Byline: Winter Casey, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Leading scientists now believe that plant biotechnology can reduce pesticide use.
'The new tools of biotechnology will permit us to speed the development of improved cultivators [plants] with higher genetic-yield potential, increase resistance to diseases and insects and greater tolerance to drought, heat, cold and soil toxicities,' said Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and consultant to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.
'By incorporating genes for crop protection into the seed, production costs can be reduced, as well as the need to use pesticides. This is good for farmers, the environment, and consumers,' said Mr. Borlaug in a recent report by Monsanto, a U.S. firm that develops and sells agricultural products, including seeds for genetically modified crops - mainly soybeans, maize, wheat and cotton.
Mr. Borlaug's view is shared by Channapatna Prakash, professor of plant molecular genetics and director of the Center for Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala. Mr. Prakash also sits on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Biotechnology Advisory Committee.
'Biotechnology ... [is] a vital tool in the toolbox, one that includes soil and water conservation, pest management and other methods of sustainable agriculture, as well as new technologies,' said Mr. Prakash in a recent National Geographic article.
In one biotech tactic, a gene is put into a plant to make it produce a substance that is toxic to a specific pest. Thus, spraying pesticide is not necessary.
Some toxins are chosen because they degrade rapidly in water, and others, such as chlorinated hydrocarbons, are resistant to degradation. It is also possible to release the toxin into the soil from a plant's root system to destroy targeted micro-organisms.
But Craig Winters, executive director of the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, says that plant biotechnology has not cut pesticide use. 'It doesn't pan out in terms of statistics. ... If you look, they're using the same or more, while at the same time turning the plants into pesticides themselves.'
Responds Donald R. Roeder, a professor of biology and environmental science at Simon's Rock College of Bard in Great Barrington, Mass.: 'It depends on the kind of pesticide being generated by the plant. Is the pesticide being used persistent - meaning, does it break down in water?'
The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) released a comprehensive report in June on the safety and environmental benefits of commercial biotechnology-derived soy, corn and cotton crops.
Teresa A. Gruber, executive vice president of CAST, said 'in the past, isolated studies regarding the environmental impact of biotechnology-derived crops appeared to present conflicting results.'
With that in mind, Mrs. Gruber said CAST researchers have clearly demonstrated that soil, air and water quality are improved through biotech crops.
'The study,' said Dr. Allan Felsot of Washington State University, 'was based on nine criteria including changes in pesticide-use patterns, impacts on beneficial insects, pest resistance, soil management, land-use efficiency, impacts on biodiversity and, of course, human exposure.'
It found that biotech-engineered soybeans allowed farmers to use a less potent herbicide that quickly dissipates in soil and water.
This year's follow-on in June to the 1997 World Food Summit concluded that biotechnology innovators must proceed with caution, but agreed that the best way to fill the world's rising food and nutrition needs could be through agricultural biotechnology.
Others argue that the problem of world hunger is not one of quantity but of effective distribution.
In an article following the June Food and Agriculture Organization summit in Rome, Mr. Prakash and Gregory Conko, director of food-safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, wrote that 'biotechnology holds the potential to increase food production, reduce synthetic food production, reduce the use of synthetic chemical pesticides and actually make foods safer and healthier.'
'In China, where pesticides are typically sprayed on crops by hand, some 400 to 500 cotton farmers die every year from acute pesticide poisoning. But the adoption of biotech cotton varieties has lowered the amount of pesticides used by more than 75 percent and reduced the number of poisonings by an equivalent amount,' said the two scientists.
Washington think tanks say much still remains to be learned on the subject of plant biotechnology and its possible benefits. Charlie Coon of the Heritage Foundation is enthusiastic about plant biotechnology 'as an avenue that should be pursued.' On the other hand, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) points out how relatively poorly understood the process of genetic modifications (GM) remains.
COHA warns that preliminary evidence suggests a range of possible impacts. 'For instance, the ominous deaths of monarch butterflies [ascribed to one form of GM corn] and of honeybees [apparently victims to GM cotton] would leave alarming holes in vital ecosystems,' the organization said in a report last fall.
Monsanto says plant biotechnology is good for the environment by making plants immune to specific pests and reducing the need for spraying pesticides. It argues that genetically altering plants will result in higher-quality, more nutritious foods.
The company has genetically modified crops - including canola, corn, cotton, soybeans and sugar beets - to be tolerant to the application of Roundup herbicide. Additionally, it has changed its Roundup insect pesticides to work with its other products, allowing Monsanto to further dominate the biotech market.
However, many observers are suspicious of the giant firm's tactics and of the biotechnology industry in general. Monsanto also leaves itself open to criticism when its spokespersons refuse to answer questions without being told the thrust of the coverage and how it will be used - an attitude that appears to have soured its relations with the Wall Street Journal.
COHA has expressed concern for years over Monsanto's involvement in Latin America, specifically in Brazil.
'In a number of instances in the past, Monsanto products that were banned in the U.S. or allowed only under stringent circumstances have been exported to Latin American and aggressively sold, causing health problems due to misuse or intrinsically flawed products - an example being Ecuador,' said Larry Birns, COHA's director.
In a report last fall, COHA said Monsanto heavily invested in a distribution infrastructure for its biotech products in anticipation of market liberalization in Brazil, creating a sales office to aggressively sell its exports.
Brazil is the world's No. 2 producer of soybeans.
'Monsanto simultaneously promotes itself and strangles competition by controlling distribution,' said a COHA publication. 'Monsanto jealously guards its de facto monopoly on GM soybean seeds. The company requires farmers to purchase new seeds every season, suing those who try to reseed without reordering - a practice that has been upheld in court,' the council said.
Mr. Roeder of Simon's Rock College said one of the biggest problems with industrial plant biotechnology is that the material is patented and farmers cannot propagate or keep the seeds.
He said the largest impact is socioeconomic, because growers must continue to buy the product under a signed agreement. Consequently, Mr. Roeder advocates 'clear and strict regulations in the plant biotechnology field.'
Interestingly, in some states, BT (bacillus thurin) genetically modified corn is illegal. BT produces a protein that, when eaten by an insect, prevents it from maturing.
Since only silage corn - used mainly to feed cows - is grown in Maine, many farmers don't find spraying pesticides on corn either necessary or helpful. BT corn is also quite a bit more expensive to buy.
Corn pollen can drift for miles, so once GM corn is introduced, it can quickly infiltrate regular and 'organic' - meaning deliberately grown without chemicals - crops.
Mr. Roeder points out that there are differences in genetically modified products, adding that 'some people might find it very different to genetically modify a plant with a fish gene and BT. In one case a toxin is produced, while in the other, a plant is kept from freezing.'
Patrick Gruber, chief technology officer at Cargill Dow LLC, believes he is taking plant biotechnology to a new level of industrial, environment-friendly possibilities with corn-based plastics and polyesters to replace traditional petroleum-based products. An example is a new company in Blair, Neb., that turns field corn into a biodegradable substance called NatureWorks PLA that can be used to make packaging materials, bedding products and clothing.
Brent Erickson, vice president at the Washington-based biotech industry organization believes 'this could transform the old economy. It's going to provide new ways to make things that are cleaner and more economical.'
Recent GM food controversies have centered around Third World countries rejecting genetically modified U.S. food. This month Zimbabwe almost refused to accept GM corn from the United States even though 6 million of its people face starvation.
Zimbabwe and other African countries face widespread food shortages after two years of drought. However, they don't want to be given whole corn, fearing that if GM corn seeds get into their crops and the pollen spreads, it could damage their economic future by ending trade with their European partners.
Europe continues to shun GM-modified foods.
The needy African countries are requesting milled or ground corn that will not mix with or alter domestic varieties. Grinding the corn would be more expensive for the United States but prevent accusations that the U.S. is using its aid to force gene-altered products into Third World nations.
Aluniya Ngulube gathers corn that fell from a passing truck in Mumpansha, Zambia. The country has been wary of accepting U.S. donations of genetically modified corn. [Photo by AP]
Sarojeni Rengam of the Malaysian 'Pesticide Action Network' critiques the World Food Summit declaration on behalf of hundreds of non-governmental organizations in Rome [Photo by Agence France-Presse]
A member of a militant group opposed to genetically modified foods uproots a plot of corn grown on Monsanto land near Labrihe, France. [Photo by Agence France-Presse]