Thought I'd share a few interesting tidbits that emerged while listening to lectures by some of the nation's top academic researchers over the past few days.
The use of herbicides has gone up since the advent of herbicide-resistant (i.e., Roundup Ready) crops, but the use of insecticides has gone down. And there's less tilling required with herbicide-resistant crops, which means there's less siltation and less top soil loss, which also helps reduce runoff of fertilizers and other inputs. It seems there are trade offs with everything, including agriculture.
It cost about $10 million for Simplot to navigate the regulatory hurdles required to secure approval of its Innate potato, which has been genetically engineered to resist bruising and browning. It also produces the pale white chip that consumers desire. In developed nations, 50-60 percent of the potato crop is used for french fries.
Though anti-GMO activists loudly complain that corporations are controlling agricultural biotechnology, the high regulatory costs have created a situation where only the big guys and those with deep pockets can play. The deregulation costs far exceed the research budgets of any public institution. Those high costs help to explain why agricultural firms aren't eager to relinquish patents.
Several scientists wondered, “Why is profit considered bad for agricultural companies, but not tech companies? Patents ensure future innovations.” Or in other words, why is it OK for Apple to make money, but not the company that developed the Arctic Apple, which resists browning?
Stanford Hospital recently announced it was “proud” to be the first to serve certified GMO-free beef, prompting a genetics graduate student to scold:
“Stanford Hospital should be embarrassed to support a movement drive by public paranoia rather than science. If it had consulted its own genetics researchers, it might even have learned that these research are using GM as a tool to advance basic research and therapeutics that could be used in this very hospital.”
Which reminded me of a comment I heard a scientist make at the Transgenic Animal Conference in Tahoe last month: “People think nothing of injecting a genetically engineered substance [insulin] directly into their arm, but they won't eat it.” Or as another researcher phrased it, “If you want to put a pig gene in an orange, people go nuts. But if you take a human gene and put it in bacteria, no problem.”
And that reminded me of a comment that another researcher made, about how people are irrationally squeamish about technology that moves genes between species: “We already share so many genes with other species — including bacteria. There is no such thing as a such and such gene that belongs to only one species.”
Along similar lines: “There's an assumption among the public that DNA is unchanging. But that's simply not true. We're all mutants.”
Though anti-GMO activists like to portray the issue as either/or — conventional breeding or biotech — plant breeders consider the best tool, with biotech having the advantage of speed. It can take 30 years to develop a new variety of citrus through conventional methods, compared to four using biotech. “But we need both. We can't have a longterm viable GE program without having a conventional program to keep improving the base stock.”
Very few of the fruits, vegetables and grains we eat were originally present in nature. They've been developed through mutations and genomic alterations. “All the variety and variation we see in the store today are not 'natural.' They came about because humans intervened in breeding and selection. But the methods that are the least invasive and most predictable are the ones people fear the most and want labeled.”
Genetically-engineered apples, papaya, squash, brinjal (eggplant), potatoes and plums have all been deregulated. With plums, they've been engineered to resist the plum pox virus. Those resistant varieties can be used as root stock, with a scion grafted on top. The resistant qualities are transferred to the scion without changing its genetic structure, which means the fruit is not transgenic (GMO).
Farmers often plant organic papaya trees within a ring of transgenic papaya, which attract the aphids that carry the ringspot virus and thus provide protection for the organic trees. So much for the claim that the two can't co-exist.
Baby food companies are concerned because they can't get enough non-GMOs to produce their products, but they're terrified to be the first to have write “contains GMOs” on their food to comply with mandatory labeling.
And for all those who still entertain the notion that we can do away with production — often derisively termed “industrial” — agriculture and feed everyone with backyard farms and “yardens,” consider this: Globally, the human race consumes 1.3 billion pigs, 2.6 billion ducks and 52 billion chickens, which produce 59 million tons of eggs and 90 million tons of meat.