High-Tech Crops


Dec 1, 2012 (5 years and 7 months ago)


Tech Crops

(August 12, 1999)

Corn farmer Tim Hume is up to his ears in hope. After years of battling farm
pests, Hume planted a new kind of corn this year, a genetically altered variety that
actually kills invading insects. It's called BT corn. Scie
ntists took a gene from a common
soil bacteria called bacillus thuringiensis, and combined it with corn. The result is a sort
of built
in pesticide. Hume says it's a godsend when it comes to fighting corn borers. The
borer insects, can damage up to 7
0 bushels per acre, which is roughly 40 percent of
a yield for a typical American farm.

A lot of farmers have jumped on the bioengineered corn bandwagon because corn
borers cost them more than $1 billion a year in lost yields. Although BT corn has only
een on the market for three years, it's now growing on 20 million acres, a quarter of the
entire U.S. corn crop. But critics of bioengineered food products are worried the new
seeds threaten human health and the environment. The biggest outcry is in Europe
, where
protesters who want to halt U.S. imports dumped genetically altered seeds on government
officials' doorsteps. British tabloids refer to the products as "frankenfood," and the
European Union has refused entry of any new genetically
modified crops. F
ueling much
of the current debate is a study published last may in the journal "Nature." Researchers
from Cornell University reported that BT corn pollen can kill not just pets but also the
larvae of Monarch butterflies. John Losey was the lead author for
the study. He explains
that in the study the caterpillars on the no
pollen treatment and the caterpillars on the
pollen treatment were all still alive. Forty
four percent or almost half of the
caterpillars feeding on the BT pollen treatment were d
ead. And those that weren't dead
were significantly smaller. Losey says the risk to the butterflies is significant, because
they breed mostly in U.S. corn belt states.

But the industry says Losey's laboratory study doesn't reflect real life. Val
s is a vice president of BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organization. She states
that the crucial thing to look at is would Monarch larvae in the wild be exposed to corn
pollen, and if so, how much effect would there be? The corn pollen is only around fo
r an
extremely short period of time during the growing season, so the potential for exposure is
extremely low. Therefore, the probability of a negative impact is commensurately low.

Both the industry and Losey agree that more fieldwork is needed. Losey a
nd his
team are now measuring how pollen migrates from real cornfields, and what impact it has
on Monarchs. However because the Cornell study is the first evidence that pollen
blowing from a genetically

modified plant can kill non
target insects, Losey s
ays it
should be seen as a heads
up for any bioengineering in the future.

If you look above the Monarch butterfly on the food chain, there's a lot of animals
like bats, birds, other insects that eat either the caterpillars or the butterflies and moths.
nd so, if you start really having an impact on these populations, it's going to ripple both
up and down the food chain. And it's really hard to predict what impact that's going to
have on the total ecosystem. So I guess why you should be concerned about th
e Monarch
is that the Monarch is sort of like the canary in the mine. And if the Monarch is going to
be impacted, we know other butterflies and moths are going to be impacted, and that
could be a real problem for the ecosystem as a whole. Bioengineering c
ritics also worry
that genetically
modified crops could pose a threat to people, particularly those with
uncommon allergies. For example, if someone were allergic to bananas, he/she wouldn't
buy foods with bananas. But if a banana gene were transferred to
tomatoes, let's say, to
give a yellow color, and that tomato were not labeled or processed then he/she could also
get the protein from bananas, and have an allergic reaction to it.

The FDA already requires that foods which contain a gene from a common
lergen, like peanuts, to be labeled. The biotech community says agriculture is being
unfairly singled out, even as other bioengineered products are highly praised. Some
critics of biotechnology have argued that this takes man into realms best left to God
God alone, that it is unnatural to meddle with nature. But then they say that it's okay to
use biotechnology for pharmaceutical applications. Well, you know, this starts out as a
fundamental statement of principle but all of a sudden mutates into one w
hich is flexible.
And, you know, we can ignore it when it suits us. I mean, if you're opposed to
biotechnology in food, on a matter of principle, then why are you not opposed to
biotechnology in terms of pharmaceuticals? Are you going to tell a patient suf
fering from
breast cancer that she cannot have access to Herceptin, or the breast cancer cystability
diagnoses that biotechnology makes possible? There is a fundamental inconsistency here
philosophically in the minds of those who find biotech in pharmaceut
icals okay but not in

Arguments for

consumer benefits are clear: Cheaper food crops that are much
more friendly to the environment because they don't require pesticide to be sprayed. In
fact, industry giants like Monsanto tout their DNA innov
ations as a green revolution.
They've invested millions in gene splicing technologies for other crops like cotton and
soybeans that also reduce the use of chemical pesticides. The huge expense of developing
these new plants has started another argument, th
is time with farmers. Monsanto requires
farmers who buy bioengineered seeds to sign a contract agreeing not to save seeds from
their crops for replanting the following year. They say it's an intellectual property rights

It costs a good deal of mone
y to develop these new products. Farmers can save
seed every year, and what that means then is that for a company to invest a vast amount
of research and development money into that, they would have to recoup all of their R&D
costs from the first generatio
n of seed sales
, and this just is not possible.

has hired people known as “

to post signs warning legal action
against farmers planning to reuse genetically modified seeds, and the company has hired
investigators to sample crops, looking

for violators. It has a hot line; it encourages people
to call to report others, and has taken some farmers to court. But a private company's
ability to patent a gene
modified plant is now being challenged in an Iowa Federal
Appeals Court. The issue is bo
und to get even more contentious when Monsanto
introduces a seed now in development. Called the "terminator seed," it becomes sterile
after one harvest.

Since the Cornell Butterfly Study, members of Congress have proposed increased
funding for further re
search on bioengineered food crops. The industry has also pledged
more money for further investigations.