What is the meaning and significance of the agricultural biotechnology debate?

Our first assignment in the Debating Science program was to write about “What is the meaning and significance of the agricultural biotechnology debate?” I chose to investigate the controversy and possible ways to move past it. Let me know what you think.

Agricultural biotechnology could encourage so-called factory farming, with its attendant use of chemicals and monoculture, destroying nature beyond the point of recovery. Or, agricultural biotechnology could help lessen the environmental impacts of farming, helping us to feed, fuel, and clothe a growing population while maintaining or even improving the natural world. These opposing scenarios, with their attending cries of horror and exclamations of success, have been the basis for the debate over agricultural biotechnology. The opponents and proponents of agricultural biotechnology are both right, this issue is of grave importance for humanity.

Both sides of the debate can agree that food security is going to be one of the most important issues in the twenty first century. Global population is expected to reach seven billion in 2012, with more than one third of that in the developing world. These areas already see overwhelming hunger and malnutrition, and increasing population will only exacerbate the problem. Allowing this to continue is ethically unacceptable to most people.

In the past, improvements in agriculture, such as the Green Revolution, have increased crop yields enough to keep pace with population, but that may no longer be possible. Many of the techniques used to improve yields have proved to be environmentally unsound. For example, producing synthetic fertilizers releases greenhouse gases and uses fossil fuels. Runoff of excess nitrogen wreaks havoc in river and ocean ecosystems downstream. Producing equivalent yields without synthetic nitrogen is possible, but requires a lot of technical know how to rotate crops and use other methods specific to the soil and conditions in each area. Pesticides have been used to deter insects from consuming the crops and to keep weeds from using up the water and nutrients needed by the crops. Many of these pesticides are damaging to the environment and human health. As with fertilizer, there are non-chemical alternatives, but these methods can be labor intensive and expensive.

Agricultural biotechnology, in the form of genetic engineering, marker assisted selection, and others, can help to bridge the yield gap without the use of additional chemicals. Researchers are developing crops that have enhanced ability to uptake more of the available nitrogen and to use that nitrogen more effectively. Other crops are drought tolerant, flood tolerant, and disease resistant. These developments will be increasingly important as climate change makes weather patterns less predictable and warmer temperatures causes diseases to be more persistent and wide spread. Insect resistant crops containing different varieties of an insecticidal toxin called Bt from bacteria have been on the market from 1995, allowing farmers to reduce insect damage without pesticide sprays. All of these genetically engineered crops have been shown again and again by independent researchers to be safe and effective. Crops that have enhanced nutritional qualities could improve the health of billions of people. Crops engineered to produce pharmaceutical compounds such as vaccines or industrial compounds such as starch could provide a much needed source of revenue to farmers.

One of the biggest problems in the debate is that opponents want to group the diverse products of agricultural biotechnology in the same category, treating them equally. This assessment belies the huge variety of cultural, ethical, environmental, and safety issues presented by the different crops. Each distinct type of genetically engineered food, each individual genetic change, must be considered separately. Some types of GM crops encourage the farming of monocultures on large farms. Others are scale neutral, equally benefiting farmers large and small. Some types of GM crops produce compounds that are inherently food safe, like vitamins and plant oils. Others produce compounds that could be harmful to humans or the environment if allowed to mix with natural plant populations.

Sadly, the dichotomy of views has prevented any real deliberation on the subject. This has resulted in a combative climate where no one is working to achieve the best possible outcome for all. Misinformation and confusion, often encouraged by opponents of agricultural biotechnology, has caused rampant fear in the regions that most need it. Activists have destroyed research that would help determine the safety of the very crops they fear. Corporations looking to protect their interests and increase profits have looked the other way when their products are not used as directed. Governments have ignored the socio-economic implications of patent protected seed.

Instead of debating the science, opponents should cooperate with proponents to solve these very real problems of farming in the twenty first century. Proponents need to listen to the concerns of opponents and make sure that they are addressed. We need to put aside past mistakes once and for all and work to improve the lives of the millions of people who are literally dying in our inaction.