Journal of Biotechnology & Biomaterials
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The discovery and use of Agrobacterium mediated gene transfer marked the beginning of the era of plant molecular biology.
It revealed to be not only an invaluable tool for studying the molecular basis of plant physiology, but also an innovative
way to improve crops. There was immediately great interest in using this new technology to improve agricultural output. This is
indeed an urgent need because the unprecedented population growth and the inequity in resource availability generated huge
famines, massive deforestation and intensive industrial pollution in the last century. Today, more than a billion people are still
undernourished and half of the world population lives in deep poverty. Unfortunately, political movements started spreading
disinformation on plant biotechnology, and over the years opposition against GM-crops grew in many European countries.
Under the shadow of the precautionary principle activists have been able to prevent many varieties with improved agricultural
and nutritionally characteristics from being planted, when there is no evidence of harm to the health of humans or detriment
to the environment. The scientific data clearly show that the current GM crops achieve higher yields in a more sustainable way.
Yet GM-crops are cultivated in a limited number of countries and comprise only corn, soy, cotton and some canola. Only six
multinational companies provide the seeds and extension services. Specialty crops and traits with high environmental or social
value have been completely bypassed. In 2013, the World Food Prize was given to the scientists who develop transgenic plants.
GM agriculture is our biggest opportunity for having a less environmentally damaging agriculture, while still meeting the food
needs of an ever-growing population. Only through cooperation and mutual understanding will it be possible to capture and
develop the true potential of this exciting technology, to create a more liveable and environmentally sustainable society.
Marc Van Montagu is a pioneer in plant molecular biology. His group at Ghent University invented the Agrobacterium mediated transgene transfer and used this new
technology to study gene regulation and to discover the molecular basis of several plant physiological processes. Two Belgian biotech companies were spin-offs
from his laboratory, Plant Genetic System (PGS) and Crop Design. Due to his accomplishments he received in 1990 the title of Baron from the King of Belgians.
In October 2013 he was awarded the World Food Prize. Currently, he is President of the European Federation of Biotechnology and of the Public Research and
Regulation Initiative, and Chairman of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach.
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