Big Island Transgenics

posted in: Commentary, Science | 3

By the year 2050, the Earth’s population will double. If we continue with current farming practices, vast amounts of wilderness will be lost, millions of birds and billions of insects will die, and the environmental cost will be immeasurable. Clearly, the world needs a better way to meet the demand for increased food production.

To meet the growing need to feed the world’s population in an environmentally friendly way will require combining the technologies of genetic engineering and organic farming.

To successfully marry these two technologies we will need to overcome long held animosity between scientists, supporters of organic farming and conventional farmers. We will also need to address the antagonism some feel toward the idea of genetic engineering.

The recent debate on the Big Island over genetically engineered crops pitted organic coffee farmers against researchers and the biotech industry, with some organic farmers voicing concern that genetically engineered crops threaten their livelihood and agricultural philosophy.

However, it appears their concerns about food safety are driven more by technological anxiety than by science. Today, the majority of all processed foods in the United States have at least one ingredient from genetically engineered crops and all scientific panels that have studied this matter have concluded that the GE crops currently grown in the United States are safe to eat.

The National Academy of Sciences and the United Kingdom Genetically Modified Science Review Panel have both concluded that the process of adding genes to our food by genetic engineering is just as safe as conventional plant breeding.

Organic farming techniques have proven results in reducing the use of insecticides, and doing so benefits humans and the environment. The question is whether the technology of organic agriculture is robust enough to meet the growing demand for food around the world.

One way to enhance yields is to develop new varieties of crops that can survive harsh conditions such as drought, cold, heat, salt, and flooding. Many of the world’s poorest people farm in areas that are far from ideal. They face tremendous obstacles with soil quality, access to water, pests, and periodic flooding. Organic farming techniques can offer some solutions, but they still have their limits.

It is estimated that pests and disease can reduce agricultural productivity worldwide by 40 percent. If we reduce this loss it would be equivalent to creating more land and more water. However, current pesticide use is a health and environmental hazard.

One logical approach would have to be combining the techniques of organic farming and genetic engineering. Genetic engineering can be used to develop plants with enhanced resistance to pests and disease; organic farming can manage the overall spectrum of pests more effectively.

Genetically engineered crops have already been proven against pests. For example, in central and southern India, where small-scale farmers typically suffer large losses because of pests, average yields of genetically engineered crops exceeded those of conventional crops by 80 percent.

In Hawaii, the 1998 introduction of an engineered papaya plant that could resist the papaya ringspot virus has long been credited with saving the industry. The availability of GE papaya brought struggling growers back into the papaya business and by 2003, production in the region had rebounded. There was no other technology then, including organic farming techniques, to protect the papaya from this devastating disease, nor is there today.

Genetic engineering also helps achieve other goals of the organic farming movement. By reducing the use of pesticides and by reducing pest and disease, it can make farming more affordable and thus keep family farmers in business. It can also assure local food security, an issue of growing concern here in Hawaii.

Worldwide demand by farmers for improved hybrid corn has also made Hawaii’s expanding seed industry the number one agricultural commodity in the state. According to an economic analysis commissioned by the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, the Hawaii seed industry contributes approximately $144 million of economic activity to Hawaii’s economy. This translates to $7 million in annual taxes to the state, $53 million in annual labor income, and more than 2,000 jobs.

There seems to be a communication gap between organic and conventional farmers, as well as between consumers and scientists. It is time to close that gap. Dialogue is needed if we are to advance along the road to an ecologically balanced, biologically based system of farming.

Science and good farming alone will not be sufficient to provide food security to the healthy, or to the poor and malnourished, or to solve all our current environmental problems. However, without science and good farming we cannot even begin to dream about maintaining such a secure future.

Rather than indulge in speculation and mistrust, let us focus our attention on the facts and to where it matters: the need to support farming methods that are good for the environment and for our children.

Follow Pamela Ronald:

Pamela Ronald is Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. Her research focuses on the genetics of rice. With her husband, she co-wrote Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. She writes a blog of the same name.

  • Violet

    Do we actually want to do what’s best for the Earth and for human health? Then let’s reduce world meat consumption. About 33% of the world’s arable land is used to grow grain for livestock. Let’s grow food for people on that land instead. Genetic engineering is an unnecessary, unsustainable band-aid.

  • Thanks for the comment Violet. I agree that it would have an enormous impact if there were fewer meat eaters (for this reason I quite eating meat in 1976). Unfortunately though, there are more meat eaters than ever before.

    We need to do all we can for the earth and human health.

    The most economic and environmetally-responsible way for controlling plant disease, enhancing stress tolerance and increasing yield is through planting of genetically improved crops. This has been true for 8000 years and will continue to be the case well into the future.

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