OpEd Writings

Some Powerful Tools For Better Foods

The San Diego Union Tribune. Sunday, June 24, 2001. Opinion's Section.

Our safe food supply and the Earth's environment are under serious threat if we are to believe the thousands of protesters who are marching in the streets of San Diego this week. They believe that there is collusion between government regulators who don't do their jobs properly and overpaid CEOs with an attitude of "the public-be-damned." They are protesting the application of modern genetic techniques to crop improvement by agricultural biotechnology companies.
Where do the university scientists whose discoveries underlie these technologies stand in this debate? They see these so-called genetically modified or "GM" crops as the latest logical development in an 80-year process of genetic crop improvement that started in the 1920s when the laws of inheritance first described by Gregor Mendel began to be applied to agricultural plants. Gradually more wild plants and laboratory techniques were added to the toolbox of the plant breeder: crop relatives containing useful traits were crossed with domesticated crops, tissue culture techniques allowed breeders to create hybrids that could not have developed in nature, the use of radiation in breeding to create mutations led to thousands of new crop lines and, since 1985, gene cloning and other molecular technologies have become standard tools of the breeder. These powerful tools allow genes to be swapped between unrelated plants.
The new crop strains are as unlikely to contain dangerous toxic compounds or new allergens as the crops that were bred a hundred years ago or the novel fruits and vegetables that show up in the produce section of your local market at regular intervals. What did you do when you first saw kiwi fruits or cactus leaves in your market? Wait for government tests? Ask advice from a doctor? The more adventurous among us tried them. No one can guarantee that these or any other foods are absolutely safe for you. The reason for this lack of absolute certainty is quite simple: no one can guarantee that every food is 100 percent safe for 100 percent of the people on Earth. That is because the plants we eat contain hundreds of toxic chemicals, many of them carcinogens, and hundreds of compounds whose interaction with our own cells has never been studied. Since all people are unique, we can't predict how you will react. You may be that one person in a million whose body doesn't really like kiwis. It's no different for GM crops, except that they are more thoroughly tested before the government approves them for human consumption. For example, testing for allergens is required for GM foods but not for traditional foods.
Is the environment under threat? Well, it is, but much more from agriculture as we know it than from GM crops. Indeed, GM crops can help to alleviate some of the negative impacts of present agricultural practices. The groundwater underneath herbicide-tolerant corn in Illinois was found to have less herbicide, not more, than that under conventional corn fields. Fields of GM insect-resistant cotton have more and a greater diversity of insects because they are sprayed less frequently with pesticides. Both technologies also consume less fossil fuels: herbicide tolerant plants require less tilling of the soil, a major energy expenditure for farmers, and insect-resistant crops require much less pesticide. An economic analysis by two scientists from Auburn University and Louisiana State University showed that last year, GM insect-resistant cotton alone saved nearly 5 million gallons of fuel oil that otherwise would have been used for the manufacture, transport and application of pesticides
Activists focus on GM technology because it is a clearly identifiable target and in many ways symptomatic of current agricultural practices. Rather, we should focus on the broader question: are our practices sustainable and do GM technologies help or hinder the sustainability of food production? Although organic farming cannot feed the world and there is no evidence that organic practices produce healthier food, the great benefit of the organic movement is that it has refocused our attention on agricultural practices and sustainability. From a scientific point of view, the emphasis on the safety of GM crops is silly. However, this warrants an examination of the broader question: are we going in the right direction? Certain GM crops can help sustainability in certain environments. Other GM crops in other environments may be detrimental to sustainability. GM technology, like other technologies (irrigation, pest control, application of fertilizers, disposal of agricultural wastes), must be examined on a case-by-case basis and within the framework of the bigger picture of how society wants agriculture to develop. Intensive food production is by its very nature unkind to the natural environment. Let's focus the debate on producing food at affordable prices in a sustainable way.

Maarten J. Chrispeels
Director, San Diego Center for Molecular Agriculture
Professor of Biology, UCSD.