The pesticides that farmers use to protect their crops have changed a great deal over the last few decades. While improvement is something we expect from technologies as diverse as pharmaceuticals, electronics or plant breeding, few people are aware of the positive developments in the chemicals used for crop protection. I find that many plant molecular biologists and other defenders of biotechnology have a similarly out-dated view of pesticides. Dramatic change began with the establishment of the EPA in 1970 which led to the elimination of many problematic, old pesticides. Also, there has been a steady stream of new product introductions with both safety and efficacy advantages. To document how pesticides have changed, I decided to download historical information for one of my favorite crops – premium wine grapes. California has had mandatory pesticide use-reporting in place since 1990. The resulting data can provide a window on at least 22
I am 99.9% sure that there will never be commercial production of genetically engineered wine grapes (“GMO” to use the common misnomer). Even so, I’d like to indulge in imagining what could be if we lived in some parallel universe where rational scientific thinking prevailed. Wine grapes are an extremely logical crop for genetic engineering because there is no tolerance for changing varieties. For annual crops like grains or vegetables, new varieties are bred on a regular basis to solve pest issues or to improve features like taste or shelf life. Breeding of perennial fruit crops is a much, much slower process, but entirely new varieties are still introduced from time to time (e.g. Jazz or Pink Lady apples). Even what we call “heirloom varieties” of most vegetable or fruit crops are mostly quite young by wine grape standards. Conventional breeding just isn’t a viable option for wine grapes, not because it
Amy Harmon’s excellent article in the New York Times describes how the Florida orange juice industry may soon be wiped out because of a new bacterial disease spread by an introduced insect. There could be a technology fix for the problem using genetic engineering, but the question is whether the growers will get to apply that solution. The sort of crisis situation now facing the Florida orange industry is not at all unique in the history of farming. There have been many times when some new pest threatened the economic viability of a major crop. Sometimes the pest “wins” and a particular farming industry simply goes away. In the mid 1880s when Coffee Rust made it from Africa to the coffee plantations that supplied England from Java and Sri Lanka, the industry collapsed, and so the English had to switch to tea to get their caffeine.