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It’s hard to conceptualize the speed with which our capacity to unlock the genomes of living creatures and study the DNA containing the essence of their identities is transforming modern agriculture. Sixty years after the physical structure of DNA was first hypothesized, researchers are routinely mapping and in many cases manipulating genetic sequences within innumerable crop and livestock species. Genetically engineered (GE) seeds have transformed the production practices of corn, soybean and cotton farmers from the expanses of the Midwest and Mississippi Delta to the tiny parcels of smallholders across India and Africa. Despite the pronounced failure of these first generation GE crops to deliver their promised benefits, the agrichemical industry continues to aggressively tout biotechnology as the remedy for maladies as intractable as drought and famine.
How has a technology as novel as genetic engineering so swiftly become a central component of global food and fiber production? How advisable is the privatization and concentration of the world’s genetic resources by a handful of international agrichemical firms that has accompanied the advent of GE seed? As private capital supersedes public interest as the driving force behind crop and livestock breeding, what costs will farmers, consumers and the environment be asked to bear?
Our modern memories are so short that the rapid emergence of agricultural biotechnology has obscured the historic contribution of classic crop and livestock breeding practices. Similarly, the emergence of proprietary control of genetic resources has washed away the legacy of the last century of publicly funded and directed breeding work and thousands of years of innovative seed selection and preservation by farmers around the world.
Many scientific discoveries and legal decisions have made possible the global production and trade in GE commodities but none were more influential than a simple policy statement issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on May 29, 1992. Entitled “Guidance to Industry for Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties”, the statement was the culmination of efforts by the Bush Administration to establish a legal framework for marketing GE seeds and the foods derived from them.
Rather than acknowledge that biotechnology constituted a groundbreaking technological advance warranting a commensurate advance in regulatory oversight, FDA denied that GE foods were different at all. Having determined that, “In most cases the substances expected to become components of food as a result of genetic modification will be the same as or substantially similar to substances commonly found in food such as proteins, fats and oils, and carbohydrates,” FDA sanctioned their entry into the food supply with no advance testing or labeling requirements.
As a consequence, the food, feed and fiber derived from GE seeds have enjoyed unfettered market access in the United States for nearly twenty years on the grounds that they are fundamentally indistinguishable from non-GE varieties – despite the fact that GE seeds are also recognized as so unique that they can be patented!
Agrichemical interests have attributed a wide array of actual and potential consumer and environmental benefits to GE seeds over the past two decades but a closer examination of the traits expressed in the field tells a different story.
The vast majority of the hundreds of millions of acres of genetically modified crops that have been planted worldwide have not been selected for improved performance under natural conditions or attributes desirable to consumers. Instead, they literally have been injected with snippets of DNA from one or more other species which enable the engineered crop to express a pesticide, survive exposure to a pesticide, or both. Whether they plant ten thousand acres or two acres, today’s corn, soybean and cotton farmers are increasingly limited to seed varieties locking them into a package of additional chemical inputs regardless of the specific conditions on their farms.
The simultaneous marketing of seeds engineered to withstand a herbicide and the herbicide itself (the model pioneered by Monsanto with its RoundUp Ready crops) has proven profitable for the agrichemical industry while failing to increase yields significantly or reduce pesticide toxicity. The Union of Concerned Scientists report Failure to Yield establishes that classic plant breeding practices are far more responsible for increased corn and soybean yields over the past fifteen years than biotechnology and will likely remain the most cost effective option for further gains.
One consequence to farmers from the excessive dependence on GE traits such as glyphosate (RoundUp) tolerance has been dramatically accelerated resistance in weeds that are now choking out crops across millions of acres. The failure of the first generation GE seeds to effectively manage weed pressure has been confirmed by the recent and impending releases of corn and soybean varieties tolerant of the herbicide 2,4 D. Linked to cancer and birth defects and highly prone to drift, 2,4 D is a text book example of the toxic pesticides which switching to supposedly safer glyphosate was marketed as making obsolete.
By contrast, simple farmers and sophisticated plant breeders alike have used classic plant and livestock breeding practices to identify and accentuate the traits that enable crops and livestock to adapt and thrive under local conditions. Operating in both the public and commercial sectors, these genetic stewards have also bred and selected for consumer benefits such as nutritional content, flavor and storability.
The public programs have historically been housed at federal and state funded institutions including land grant universities, agricultural experiment stations and USDA Agricultural Research Service laboratories which are expressly chartered to serve the public interest. These institutions have used classic breeding techniques to develop, evaluate and ultimately release to the public (typically through licensing agreements with private businesses) new and advantageous crop varieties with a cost-effective record of success. Regrettably, public plant breeding initiatives have been badly underfunded in recent years and their ability to preserve and enhance genetic resources for public benefit has been accordingly compromised.
The proverb “All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today” conveys the intimate association between the seeds we sow and our aspirations for a better future. How wisely have we weighed those aspirations in our decision to downgrade the public plant breeding and distribution system while rewarding the commercialization of our genetic heritage?
Reinvigorating our commitment to plant breeding as a public good is essential for building sustainable food systems that are principally responsive to the needs of farmers, consumers and the environment.
Mark Keating has worked in the natural, sustainable, organic and local food movements since 1982. His work experience includes stints in commercial food service, farm labor, retail sales and marketing, state and federal civil service, non-profit advocacy and academia. While working for the USDA National Organic Program between 1999 and 2002 Mark helped draft the national organic standards for crop and livestock production. He spent two more years with the USDA Marketing Services Branch working to develop and promote farmers markets. Mark also worked for the NOP in 2010. An inveterate believer that naturally raised and locally distributed food offers the best opportunity for human health and planetary survival, Mark lives in the Kentucky Bluegrass with his wife and their daughter.