Friday, September 6, 2013

Polar approaches dominate today’s biotechnology debate.

At one end are enthusiastic supporters of genetic engineering, who hail it as the essential solution to virtually all of the world’s food and agriculture challenges. At the other are folks who see GE technologies as both intrinsically objectionable and as likely instruments of corporate domination of the food system. Many at this pole reject the possibility of any beneficial applications of the technology.

The Union of Concerned Scientists takes the middle ground. We have no philosophical objection to genetic engineering, but we are not uncritically accepting of its use. We evaluate GE applications individually and are more than willing to accept some applications and reject others.

We should ask which technologies are best suited to major problems.

After rigorous analysis, we have come to the view that genetic engineering is not a fundamental solution to food and agricultural problems. Our major concern about genetic engineering is not its risks but that its over-hyped promises will divert resources from the pursuit of more promising technologies.

While genetic engineering’s promoters envision it as a transformative technology, several decades of experience show that it is not. As three reports by my colleague Doug Gurian-Sherman have demonstrated, the biotechnology industry has successfully commercialized very few traits—primarily herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, and virus tolerance. GE technology has produced no commercial crops with multi-gene traits such as improved yield in the absence of stress (pests, drought, etc.), nitrogen-use efficiency, and water-use efficiency. These traits are essential to solving productivity challenges.

Gurian-Sherman also found that, while multi-gene traits have eluded genetic engineers, conventional plant breeders have been more successful. Conventional breeders have increased yields in corn about 1 percent per year for decades. They have also produced steady increases in drought tolerance and nitrogen-use efficiency.

Conventional breeding has made possible the abundance of corn, soy, cotton, and other crops that we enjoy today.  Genetic engineering may accomplish more in the future, but for now, conventional breeding is the obvious choice for crop improvement.

The other powerful approach to a productive and sustainable agriculture is the employment of sophisticated agricultural systems based on practices such as crop rotation.

Multi-year rotations of annual crops can break pest cycles and prevent the buildup of pests from the get-go. In appropriately rotated fields, neither pesticides nor genetic engineering are needed. Conventional breeding can also produce crops resistant to pests. Publicly funded plant breeders in Arkansas recently released two conventionally bred, high-yielding varieties of soybeans that are also resistant to major diseases, including southern stem canker, soybean cyst nematodes, and sudden death syndrome.

Does that mean that genetic engineering has no place in the future of agriculture? No, not at all. Genetic engineering may have a role, particularly in helping crops to resist insect or viral pests. Genetic engineering may be the  best choice for pest control in triploid plants such as bananas and in citrus tree crops propagated by cloning.

But these are special cases. Even if successful in given instances, applications of genetic engineering may not provide unalloyed benefits to producer communities. Saving the Florida citrus industry might disadvantage citrus farmers in California or other parts of the world.

Nevertheless, GE approaches deserve to be fairly evaluated as solutions alongside conventional breeding and sophisticated cropping systems.

Unfortunately, the early experience with biotechnology has turned off many potential supporters and will continue to present challenges even where the technology is the best choice to solve a problem.

The flagship applications of genetic engineering, herbicide-tolerant crops engineered by Monsanto, promote the use of the company’s own chemical herbicide, glyphosate. Adoption of these crops led to reductions in herbicide use early on, but now has predictably resulted in an explosion in herbicide-tolerant weeds and resulting surges in the use of chemical herbicides. The biotechnology industry’s solution to the problems is more genetic engineering to enable the use of even more herbicides—in particular 2,4-D and dicamba, the old, bad chemicals that glyphosate was supposed to replace. This is the pesticide treadmill at its best. No example could better illustrate why environmentalists have trouble with genetic engineering.

Accusing Whole Foods of fear-mongering because it promises to require labels for GE food, while letting Monsanto off the hook for the rise of herbicide-tolerant weeds, is a strange way to appeal to a wary public for acceptance of GE crops.

I agree that we should reset the agricultural biotechnology debate by asking which technologies are the best solutions for major problems. Rigorous science indicates that conventional breeding and sophisticated cropping systems will solve most of our problems, but genetic engineering might serve in certain situations.

If genetic engineering were presented more modestly as a niche response to special problems rather than the be-all-and-end-all solution to agriculture and environmental challenges, the public might be more willing to give it another look.