and our best bet for ending global hunger"
R. James Cook
PULLMAN, Wash. -- As a plant scientist who has devoted a 40-year career to helping farmers manage their crop diseases without pesticides, the reasons given for rejecting biotechnology for food and agriculture make no sense to me.
One question I have heard repeatedly from consumers is "when will agriculture become less dependent on pesticides to produce our food?"
While there are many approaches to reducing pesticide use, the ultimate one is to make the crop plant genetically resistant to its pests and diseases -- like immunization of people and animals.
Traditional plant breeding has made this happen for about 25 percent of crop diseases and no more than 10 percent of the insect pests of crops.
Biotechnology offers the means to access all of nature's genes for pest defense and therefore greatly reduce agriculture's dependency on pesticides. And, because the genetic changes are so precise, and also so small relative to the total genetic make-up of the plant, the modified plant typically looks exactly like its unmodified parent.
Currently McDonald's is only accepting french fries from the russet Burbank or "Idaho" potato produced under the traditional pesticide-intensive system, rather than from the same potato with specific genes added for pest defense so that it can be grown with greatly reduced amounts of pesticide.
McDonald's has concluded that consumers do not believe that french fries from the genetically modified (GM) version of the russet Burbank potato are safe.
In fact, surveys indicate that the great majority of American consumers trust the conclusions of the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Academy of Sciences, all of which have reported over and over again that foods from GM plants are as safe as food from the same plants without these added genes.
In making its decision, McDonald's is forcing farm workers to again face the risks of applying these pesticides and working in fields that have been treated with these pesticides.
Earlier this year, my wife and I visited a farmer's market in Hawaii. As a plant pathologist I knew that the papaya industry in Hawaii, and elsewhere in the tropical world, is threatened with extinction by papaya ringspot, a disease caused by a virus harbored harmlessly in the surrounding vegetation but lethal in papaya when carried to these vulnerable plants by plant-sucking aphids.
After all other attempts failed, the disease has been brought under control by inserting a copy of a gene from the virus itself into the genetic makeup of the papaya.
The method is like immunization, and it works almost universally for virus-disease control in all plants. Since this farmer's market claims to sell organic, I asked about the papaya with the virus gene added for resistance to papaya ringspot. The answer was "we just say that it was grown without pesticides."
How silly that they cannot refer to this papaya as organic, especially since the papaya fruits without the virus gene are infected with the whole virus.
What could be more organic than papaya with its own built-in genetically based defense against this disease? Like organic, consumers may be persuaded that GM-free food is healthier but also that they must be willing to pay more for it. Some food companies will be labeling GM-free for the perceived added value, while virtually all of them see the GMO label for "genetically modified organism" as something they would rather avoid.
Announcements by Gerber and Frito-Lay to sell only GM-free, and by the Food and Drug Administration of stepped-up procedures to certify GM-free, all fit with this trend.
It seems to me that there is something backward in the logic that says we should fear GM foods. While the opponents of biotechnology are concerned about food safety, the environment and farm economics, it is a fact that keeping GM-free food in the marketplace will depend on continued use of the pesticides and other costly inputs required for growing these crops.
On the other hand, genetically modified crops make agriculture less harmful to the environment, improve conditions for farmers and reduce the cost of food while making food more convenient, nutritious and safe for consumers.
I firmly believe there is great promise in the science and application of biotechnology. It is needed to help feed the 8 billion people projected to be on this earth by about 2030, and in numerous other ways it will improve the lives of people worldwide.
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Last Updated on 6/14/00
By Dan Ellis