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Biotechnology and agriculture

For the Record
Scince & Teconogy
Biotechnology and agriculture
Microsoft opens its doors to Pakistan

The good, the bad, and the downright scary!

By Diana J. Choyce
Sep 20 - 27, 1999

At first glance, genetically altered food crops, caterpillars, milkweed plants, and pesticides, have no connection. Put them together, and they could be the makings of a great horror movie. But in reality, they are the makings of a huge battle between the companies who produce DNA altered seeds, and environmental groups such as GreenPeace and United Concerned Scientists. The old adage "don’t mess with mother nature", has been the rally cry of these groups for years in their quest stop the genetic splicing of seed crops. But in May of this year, the results of a study by Cornell University may have finally given them the ammunition to put their fight into full gear.

Cornell announced that the pollen released from DNA altered corn crops, can settle on nearby milkweed plants and actually kill the Monarch butterfly caterpillar. These corn crops are altered specifically to produce their own pesticide which kills pests, thereby increasing crop yields. Unfortunately the pesticide, a substance called Bt, will also kill moths and butterflies. Bt is used by organic farmers for pest control and is also sprayed on forests to control gypsy moths. Though the producers of these seeds have taken care that the Bt does not injure beneficial insects, they may have missed the mark by not fully considering indirect effects. That leads one to wonder if this industry is regulated properly. Needless to say, biotech companies are rushing to keep the damage of this report to a minimum. And given their energetic focus on the European markets, their damage control teams must be on full alert. The European regulatory agencies are holding all biotech company applications until further research into the situation.

And as usual with these types of issues, by June academic researchers were modifying their view of the Cornell research. Dr. John Losey, the Cornell University entomology professor who conducted the research said, "Our study was conducted in the laboratory and, while it raises an important issue, it would be inappropriate to draw any conclusions about the risk to monarch populations in the field based solely on these initial results." Doctor Losey added, "I still think the proven benefits of Bt corn outweigh the potential risks. We can’t forget that Bt corn and other transgenic crops have a huge potential for reducing pesticide use and increasing yields".

And to give the biotech companies equal time, "We want to make sure that the monarch is protected, and we want to verify the belief of numerous scientists that Bt pollen is not putting the monarchs at significant risk," said Dr. L. Val Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture, Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). And of course Dr. Giddings also added "When you consider the monarch butterflies in context with the widely recognized benefits of Bt crops, it’s clear that trends in agriculture will only help the monarchs and the environment overall. For example, Bt crops preserve beneficial insects that prey on harmful insect pests, thus limiting the need for additional insecticide sprays. Growers planting Bt crops have dramatically reduced the damage done by harmful pests and have reduced handling and exposure of insecticides on the farm". Near the top of this fray is the well known biotech company Monsanto. Philip Angell, a Monsanto spokesman stated "This has certainly caused a flap. It is clearly something that raises or will raise the discussion about biotech to a level where it has not existed before". That’s quite a bland reply given the amount of funds that Monsanto has invested and stands to lose if this issue continues to explode. Monsanto has been issuing a plethora of press releases to its buyers and potential markets, to try and calm the rising storm. One of their most interesting and almost laughable statements can be found in a June press release." Most corn pollen remains within the corn field and monarch larvae can choose to avoid feeding on Bt pollen by feeding on the underside of leaves or on other milkweed leaves with little or no Bt pollen." The public relations man who thought that one up must be earning quite a bit for his creative abilities! For more interesting reading, check out the press release section at the Monsanto website (www.monsanto.com).

On the positive side of this technology, the applications for higher crop yields and lower insecticide use could be a huge boon to developing countries. Among other things, lower pesticide costs and the benefits to the population and the environment. The use of Bt cotton has reduced the use of over 2 million pounds of chemical insecticides in the U.S and nearly 1 million gallons of chemical insecticides was eliminated in the U.S. during first three years of commercial availability of this improved crop (1996-1998). The introduction of Bt Corn has resulted in a reduced chemical use on as much as 15 million acres in 1998. A report by an Iowa State professor indicates that 1.2 million pounds of insecticide would be reduced if 80 percent of corn acres were planted with Bt. These statistics were taken from a June 25, 1999 report from the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On a side note, it seems fitting that the pesticide industry is losing some $200 to $300 million a year since the introduction of biotech crops. Developing countries desperately need a way to increase their crop yields not only to feed their populations but to increase their export potential. Biotechnology could well be the answer and the hope they need to compete in the global marketplace. But at what cost? The issues surrounding biotechnology are far reaching and very complicated, given no one can foresee the future effects with any certainty. Will biotech companies go the way of factual history, by sending their leftovers and mistakes to these countries under the guise of helping their fellow man? Let’s hope the environmental activists really sink their teeth into this issue. With very tight regulations, constant supervision, and a good helping of respect and conscience from biotech companies, developing countries could reap huge benefits. And for the world leading countries producing this technology, this should be their first and foremost concern in these issues.