OpEd Writings

Some Powerful Tools For Better Foods

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

Once again, 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 by insects.
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.

Maarten J. Chrispeels
Director, San Diego Center for Molecular Agriculture
University of California, San Diego