April 21, 2009
Biotech firms have touted the potential of genetically engineered (GE) crops to address the global hunger crisis. Many hopes (and many more dollars) have been invested in the promise of GE technology to increase crop yields. According to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), this technology has thus far failed to deliver.
To better understand these new findings, it is worth elucidating some of the murky terminology. In a recent radio interview, plant pathologist Dr. Pamela Ronald explains “there is nothing that [the typical American family] will eat tonight that is not genetically modified.” She goes on to clarify her use of the term: all but the most wild of crop varieties have been “genetically modified,” in the traditional sense, through conventional plant breeding between compatible species (to complicate matters, the term “genetically modified,” or GM, often refers to GE foods). This is in contrast to GE, or “transgenic” crops, created in laboratories by combining the genetic information of distinct, usually unrelated (a plant and a bacterium, for example), species.
The UCS report compares how these two approaches have fared since the first GE crop was commercially introduced in 1996. The three major GE crops grown in the U.S. are Bt corn, named after the bacterium that grants the corn its resistance to certain insects; herbicide resistant corn, and herbicide resistant soybeans. Of these, neither herbicide-resistant variety has demonstrated an increase in yield compared with conventional alternatives. Bt corn has demonstrated a slight increase in yield over conventional corn treated with insecticides, only when insect infestations are high, amounting to an approximate 0.2 – 0.3 percent increase per year since 1996. In comparison, overall corn yields have increased an entire one percent per year over recent decades, largely due to conventional breeding practices. In the words of UCS biologist Doug Gurian-Sherman, “Traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down.”
While GE crops may someday fulfill the promises made by those who champion them, after 20 years of research and 13 years of commercial use, there has been little evidence to substantiate the claims of the biotech industry. Meanwhile, despite risk assessments by regulating agencies, the complexity of transgenic processes leaves considerable uncertainty around potential adverse effects to human health and the environment. In light of these concerns, the continued promotion and application of transgenic crops is brought into question, particularly while proven alternatives such as conventional breeding and organic practices have yet to be fully tapped of their potential.
– Brent Kim