2009 Year in Review: Scientists give their Opinion of Top News Stories in Agricultural Biotechnology

Council for Biotechnology Information
Published December 16, 2009

Biotechnology Ag

With so many stories to choose from, it was hard for us to determine the top agricultural biotechnology story of 2009. Therefore, we turned to the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI) experts and let them choose the top three stories that stood out in terms of their significance and impact on the future of agricultural biotechnology worldwide. CBI experts include the nation’s leading scientists in plant genetics and food science, among other disciplines.

Dr. Norman Borlaug’s Legacy
The loss of Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and father of the Green Revolution, was cited by several experts as the biggest story of 2009 because of his work to alleviate poverty and hunger. In his obituary, The New York Times praised Dr. Borlaug’s advances in plant breeding, which allowed countries like Mexico and India to become food self-sufficient and as a result, saved one billion lives.

According to Dr. Ronald Phillips of the University of Minnesota, “Norman Borlaug was one of the greatest humanitarians to ever have lived and he achieved this through hard work, impeccable ethics, a belief in training, and a vision as to what can improve the human condition.”

Reflecting on Dr. Borlaug’s legacy, Dr. Peggy G. Lemaux of the University of California, Berkeley wrote “far and away the year’s top story is Norman Borlaug. Biotechnology lost a strong and influential voice with his passing. One that cannot be filled by any other shoes.”

China Begins Approval Process for Biotech Rice
Many CBI Experts also chose the recent story about China declaring genetically modified rice safe to produce and consume as one of the year’s most significant ag biotech developments. The Wall Street Journal reported that with this decision the Chinese government takes a “major step toward endorsing the use of biotechnology in the staple food crop of billions of people in Asia.”

According to Dr. Kenneth G. Cassman of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, “this announcement is a game-changer because China produces about 30% of rice in the world… Therefore, I believe this approval will create an overwhelming pressure to approve biotech crops in most developing nations.”

Dr. Chris Somerville of the University of California, Berkeley also chose China’s announcement as his top story of the year because “it is the official opening of the largest food market in the world to GMO.”

Mapping of the Corn Genome
Other CBI experts suggested that the mapping of the corn genome qualifies as the biggest ag biotech story of the year because of what can be achieved when we understand the genome sequence of this hugely important crop. The Washington Post wrote, “…many agronomists hope the information buried in corn’s 32,000 genes and 2.3 billion letters of DNA may help sustain the century-long improvement in yield and hardiness into an era of climate change and, possibly, food shortage.”

Dr. Larry Heatherly of the University of Tennessee chose the mapping of the corn genome as the story of the year because “this achievement will lead to new/improved quality traits, enhanced genetic pest resistance, and increased production with fewer inputs resulting in lower cost of production and a more sustainable economic production system.”

Agricultural Biotechnology Makes Headlines
Other agricultural biotechnology stories made headlines during 2009. These stories include Bill Gates’ speech endorsing the expansion of technology in agriculture at the 2009 World Food Prize Symposium, and the increased acceptance and approval of biotechnology crops due to the pressures of growing population and climate change.

Below are quotes from national opinion leaders about the benefits of agricultural biotechnology from 2009.


“Genetically modified crops are proving to be an unmitigated environmental miracle… Within a decade there may be crops that are no-till, insect-resistant, omega-3-enriched, drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant and nitrogen-efficient. If they boost yields, then the 21st century will see more and more people better and better fed from less and less land.”

— Matt Ridley, The Economist, The World in 2010 Issue


“We have global warming problems, we have health problems. And many – not all, by any means – solutions can be found in agricultural biotechnology.”

— Michael Specter, author of Denialism and New Yorker reporter


“We believe that biotechnology has a critical role to play in increasing agricultural productivity, particularly in light of climate change. We also believe it can help to improve the nutritional value of staple foods.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

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