Without Biotechnology, We'll Starve
Agriculture: Genetic engineering is subject to more safeguards than many unaltered foods we eat.
By MARTINA MCGLOUGHLIN
I agree with Greenpeace that we need to feed and clothe the world's
people while minimizing the impact of agriculture on the environment. But
the human population continues to grow, while arable land is a finite
quantity. So unless we will accept starvation or placing parks and the
Amazon Basin under the plow, there really is no alternative to applying
biotechnology to agriculture.
Today's biotechnology differs significantly from previous agricultural
technologies. Using genetic engineering, scientists can enhance the
nutritional content, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, texture, color,
flavor, growing season, yield, disease resistance and other properties of
production crops. Engineered microbes and enzymes produced using
recombinant DNA methods are used in many aspects of food production. The
cheese and bread you eat and the detergent you use to clean your clothes
all have used engineered enzymes since the early part of this decade.
By reducing dependency on chemicals and tillage through the
development of natural fertilizers and of pest-resistant plants,
biotechnology has the potential to conserve natural resources, prevent
soil erosion and improve environmental quality. Strains of microorganisms
could increase the efficiency, capacity and variety of waste treatment.
Bioprocessing using engineered microbes offers new ways to use renewable
resources for materials and fuel.
Biotechnology is, in fact, the low-risk alternative to current
practices. Take pest control. The economic and environmental costs of
using existing methods are well known. But many of us are not aware of
the potential costs of not controlling pests. Not controlling fungal
disease in plants, for example, allows them to generate deadly toxins
such as aflatoxin and fumonisin, which have been found, among other
things, to cause brain tumors in horses and liver cancer in children.
The most cost-effective and environmentally sound general method for
controlling pests and disease is the use of DNA. This approach already
has led to a reduction in the use of sprayed chemical insecticides.
According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2 million
fewer pounds of insecticide were used in 1998 to control bollworm and
budworm than were used in 1995, before "Bt" cotton was introduced. And
the Bt gene--introduced into the crop plant, not sprayed into the
atmosphere--is present in minute amounts and spares beneficial insects.
There is no evidence that recombinant DNA techniques or rDNA-modified
organisms pose any unique or unforeseen environmental or health hazards.
In fact, a National Research Council study found that "as the molecular
methods are more specific, users of these methods will be more certain
about the traits they introduce into plants." Greater certainty means
greater precision and safety. The subtly altered products on our plates
have been put through more thorough testing than any conventional food
ever has been subjected to. Many of our daily staples would be banned if
subjected to the same rigorous standards. Potatoes and tomatoes contain
toxic glycoalkaloids, which have been linked to spina bifida. Kidney
beans contain phytohaemagglutinin and are poisonous if undercooked.
Dozens of people die each year from cynaogenic glycosides from peach
seeds. Yet none of those are labeled as potentially dangerous.
Millions of people have eaten the products of genetic engineering and
no adverse effects have been demonstrated. The proper balance of safety
testing between companies and the government is a legitimate area for
further debate. So are environmental safeguards. But the purpose of such
debate should be to improve biotech research and enhance its benefits to
society, not stop it in its tracks.
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Martina Mcgloughlin Is Director of the Life Sciences Informatics Program and the Biotechnology Program at Uc Davis. Web Site: Http://www.biotech.ucdavis.edu