STUDY: Genetic Engineering and Sustainable Crop Disease Management: Opportunities for Case-by-Case Decision-Making

By Michael Stebbins • July 26, 2016

The following is an excerpt of a study by Paul Vincelli of the University of Kentucky published in the journal Sustainability on the role of genetic engineering in sustainable agriculture. 

Disease management practices can contribute to sustainability by protecting crop yields, maintaining and improving profitability for crop producers, reducing losses along the distribution chain, and reducing the negative environmental impacts of diseases and their management. Crop disease management supports sustainability goals through contributions to food security, food safety, and food sovereignty for producers and consumers alike.

While pesticides have done much to contribute to food security and food sovereignty for many millions of people worldwide, pest and disease control through the regular use of pesticides is neither desirable nor sustainable over the long term. Pesticide use raises significant concerns over impacts on health and the environment. Furthermore, we cannot address the challenges to sustainability posed by synthetic pesticides by simply switching to the application of natural pesticides, because the same concerns apply to them.

Practices for managing crop diseases fall into four general categories: host plant resistance, cultural practices, biological control, and chemical control. If pesticide use is to be reduced, it will be necessary to depend more on the remaining three approaches. Cultural practices (examples include crop rotation, polyculture, manipulation of planting date, etc.) certainly play a central role in disease management. However, control achieved via cultural practices is sometimes inadequate, impractical, or economically nonviable. Natural biological control of plant pathogens is a fact of life, as it undoubtedly occurs at some level in all agricultural soils. However, there are many destructive diseases for which years of research have failed to lead to practical, commercially viable biocontrol options.

Thus, in order to reduce the need for pesticides while still attaining acceptable yields, it will be critical to judiciously take full advantage of plant genetics. After all, if farmers are to reduce pesticide use, they must have viable alternatives for controlling diseases.

Read the full study here

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