Corn that is genetically modified to include a natural insecticide, cotton that has been engineered to tolerate herbicides -- if you've been reading about such new transgenic crops, you may be asking yourself, ''Why do we need this stuff?'' After all, American farmers already turn out plenty of high-quality food at low prices.
Yes, it's true that most genetically modified crops now available are barely distinguishable from what they supplant, and so far they have not led to such promised advances as big reductions in the need for agricultural chemicals. And while there is no evidence that genetically engineered crops in the field have caused any harm to human health or done any damage to the environment, planting them obviously entails a risk of unwanted ecological effects.
So shouldn't the genetic engineering of crops be stopped? That is what many critics, here and in Europe, are saying. And if the current generation of crops were allthat the genetic engineering of agriculture would produce, that view would be correct, because the risks, while small, would outweigh the benefits.
But the important thing to keep in mind is that the transgenic crops in the news today are just the first manifestations of a fundamental new idea. Much better versions are coming.
Initially, many new ideas seem of modest value or even appear to be a step backward. The first cell phones seemed like a niche product for millionaires. The first heart-bypass operations, statistically speaking, seemed no more effective than if the patients had refused treatment. But the second and third generations of advances based on these ideas were spectacular. This is likely to be the pattern that genetically engineered crops will follow.
The transgenic crops in the news today were conceived by researchers 10 to 20 years ago. The next advances may represent the difference between those suitcase-size ''portable'' computers of the early 1980's and the slim laptops of today.
For example, the Rockefeller Foundation is sponsoring research on so-called golden rice, a crop designed to improve nutrition in the developing world. Breeders of golden rice are using genetics to build into the rice forms of vitamin A that the body can absorb; vitamin A deficiency is a common problem in poor countries. A second phase of the project will increase the iron content in rice to combat anemia, which is a widespread problem among women in underdeveloped countries.
Golden rice, expected to be for sale in Asia in as little as five years, may offer dramatic improvements in nutrition and health for millions of people, at just shy of zero cost to farmers and consumers.
Similar initiatives using genetic manipulation are aimed at making crops more productive by reducing their dependence on pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation, or by increasing their resistance to plant diseases. Other projects hope to solve problems like peanut allergies by removing the genes for allergens from the plants.
ABCNEWS.COM ran n piece 9/24 out of Saskatchewan, Canada about biotech crops, including an interactive guide to biotech farming. The article notes that nearly half of Canadian canola now comes from biotech seed stock, and quote Dave Sefton, a Canadian farmer, who says his farm is more environmentally friendly because of the biotech canola, as he uses fewer chemical applications and less diesel fuel with the hardier strains. This represents significant savings to the farmer, as well. Sefton outlined other benefits of biotechnology as well, including work on an insulin for diabetics that can be ingested rather than receiving a shot, and the on-going development of a canola oil that could replace whale oil in certain products, thereby saving whales.
How would green activists
Here's a question journalists ought to ask the environmental activist community: "Just what do you folks want? What exactly is your objective?"I've been wondering the same thing lately as activist groups in Europe and the United States have been attempting to generate concern about crops that have been genetically modified to ward off insects.
The activists are using the same types of tactics that they have used for years in opposition to chemical pesticides. Now, when scientists have developed a non-chemical insect control by inserting a single gene into a plant, the activists oppose that.
Even more incongruous is the fact that the gene comes from a soil organism, Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, which has been used in spray and powder form for years. Chemical pesticide opponents have endorsed the sprays and powders because they are effective against target insects and harmless to birds, mammals and beneficial insects.Through biotechnology, the benefits of Bt can be extended to millions of acres without the costs of fuel and time that go with repeated applications of powders or sprays. And any farmer who knows how to plant a seed can have insect protection whether he is an illiterate subsistence farmer in a developing country or a university-educated grower.
The importance of using technology to enhance crop production cannot be overstated. My research over the years has shown that there would be tremendous crop losses without the protection of pesticides. For example, the reduction in rice yield would be 57 percent. There would be a 32 percent yield reduction in corn. We simply would not have been able tomeet global food demands during the past 50 years without pesticides. And we will not be able to feed the growing global population in the next 50 years unless we continue to increase crop yields.
Chemicals can be used safely. The risks posed by pesticides are more than offset by the benefits they have brought during the postwar years when global population has more than doubled. But I can appreciate that well-intentioned people would want to minimize the potential risks associated with the use of pesticides. I have to admit, though, that I am puzzled when the same people oppose a technology that would help accomplish this very goal. They obviously do not know what it takes to produce a crop on a large scale.
In certain regions of the Southern United States, cotton growers have to spray up to seven times a year to control insect species that would destroy their crops. "Bt cotton" controls some, but not all of those species, so farmers who plant Bt cotton still use some chemical sprays. If their farm is in a region with high pressure from many species, they may use more insecticide than a non-Bt grower in another region, as a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report showed.But the key point is that growers who plant Bt cotton, which provides better than 95 percent control of bollworm and budworm, can eliminate the sprays they use for those insects. In 1998, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2 million fewer pounds of insecticide were used to control bollworm and budworm than in 1995, before Bt cotton was introduced.
Not all of this can be attributed to Bt cotton, but a lot of it can. Just as important as the reduction in gallons sprayed is the reduction in the times a farmer has to spray his fields, with any attendant risk to himself or the environment. A three-year study in North Carolina showed that on average, farmers with Bt fields applied insecticides 0.7 times compared with 2.7 times for conventional fields. Without protection of chemicals or genetics, cotton losses would be 63 percent per year.The major pest controlled by Bt corn is the European corn borer. This devastating insect bores into cornstalks, interrupting the flow of nutrients to grain, resulting in substantial yield losses. Weakened stalks fall over in the wind. When borers feed on ears, they allow disease to enter the corn. The pest is a major economic drain on the corn crop, but many farmers do not use chemicals to control the pest because it can tunnel into the corn before insecticide can be applied. Before Bt corn, growers took the loss.
However, in some regions where corn borer pressure is the worst, farmers have paid several dollars per acre to have their fields scouted for the first sign of corn borer. Then they sprayed. Extension Service entomologists estimated in 1996 that nearly 1.5 million pounds of insecticide active ingredient were used to control European corn borer. Bt corn, which is nearly 100 percent effective against the pest, gives farmers another option that should be welcomed by people who oppose pesticides.
The Bt technology, and other promising developments in biotechnology have the potential to substantially increase yield, improve economics for farmers and help meet the incredible demand for food that will come as population nearly doubles in the coming decades. It can accomplish this while offering an alternative to chemical inputs. Such a technology deserves to be embraced -- if not with open arms at least with an open mind.
Knutson is professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University and director of the Agriculture and Food Policy Center. Since 1990, he has conducted three studies of the impacts of reduced pesticide use in agriculture.
In a letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Monday, Monsanto Chairman Robert Shapiro said the company was committed not to commercialized so-called "terminator" seed technology, which produces sterile seeds. Monsanto does not currently have the capability to produce "terminator" seeds. (UPI Farming Today, October 6, 1999)The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation have awarded grants to the Institute for Genomics Research, located in Maryland, and to a group of research univiersities to do research on rice genomes. The two grants total $12.5 million, and will require the two recipient groups to work together on a project mapping and sequencing a specific chromasome in rice. (UPI Farm Today, October 6, 1999)The European Union is discussing the establishment of stricter food safety laws, both at home and abroad. Already planning to call for clearer rules on safety at the upcoming Seattle round of WTO talks, the EU is also thinking of setting up an independent European regulatory body, possibly modeled on the United States Food and Drug Administration. (Bloomberg, October 5, 1999; also appears in Food Agency)Monsanto Chairman Robert Shapiro says the company is committed to an open dialogue about biotechnology. Shapiro said refuted the perception that the public is concerned about biotechnology, saying that those who are more familiar with the technology are supportive.
At 85, Norman Borlaug, who is considered the father of the Green Revolution, remains an energetic and articulate advocate for the world's poor and hungry. Today Borlaug worries that radical environmentalists and a scientifically uneducated public may slow the kind of food production research needed to feed millions more humans that will crowd the planet in the next century.
Borlaug, the only agronomist to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in developing high-yielding wheat varieties, worries that environmental activists will slow the application of molecular biology and transgenic technology to food production.
"All of this noise in Europe has serious potential for holding this back for several years and even depressing prices for those who are using this," Borlaug told @griculture Online in a telephone interview from Texas A & M University, where he is distinguished professor of international agriculture. Borlaug believes the current worries in Europe over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are temporary and will die down in two or three years.
Politics, not science behind it.
"It's political. It's not scientific," he said. "My point is that we need these new technologies as we go along." But Borlaug worries that public understanding of molecular biology is so poor, even among high school biology teachers, that many people are prone to accept unfounded arguments against genetically engineered foods. "You get a few extremists into the [environmental] movement and they stir up controversy and confuse people for their own interests," he said. His biggest worry is that the more extreme environmentalists will influence public policy enough to set back research on increasing crop yields and improving crop resistance to insects and disease.
Borlaug compares that scenario to the influence of the Ukrainian geneticist and agronomist T.D. Lysenko on Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Lysenko believed that good husbandry could change genetics. He ruthlessly silenced any Soviet geneticists who disagreed with him. Lysenko set back Soviet agricultural research for decades, Borlaug said. Borlaug argues that using plants with Bt genes to protect them from insects is far better for the environment than spraying plants with insecticides that might harm beneficial insects and birds. (Bt, or bacillus thurengiensis, is a toxin produced by a natural bacteria that kills only the larvae of moths and butterflies.) And transgenic changes to plants may help make the best agricultural land more productive, "so we can leave other land that should be in forestry undisturbed," he says.
'Rabid environmentalists' don't see big picture.
"That should be appealing to some of these rabid environmentalists but sometimes they don't see the big picture," he said. Borlaug said that until now, increases in yields have come from traditional plant breeding. That's less precise than inserting a specific genetic trait from another plant. But making many small changes in a plant's genetics through crossbreeding has had the cumulative effect of increasing yields. The new biotechnology hasn't yet found a way to increase yields with one gene, Borlaug said. And he believes that's why chemical companies with a lead in biotechnology research have purchased seed companies such as Pioneer and DeKalb -- to gain access to the highest yielding plant varieties. Farmers wouldn't buy GMO seed if it wasn't in the highest yielding varieties, Borlaug said. Borlaug believes that someday molecular biologists may discover individual genes that increase yields. But he doesn't expect agronomists to abandon traditional plant breeding any time soon. Instead, he expects researchers to use biotechnology to add more desirable single traits such as insect resistance to varieties bred with conventional methods. Some of the highest-yielding single-cross corn hybrids haven't been introduced on the market because of insect or disease problems. Using biotechnology to solve those problems could bring those high-yield seeds to market, he said. "In the next 10 to 20 years I anticipate a combination of transgenics with traditional breeding methods," he said.
Dislikes the term GMO.
Borlaug dislikes the term, genetically modified organism, because thatreally describes all plant breeding, even the unscientific selection of higher yielding food plants by ancient peasant farmers. "All of the things we were doing with conventional breeding was genetically modifying plants," he said. Wheat, for example, is a cross of three different species of wild grasses, he said. "Wheat is a very complex plant compared to corn." Scientific understanding of inheritance and how genetic traits are passed down through generations of plants didn't start until 1865, when the Austrian priest and botanist Gregor Mendel published the results of his breeding experiments with peas. That became the foundation of modern genetics, which wasn't applied to plant breeding until the turn of the 20th century, Borlaug says. Borlaug's own work represented some of the most dramatic application of Mendel's theories. In 1954 he crossed a Japanese dwarf wheat strain with a new disease-resistant Mexican strain he had developed. The result was a higher-yield strain with a shorter stem.The seeds were made available to Mexican farmers in 1961. Such high-yielding dwarf wheat varieites later made poor countries such as India self-sufficient in wheat. Similar breeding methods greatly improved yields of rice.The Green Revolution no doubt improved the diets and averted starvation and malnutrition for millions of people.
Today, Borlaug continues to work and travel tirelessly in his continuing battle against hunger. He conceived the idea of awarding a World Food Prize to honor other agricultural researchers and innovators who have fought hunger around the world and he is on the Council of Advisors of The World Food Prize Foundation. He is also president of the Sasakawa Africa Association, an international extension program to increase farm production in Africa. Borlaug is dismayed at the lack of interest in world hunger in developed nations and the backlash against agricultural science. But he doesn't think human beings will permanently abandon steps that are taking plant breeding to the level of genetic molecules. "It will come back sooner or later when we start running short of food. I hope we don't throw it away before we put ourselves in such a situation," he said.
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