Powerful Tools For Better Foods
Diego Union Tribune. Sunday, June 24, 2001. Opinion's Section.
the Biotech entrepreneurs are gathering and the protestors are marching.
This time San Diego is the venue. Each party is convinced of the righteousness
of its cause: Technology to the rescue of world hunger and the need to
increase crop yields two-fold by 2050.; Or, control of food production
back to the people; Or save the environment. Take your pick and align
yourself with one side or the other.
Genetic modification (GM) of crops through gene splicing is the focus
of the debate and has become the lightning rod. Are these foods safe?
"Of course they are safe,", say the entrepreneurs, "but
it can't be proven because nothing can be proven to be absolutely safe.".
Indeed, you can only prove things to be unsafe and all studies show these
foods to be just as safe as other foods. "Go organic and give the
Earth back to the people" say the protestors and the organic food
companies. Sure, but organic farming can only produce food for 4 billion,
not 6 billion, or the 9 billion expected by the year 2050.
One of the great contributions of the organic movement has been to refocus
our attention on the sustainability of our agricultural practices. Unfortunately
the movement banned GM crops as being incompatible with organic practices.
It would be good to refocus the debate on a different set of questions.
Are present agricultural practices sustainable? If not, are we at least
moving in the right direction? Do specific technologies help or hinder
sustainability? Do our substantial government subsidies to agriculture
promote sustainable practices? These may also be the questions in the
backs of the minds of the protestors, but it is easier and more effective
to focus on a single symptom of modern agriculture - GM crops - and to
have some scapegoats - big companies.
There is already good evidence that some GM crops - insect-resistant cotton,
for example, have clear environmental benefits. They need to be sprayed
less frequently with pesticides. These GM cotton fields have more and
a greater diversity of insects than traditional cotton fields that usually
require 6 to 8 pesticide sprays per season. Two scientists from Auburn
University and Louisiana State University performed an economic analysis
that 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.
Growing of herbicide tolerant GM crops also requires less fuel oil because
less tilling of the land is necessary. They will also permit the phase-out
of some older and more noxious herbicides. Herbicide-tolerant crops are
also going to benefit the low resource farmers of the developing world
who devote so much of their time and energy to weeding. Similarly, insect
resistant crops will benefit developing world agriculture because they
limit the damage done by viruses, which are carried from plant to plant
Agriculture is an environmentally destructive industry: the need to produce
food has caused the replacement of our natural ecosystems with crop fields.
Technological inputs make crop production possible: irrigation, pest control,
herbicides, fertilizers, and improved crop varieties produced through
a variety of methods that now includes gene cloning. The effects of agriculture
on the environment in the past as now are not always beneficial: large
areas have been denuded of forests; we have created plenty of superb weeds;
groundwater has sometimes been contaminated or depleted. This is not the
fault of high-input agriculture, because there is nothing particularly
good about low-input agriculture either. It can also be environmentally
destructive. If a technological change is made we need to look at the
risks and benefits for the entire system: the farmers, the environment,
the consumers, the economy. The benefits don't need to go to those with
the best lobbyists. Looking at the whole picture is the way forward. All
this says that certain GM crops in certain environments can definitely
contribute to the sustainability of agriculture.
Director, San Diego Center for Molecular Agriculture
University of California, San Diego