plant varieties are modified only for a single trait, such as herbicide tolerance or pest resistance," Kirk said. "The rapid progress being made in genomics may enhance plant breeding to help secure better and more consistent yields. This would be of great benefit to those farming marginal lands worldwide."

Today, nutritional and health benefits beyond those available in foods are delivered in pharmaceuticals and vitamin supplements.

"In the future, the potential exists to provide these benefits to a greater part of the world, at significantly lower cost, through foods," he said. "We have a tremendous opportunity to help society."

Super Food

Potential health benefits from biotech foods include:

  • Soybean, sunflower and peanut oils lower in saturated fats.
  • Fruits and vegetables higher in beta carotene and vitamins C and E.
  • Bananas that deliver oral vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis B.
  • Potatoes and corn with modified starch content.
  • Strawberries with augmented cancer-fighting nutrients.
  • Allergen-free rice and rice with higher lysine content.

Farmable land on the planet is depleted every day, he said. The most urgent need for agriculture is to create plants with the highest yields per acre possible.

A Hungry World

"According to the United Nations, 800 million people worldwide are already chronically malnourished," Kirk said.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that two of every five children in developing countries are stunted, one in three is underweight and one in 10 is "wasted" due to undernourishment.

"Biotechnology alone won't solve the problems of hunger and malnutrition," Kirk said, "but it can play an important role."

Waves of Change

Kirk said change in agriculture has come in waves. The first was mechanization. The second was crop protection. "Today, the third wave has formed: biotechnology and information technology," he said. "And this wave promises to be revolutionary."

Technology, he said, "will help us improve food quality, safety, taste, nutrition, cost and convenience."

But it won't be easy. While agriculture is used to being constantly reshaped by scientific breakthroughs, this change will be different.

"Our industry has been accustomed to incremental change as the population grew," Kirk said. "But we now face constant step changes, which are measured in months, not decades."

Competitive Key

Biotechnology may be the key to creating a competitive edge in the global marketplace, he said.

"Biotechnology will be one of the most powerful tools at our disposal for sustainable growth in the 21st century," Kirk said. "It is critical that we be responsive to people's concerns.

"The opportunities are large and exciting," he said. "We must continue to work with industry, government and other stakeholders to see that this potential is realized."

Kirk feels only those who remain on the cutting edge of technology will prosper in this new environment.

"The only constant is change," he said. "We have to be on our toes to deal with biotechnology, e-commerce, the knowledge explosion and the many new partnerships."

The D.W. Brooks Lecture Series and Faculty Awards of Excellence, sponsored by the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, are named for the late UGA agronomy professor and founder of Gold Kist, Inc., and Cotton States Mutual Insurance Companies.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.