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Genetically modified plants - the key to sustainable agriculture?

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© Nicole Catellier, Cinémanima inc.

Agriculture began some 10,000 years ago, when humans first domesticated certain plants. Through hybridization and selection, farmers have developed a wide variety of plants with specific characteristics. The development of such plants, and the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, have contributed to the Green Revolution that began in the late 1940s. However, every revolution has its limits. . . will this one hold the key to feeding continuously growing populations?

Attempts to improve crop production through traditional means face a major obstacle: the species barrier. But this barrier disappears in genetic engineering, in which a gene that controls a certain characteristic in one species (bacteria, plants, mammals and even humans) is transferred into another species' genome and a whole plant generated from the transformed cells. A common example is the use of the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Transgenic plants hold great promise for the future of sustainable agriculture, but it must first be demonstrated that this technology poses no new health or environmental hazards.

What are the possible applications of this technology?
In northern climates such as ours, where the growing season is very short, the development of cold-resistant plants would allow the cultivation of new varieties and the extension of agriculture to regions of Quebec currently considered unsuitable for agriculture. Increasing the tolerated temperature range by just a few degrees would extend the growing season by several weeks.

Another benefit is the potential reduction of herbicide and pesticide use. For example, the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) produces a protein that is toxic to the larvae of crop pests. Using genetic manipulation, scientists have been able to insert the gene coding for this biological pesticide into plants such as corn and potatoes. These transformed plants better resist pests, which reduces the need for pesticides.