Without Biotechnology, We'll Starve: Genetic Engineering is
Subject to More Safeguards than Many Unaltered Foods We Eat
Los Angeles Times
November 1, 1999
By Martina McGloughlin
Director of Biotechnology at the University of California at Davis
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.