Transgenic Plants and the Natural World: Curse or Blessing?
Transgenic, or genetically modified (GM), organisms are produced by the transfer of one or more genes from a particular species of organism to another unrelated one. The methods for transferring genes are barely 30 years old, and yet they have already had great success in producing and improving the characteristics of drugs, beer, cheese, and other widely-accepted products. For many crop plants, transgenic strains are taking over throughout the world because of their higher productivity. Despite these gains, somewhat unaccountably, and particularly in Europe, transgenic organisms and the products derived from them are viewed with skepticism, even though there is no scientific evidence that the process of producing them makes them intrinsically dangerous to human health or in any other way. The cultivation of individual kinds of transgenic plants may in some cases lead to undesirable effects, but these should be studied and dealt with on an individual basis. Much of the problem in the U.S. results from the unfortunate classification of GM plants as non-organic, even though they may greatly reduce the application of herbicides and pesticides on the crops involved. Such classification clearly was based on ideological, not environmental, grounds. Without it, much of the perceived problem would disappear. As part of the global effort to develop sustainable and productive agriculture, transgenic plants have a key role to play, as I shall discuss here. Even though only a few traits are available now, many more, including drought resistance, improved nutritional quality, and others that are highly desirable, are in the pipeline, and will be making strong contributions by the end of this decade. The production of such plants thus is extending and applying the work of Gregor Mendel in extremely useful ways that could not have been foreseen just a few years ago.
In laying out the story of how they were developed and what their environmental and general significance is, let’s begin by reviewing the development of agriculture broadly, both in space and in time. People first began to cultivate plants as crops only about 10,500 years ago, starting in the eastern Mediterranean basin. At that time, the global human population consisted of about three million people – no more than half the number living in Chicago today! Over the subsequent 400 generations, our numbers exploded to the level of 6.5 billion people, with the gain of at least two billion more projected before our best efforts could possibly allow us to attain population stability. Our individual consumption rates are growing just as rapidly as our numbers, and the technologies we employ are failing to keep pace with our growing demands on what the planet can produce. Indeed, it is estimated that we already are using about 120% of what the world can sustain at present, up from 70% in 1970, and our demands are increasing with every passing year (globalfootprint.org).
Of the estimated 6.5 billion people living today, nearly 900 million (about one in six) are literally starving, and more than three billion of us are living in absolute poverty with an income of less than $2 per day, and generally deficient in at least one nutrient necessary for maintaining their health. Viewed in that light, the current situation is clearly neither socially just nor morally acceptable. How did we arrive at this point?
For the preceding two million years, 80,000 human generations, our ancestors, lost to us in the mists of time, lived as hunter-gatherers, depending directly on the often unreliable productivity of natural communities for food or all kinds, medicinal plants, building materials, and shelter. During the last 0.5% of human existence on our planet, however, our numbers have grown with extraordinary rapidity, that growth depending on our newly-found ability to obtain from crop plants and domestic animals the food and much of the clothing we need. For the first time, stored grains and other food could see us through unfavorable seasons and bad years, and allow us to maintain our populations. The tiny shifting settlements that had formed here and there along the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea began to grow, and the occupations of our ancestors diversified within them. Villages, cities, and nations have been built on this excess capacity, and innumerable wars have been waged to obtain more wealth for the advantage of specific groups of people. The elements of what we now consider civilization was largely formed in these growing cities, with written language being developed about 3500 BCE, the Pyramids constructed about 2500 years ago, and Solomon’s temple in about 1000 BCE; similar advances were taking place during this period all over the ancient world.
The earliest crops, such as wheat, barley, and lentils, were all plants from which grain or seeds were gathered in nature, this leading to the practice of sowing them deliberately for subsequent harvesting. In cultivation, their characteristics began to change rapidly as farmers consciously or unconsciously selected for features that made the crops more productive or easier to harvest. In this way began the development of our modern strains of the plants that we cultivate. From the very beginnings of cultivation, the new crop plants continued to hybridize regularly with their wild and weedy relatives, and the variability of the resulting hybrids made it possible to select even more successfully for desirable characteristics in the crops. Hybridization, including interspecific hybridization, forms part of the normal course of plant evolution, and genes are transferred between species and strains as a result.
Some of our major crops have been so profoundly modified during the course of their domestication that the crops cannot really be said to exist in nature. Such crops include corn and cultivated rice, which have been derived from wild and weedy relatives that differ from the cultivated versions greatly, much as all races of dogs differ from the Asian wolves from which their ancestors were originally selected. Significantly, corn, like a number of other cultivated plants, does not reproduce without the human influence, and cannot maintain itself in nature.
In the 1790s, the Reverend Thomas Malthus pointed out in alarm that the numbers of human beings were growing so much more rapidly than their ability to produce additional food that widespread starvation would inevitably result. At the time Malthus was making his prediction, the human population stood at about 850 million people, considerably less than the population of either China or India at present. As our numbers grew rapidly over the subsequent nine generations, tens of millions of people did in fact die of starvation, but the mortality levels were not as great as those projected by Malthus. The advances of the Industrial Revolution, underway simultaneously, made possible the invention of new tools, driven by engines, that could till soils too hard to cultivate by the methods available earlier; to manufacture chemical fertilizers; to irrigate more efficiently and over longer distances; and more easily to obtain access to artesian water, thus making it possible to produce greater quantities of food than Malthus imagined would be possible as the human population grew.
Also in the concluding decade of the 18th century, English and other farmers began documented experiments that were in effect the start of modern plant breeding, hybridizing and selecting improved crops from their hybrid progenies. In doing so, the farmers accelerated the pace of change for these crops and the precision with which the farmers were able to select for improved characteristics. When Gregor Mendel’s findings began to be applied to the improvement of a wide variety of crops in the early 20thcentury, the pace of selection accelerated further. In the 20th century, plant breeders, using the principles of statistics and genetics and exploring the world for additional strains of cultivated plants and their relatives, produced a wide array of new strains that were increasingly productive in widely differing agricultural conditions. Building on these principles, and in the second half of the 20th century, the Green Revolution led to the development of productive crops that saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people, especially in Asia. During this time, the global population was growing explosively from 2.5 billion people in 1950 to 6 billion 50 years later. The accomplishments of the Green Revolution depended on the full application of the principles of genetics to crop improvements, and significant improvements in the ways they were grown, including improved irrigation and the application of larger quantities of fertilizers. Despite these advances and the many millions of lives they saved, the 20th century ended with half of all human beings malnourished and living in extreme poverty and a sixth of them literally starving.
The enormous human population and increasing demands for consumption continue to pose huge challenges for the world agricultural system. Some 11% of the world's land surface, an area of about the size of South America, is currently used to produce crops, and the potential for increasing the area under cultivation is limited. Indeed, some 20% of the land that was cultivated in 1950 has been lost to salinization, desertification, urban sprawl, erosion, and other factors. Producing the food for 6.5 billion people on 20% less land than was cultivated when the world population was 2.5 billion has been possible though a combination of selection, breeding, improved irrigation systems, soil conservation, and the judicious application of fertilizers. As a result of the introduction of these practices, modern agriculture scarcely resembles the agriculture of the 1940s. Despite the advances, it is still not adequate, partly for political and social reasons, to feed all people adequately. Limits on the supplies of water, of which we are already using more than half of the renewable supplies, some 90% of it for agriculture; on the production of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants, such as nitrogen; and those posed by the continued occupation of agricultural lands for other purposes continue to curtail agricultural productivity.
In addition to the 11% of the Earth’s surface used for the relatively intensive cultivation of crops, another 20% is used as natural pasture for horses, mules, goats, sheep, hogs, and cattle. The intensity of such use is increasing rapidly, as historically poor nations seek to augment their protein consumption and fish supplies are exhausted. In virtually every region where they are utilized, the use of natural pastures is unsustainable. As agriculture is developed for the future, measures of sustainability must be introduced widely tocomplement those of productivity, and those forms of agriculture appropriate forindividual regions must be designed and implemented. In fact, there are very few agricultural systems for which sustainability has actually been measured over a substantial period of time, and we need much better measures of sustainability to forge the most appropriate agriculture for the future. Drought and stress resistance, lowered inputs of all kinds, improved productivity, and improved characteristics of the resulting foods must all be stressed in developing a wide variety of sound agricultural systems.
To attain global sustainability and feed the world’s people adequately, a number of achievements will be necessary. Pressures on the environment depend on the size of the human population, levels of consumption, and the kinds of technology that are used, and all of these factors must be addressed in building a sustainable world. Thus we must not only achieve a stable population, but also moderate our levels of consumption and find improved technologies and practices that will be sustainable over the long run. Most of us are only dimly aware of the scale of the demands we are placing on the Earth’s productive systems, and therefore not motivated to deal with them adequately.
Not only are people hungry in many parts of the world, the loss of biological resources has reached frightening levels. Comparing the rate of loss of species observed in the fossil record with that documented now, we find that extinction rates have increased to thousands of times their historical rate. These losses, which are increasing rapidly, are resulting from habitat destruction, global warming, selective hunting and gathering, and the unprecedented spread of invasive species to the extent that half of the species on Earth may disappear during the course of the 21st century. To a very large extent, we depend on these species for our opportunities to build sustainability throughout the globe, and have as yet recognized only a small fraction – perhaps no more than a sixth -- of those we are losing. As a result of our activities, we are not only performing an act that is morally indefensible, but one that will sharply curtail our future ability to build sustainable and productive systems. The loss of biological species and the productive systems of which they are a part is irreversible, and therefore, over the long run, is the most serious environmental problem that we confront.
If we wish to stem this catastrophic level of biological extinction or other serious and destabilizing environmental problems, we must learn to curtail the scope and modify the nature of the activities that are responsible, all relating to population, consumption, the technology. Clearly, the practice of agriculture, which, including grazing, which affects directly nearly a third of the Earth’s land surface, is one of the key areas not only in solving human problems but in slowing the destruction of all productive systems everywhere. Agriculture is highly destructive to biodiversity and deliberately so, curtailing biological diversity to increase the productivity of cultivated fields and pastures. As agriculture has become more productive, it has become more uniform and larger in scale, and the direct damage to biodiversity has increased proportionately. Relatively unfocused and unproductive agriculture affects much more natural habitat and many more species that intensive, highly productive agriculture. Consequently, an increase in productivity on the most productive areas will be necessary to alleviate pressures on habitats elsewhere while producing adequate supplies of food. In this connection, Gordon Conway, former head of the Rockefeller Foundation, has pointed out that the single most promising way to avoid habitat destruction overall is to increase farm yields in a process that he termed "The Doubly Green Revolution." Industrial-scale agriculture can result in a lowering of the diversity of crop plants, and certainly limits biodiversity in the fields where it is practiced, but at the same time is much more efficient than less focused efforts in producing food and other products.
How shall we attain the objectives of Conway’s “doubly green revolution” and feed the world’s people adequately and sustainably? Fortunately, many new techniques and strategies have become available since World War II, and even since the successes of the Green Revolution. Water can now be supplied much more effectively to crops and conserved much better than ever before. Fertilizers can be applied in such a way as to avoid waste and environmental contamination, as for example by nitrogen. Integrated pest management, a system in which parasitic insects and other predators are encouraged in such a way as to limit herbivores, should be practiced much more widely than is the case now.
The widespread application of pesticides poses particular problems for achieving a sustainable environment. Starting as recently as 1947, the application of relatively largeamounts of synthetic pesticides came to be considered to be essential in promoting agricultural productivity. Even with the enormous amounts of pesticides that are applied now, an estimated 43% of agricultural productivity is lost to pests and diseases; which certainly explains why so much pesticide is applied. Through their use, it is estimated that a further 30% of the agricultural productivity that would otherwise be lost, is saved. Against these gains must be weighed the negative environmental consequences associated with them. Rachael Carson's "Silent Spring" (1962) provided an important warning of these problems just 15 years after pesticides were first applied widely in agriculture, and in various ways we have heeded her warning. Organic farming, collectively an attempt to lower the chemical inputs to agricultural systems, is often not sustainable and may not be sufficiently productive. On the other hand, lowering chemical inputs to agricultural systems is highly desirable, but productivity must be enhanced if even the huge areas now under cultivation are to meet human needs. The local production of foods makes great sense ecologically, and certainly should be encouraged to the extent possible.
The productive, sustainable agriculture of the future will combine many improvements in cultivation practices and genetics, and will vary widely from region to region. Its attainment will require a high degree of imagination and a willingness to test many possible directions. For example, organic agriculture is essentially what is practiced in sub-Saharan Africa today, and half of the people are starving; so it is clear that more effective practices are needed overall. One modern approach to improving the productivity of crops is the production of transgenic strains that combine novel genes that confer desirable properties on the organisms into which they have been inserted.
Our ability to modify crops by the direct insertion of genes, transgenes, into their chromosomes, has been developed recently recently. In 1953, Watson and Crick first postulated the double helical structure of the genetic material, DNA. It took another decade for the genetic code to be unraveled, and for the differences between the genetics of bacteria and those of plants and animals to be understood properly. In 1973, Boyer and Cohen first successfully inserted a gene from a bacterium into the cells of an unrelated species of organism, an African clawed toad. For several more years it was thought that the production of such a transgenic organism might not be possible for plants. By the 1980s, however, the methods for doing so had been developed, and the first field tests of transgenic plants were conducted in the early 1990s.
When the ability to produce transgenic organisms was first attained, scientists, concerned with the possible negative effects of their discoveries, began a series of conferences and experiments to see if the methods involved posed any unique danger to human beings or other species. As a result of over three decades of thought, experiment, and observation, it is now accepted by the scientific community that the methods themselves pose no such dangers. Any problems encountered will result from the properties of the organisms themselves, and not from the means by which they were produced. Many of our drugs and virtually all cheese and beer is produced by the use of transgenic organisms, and we do not worry about the negative effects of these products, but curiously, a widespread concern about transgenic crops has developed. Many learned bodies, including our National Academy of Sciences and the academies of sciences of many other countries,China, India, Brazil, Mexico, the U.K., the Academy of Sciences of the Developing World (TWAS), and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, have concluded that the application of these methods poses no danger to human health or to life processes on Earth, and that there are no peculiar features of transgenic plants or animals that pose special dangers. Although some foods are unsafe for human consumption, there is nothing special about transgenic foods that should be a source of concern. Despite the fact that hundreds of millions of people have been consuming them for over a decade, not a single case of a health problem has been reported. Transgenic plants, in general, are tested much more rigorously than those produced by conventional breeding, and the possibility of producing risky products is equivalent.
Since the methods used to produce transgenic plants pose no special dangers, and they are as safe for human consumption as any other crops, it is appropriate to analyze what benefits they confer and what environmental risks may be associated with their use in agriculture. The benefits have been clearly established. Importantly, the widespread use of transgenic plants has already achieved major reductions in pesticide applications, a highly desirable outcome for the environment in general and human health in particular. Even by the year 2000, the use of GM soybean, oilseed rape (canola), cotton, and maize had reduced pesticide use by 22.3 million kilograms of formulated product, and the reductions have risen far above that level subsequently. Worldwide, there are at least 500,000 cases of pesticide poisoning and 5,000 deaths annually. In the United Statesalone, approximately 110,000 cases of pesticide poisoning are reported each year, together with an estimated 10,000 cases of pesticide-induced cancer. Approximately 35% of the foods in supermarkets in the U.S. have detectable pesticide residues, residues that everyone would like to avoid. In the agricultural fields of our country, an estimated 70 million birds are killed each year by pesticides, along with billions of both harmful and beneficial insects. Against this background, it is clear that the major reductions already achieved constitute an important positive contribution to the environmental soundness of the agricultural systems in which these crops are being grown.
Ironically, in view of the widespread opposition in Europe to the cultivation of transgenic plants, the benefits of such cultivation there for the environment and human health would be even greater than those attained in the U.S. In this connection, It has been estimated that if half of the corn, oilseed rape (canola), sugar beet, and cotton raised in Europe were genetically modified to resist their pests that there would be an immediate reduction of about 14.5 million kilograms of formulated pesticide product (4.5 million kilograms of active ingredient). The reduction of 7.5 million hectares of crops sprayed as a result of growing GM crops would save approximately 20.5 million liters of diesel and prevent the emission of 73,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Along with other methods to decrease the application of fertilizers and pesticides, such as Integrated Pest Management, the use of transgenic crops can confer great benefits in our quest for sustainable, productive agriculture.
The argument has been offered that the use of transgenic plants would reduce the overall genetic variability of the crops concerned. In fact, it is mass, industrialized agriculture that results in such reductions; transgenic technology is scale neutral, and individual strains of particular crops, as the more than 800 strains of soybeans cultivated in the U.S., can be modified with the same genes for desirable characteristics.
The remaining environmental effects of the cultivation of transgenic crops that we will examine have to do with the results of their hybridizing with wild or weedy relatives, and the possibility of the transgenic crops themselves or such hybrids becoming weeds in cultivated fields or spreading into natural habitats.
First, it is important to remember that related species of plants hybridize regularly with one another, and that the presence of transgenes in one of the parents has no positive or negative effect on such hybridization. Second, and obviously, closely related species must be present for the transgenes to spread. In this connection, the ban on the cultivation of transgenic corn and soybeans in Europe has no objective basis, and neither do the current lawsuits about the cultivation of transgenic alfalfa in the U.S.: there are no wild or weedy species with which these crops could hybridize in these areas. Corn and soybeans do not reproduce without human assistance; they have no relatives in Europe; and we have already seen that transgenic plants pose no intrinsic health or related problems: so why does the ban persist? There is no objective rationale for banning growing transgenic corn in Europe: no conceivable harm that cultivating such corn could do.
What about the situation in which wild or weedy relatives occur in or near fields of the crops related to or derived from them? In such situations, the transgenes can certainly move into the wild or weedy populations if they are interfertile with them. For example, transgenic oilseed rape (canola) or sugar beets grown in Europe, transgenic corn in Mexico, or transgenic sunflowers in the U.S. certainly have the ability to transfer genes to the uncultivated populations. What then would be the likely consequences?
The outcome will depend not on the process in itself, or the fact that transgenes are involved, but on the properties of individual hybrids. For example, if teosintes, the wild relatives from which corn was originally derived in Mexico, receive genes that confer on them resistance to some of their insect pests, they may survive better than otherwise. If they receive genes for herbicide resistance, those genes may persist in the populations if the herbicide continues to be applied to the teosinte populations; otherwise, they will be lost, like all genes that confer no selective advantage to the organisms that possess them. As soon as improved corn varieties were introduced into Mexico, or strains of corn moved from one area to another, the characteristics of the land races in the new localities began to change, and the enhanced variability in the corn would have been subjected to selection by the indigenous cultivators of corn. Transgenes do not alter this relationship, nor do they “spoil” the “purity” of the rapidly-changing populations into which they may be introduced. In all cases, it is not the spread of transgenes into wild or weedy populations that is of interest, but the features that those transgenes confer on the plants in which they occur. Talking about the spread of transgenes as if they represented some form of infectious disease is misleading and counterproductive, and may often lead to the denial of the advantages associated with such breeding methods to those who need them the most. The flow of transgenes from one set of plants to another means nothing in itself: it is the characteristics of the genes that should be of interest. Blocking such flow as a supposed matter of urgency is both irrational and counterproductive, unless the genes involved are shown to be harmful in some way.
Are some of the genetically-altered plants likely to become weeds, either directly or as a result of hybridization? Again, nothing intrinsic about the characteristics of the GM process itself that poses a threat. In both the cases of canola (oil rapeseed) and sugar beets in Europe, strains resistant to some commonly-used herbicides have been produced; but such strains are produced regularly wherever herbicides are applied regularly. In the U.S., if rice is engineered to resist herbicides, then red rice, a weedy relative that is an important pest in the rice fields, can become resistant too, which certainly could be a problem. As in the case of hospital infections by resistant bacteria in human beings, the resistant strains must be treated by alternative means. If the plants are transgenic, or selected to resist the herbicides or pests by other means, they are of course a permanent feature of the environment in which they are grown, a factor that might facilitate the production of resistant strains more than in situations where the pesticides are applied periodically.
Another factor that is causing concern about growing genetically modified plants in the U.S. has to do with the U.S.D.A. standards established for organic crops. These standards prohibit the use of products from transgenic plants in products certified “organic,” and thus organic farmers worry about the possibility of hybridization of their plants with transgenic crops that may be grown nearby. Why transgenic plants are not allowed to be certified “organic,” considering the fact that they are environmentally friendly and have the potential to cut back profoundly on pesticide applications is a matter of debate, but with 89% of the soybeans, 83% of the cotton, 75% of the canola, and 61% of the corn currently grown in the U.S. genetically modified, and no actual problems reported, one might say that it is time to reexamine the concern about such crops. Certainly there has been no demonstration of potential damage by them to human health.
Two genetic features are widely used in modifying cultivated crops at present. One is the production of herbicide-resistant crops, such as Roundup-ready soybeans and canola. Herbicides can be used on such crops when they are planted so that weeds are suppressed and a great deal of money and effort are saved. If the properties of the herbicides are benign and they break down readily in the environment such systems can be beneficial to the environment. Herbicide-resistant weeds can be produced when the herbicides are applied consistently over a period of time, but the same would be true of any herbicide applications. Just as in antibiotic resistance in human beings or farm animals, other herbicides can be used to control the resistant individuals.
A second widespread application of transgenic technology in agriculture has to do with pesticide resistance, essentially all at present with genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces Bt toxin, and important pesticide that is accepted and used widely in organic agriculture. In such plants, only the targeted insect pests come into contact with the pesticide; when the pesticide is broadcast in the environment, millions of other insects are killed. Clearly, resistance to the toxin can arise, just as insects overcome naturally-occurring toxins in the course of their evolution. If such resistance does arise, other pesticides would be employed to control the insects or other pests, and these might also be placed by transgenic methods within the crops.
Many other traits are in the pipeline, and the “stacking” of genes to produce multiple resistances to different environmental stresses is already with us. Drought resistance, salt resistance, the ability to cope with environmental problems of all kinds – those are all features that will be produced by the genetic technology of the future.
An important crop in which Bt genes have been particularly effective is cotton, on which pesticide applications are especially heavy. In India, China, and the U.S., the largest producers of cotton, rapidly increasing percentages of the cotton crop are derived from Bt plants, which have highly enhanced yields as compared with non-transgenic cotton. Worldwide, about a third of all cotton planted has the Bt feature. In the areas where it is grown, the harmful effects of pesticides on human health are avoided, another outstanding benefit. It is difficult to imagine why there is widespread opposition to Bt cotton, or what its negative effects are imagined to be. Assessments of the role of transgenic cotton in promoting the productivity of crops throughout the world have been uniformly positive, and yet groups such as Greenpeace, which can be stimulated only by the fund-raising potential of such opposition, continues to fight the rapid spread of these valuable crops, which have so much to do with alleviating poverty, throughout the world. There is no conceivable reason for opposing them except to increase the fund-raising ability of the groups involved in these campaigns.
In rice, the use of transgenic technologies has been especially controversial. Cultivated rice is very highly self-pollinating, and therefore genes should not spread from it readily. Rice has been suggested as a possible source of pharmaceuticals from transgenes in it, and people are understandably uneasy about the possibility of pharmaceutical-producing plants growing freely in the environment. Such systems need careful study and regulation, but they will doubtless come into widespread use in the future. A much more serious problem concerns the major subsidies for rice cultivation in the United States, which have little purpose and disrupt world markets to a very large extent.
No-till agriculture is spreading throughout the world, because of its ability to reduce soil runoff. Genetically modified soybeans treated with Roundup in the United States contribute substantially to the success of this program.
For creeping bentgrass, Agrostis stolonifera, genes associated with resistance to the herbicide Roundup have been found up to 21 km from known genetically modified plants, indicating that pollen or seeds traveled that far. Certainly if infestations of this grass appeared in areas where they were undesirable, they could not be controlled by the herbicide to which they were resistant. In that case, alternative herbicides could be used. Why is this spread of transgenes viewed by some as a problem?
Before proceeding though, I would like to point out that tracing the spread of transgenes in wild and weedy populations has produced much information of great importance in understanding the evolution of plants overall. In terms of plant evolution, this is a topic of the greatest interest. For example, we are learning a great deal about the distances over which pollen can be dispersed, and consequently about the size of populations of plants and the relationships between them.
A few years ago, it was suggested that corn pollen from plants that produced Bt toxin could coat the leaves of the larval food plants for monarch butterflies and kill them. Later experiments and observations demonstrated that the densities of pollen that would kill other larvae would essentially never be attained under natural conditions, and that the destruction of natural habitat in which their food plants grew could be much more detrimental to the monarch butterflies. Furthermore, it was a simple matter to design corn plants in which the Bt toxin was not expressed in the pollen, and that basically ended the discussion.
It has repeatedly been pointed out that once genetically modified plants are grown in fields, it becomes very difficult to control the spread of transgenes from them. In view of the absence of any intrinsic problems to human health or to the environment posed by such plants, one may ask why their spread is viewed with concern. Individually genetically modified plants may certainly have properties that could cause potential harm, but can more logically be dealt with on a case-by-case basis than with blanket skepticism.
Transgenic grapes are regarded as unacceptable by most of the wine industry, and yet such grapes would have the ability to control the sharpshooter insects that are attacking vines over wider areas with every passing year. They would also make it possible to limit the application of pesticides and fertilizers to the vineyards, but their introduction is opposed. The grapes from vines that contained transgenes would differ in no significant way from other grapes. To grow vines on rootstalks from other grape species but not to admit genes that would limit the application of pesticides and fertilizers seems perverse, but in the end it is all a matter of consumer demand, torqued by Greenpeace and other groups that conduct effective fund-raising campaigns on the basis of ignorance and fear. When this phase has been completed, they will presumably move on to other fund-raising campaigns that will keep them afloat for the future; hopefully, they will not be as irresponsible and damaging to the rights of the poor and hungry people of the world as the present one.
Rational approaches to agriculture and food technology should lead gradually to the acceptance of GM and other technologies and to their widespread use to help solve themany problems of agriculture. All parts of the process of acceptance by the public need to be transparent and verifiable, with questions addressed as they arise; only by a rigorous process of disclosure and investigation will a majority of people ever be comfortable with any new kind of technology. On the other hand, endless skepticism doesn’t help, and ways need to be found to provide information about the benefits, as well as the liabilities, of genetically modified crops. New public sector efforts are needed to benefit poor farmers in developing countries, where in general neither the most important crops nor the conditions of cultivation have been the subject of much international effort. Whatever approaches might be taken to the development of these agricultural systems, the precise modification of the organisms in them by modern genetic techniques seems a rational way to move toward the desired outcomes.
As the global climate changes, the need for rapid adaptation of our cultivated crops will become increasingly evident. Food production can be maintained only by the use of the best available methods, including those that lead to water conservation. We cannot achieve such changes by assuming that modern methods are bad, while the crops developed by, say, 1890, through genetic selection, are good. The political infighting about methods of selection leads to the starvation of millions, and is unacceptable as a route into the future.
Why are these methods viewed with such skepticism, when the gains following theirwidespread use are so evident and their promise for much greater contributions so great? I do not know, but the situation seems very peculiar. Whatever policy might be adopted for Europe, persuading governments responsible for the lives of hundreds of thousands of starving people in Africa to forego food aid on the basis of politically or economicallymotivated disinformation seems to me to constitute a serious crime against humanity. I maintain that those responsible for the misinformation bear a serious responsibility for the lives of the people who are dying, and urge the world as a whole to return to rationality in dealing with this humanitarian crisis.
For some who live in industrialized countries to accept medicines produced through GM technologies because them seem necessary for them and at the same time to deny foods produced in a similar way to starving Africans seems to me to pose a moral dilemma that deserves more serious consideration. As Per Pinstrup-Anderson has pointed out, to a mother in a famine-struck region in Africa, the disease she and her children suffer from is hunger and the medicine is food. He then went on to point out that the world's poor spend 60 to 80 percent of their incomes on food, and there often isn't enough to alleviate starvation. So Europe's strong stand against GM crops, which has the potential to make more food available, may seem ill-advised to hungry people in developing countries who need food and not unsupported arguments about why it might not be safe. Serious discussions of the appearance of large-scale agriculture, the corporatization of food systems, or the globalization of trade are clearly desirable, but it is not GM crops that are driving these trends, which they are sometimes used to represent. We badly need to develop transgenic cassava and other crops that are vital for feeding the people who live in the tropics, and do not have the right to play with their welfare for ideological reasons that we invent in rich countries that do not think the world needs food. It is basically disgusting to play with the welfare of poor, hungry people for ideological reasons. And, if you don’t like the idea of paying agricultural producers for the products they develop, stomp on the next apple you see with a little sticky tag on the side!