At the 5th Cooking for Solutions held recently at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, CA Pamela Ronald addressed genetically engineered (GE) crops from a positive viewpoint. According to Marion Nestle, nutritionist and author, 90% of soybeans, cotton, corn and sugar beets grown in the US are from GE seeds. Nestle also spoke at the event about a number of nutrition related topics. In contrast many environmentalists and scientists see GE seeds, also known as genetically modified, as a threat to biodiversity and too costly for third world farmers. Any product labeled organic cannot be grown from genetically engineered seeds. GE labeling laws differ from country to country, although no special labels are required in the US.
Ms. Ronald gave examples of how GE crops have solved problems in locations as diverse as Hawaii, Bangladesh and China.
Papaya in Hawaii became infected with the papaya ringspot virus. Farmers moved production to different islands but the virus did too. “By 1995 production plummeted,” said Ronald. Hawaiian native and food scientist Dennis Gonzalves, took a mild form of the virus and was eventually able to successfully splice it into the papaya, making it resistant to the virus. “The engineered papaya is healthy and 80 to 90% of Hawaiian papaya growing currently is GE,” Ronald said.
Cotton grown in Arizona and China were infected with cotton bollworm. “Twenty-five insecticides are needed to control the pest,” she explained. So genetically engineered cotton was developed and is now grown in both regions. She reported that Bt cotton is still disease resistant after 10 years in production. BT cotton carries a protein called Bt, an insecticide. “In Arizona Bt cotton produced the same yield with half the insecticides,” Ronald reported. Reducing pesticide is desirable for at least a couple of reasons. “Pesticide poisoning kills 300,000 farmworkers every year. We hear little about that,” she shared. “Pesticide and fertilizer run-off alters coastal ecosystems and the loss of oxygen kills fish and other sea life,” she added.
In eastern India and Bangladesh flooding is a problem for rice growers. “If rice is completely submerged for 3 days or more it will die,” she noted. Four million tons of rice are lost each year to flooding. A gene was inserted from another type of rice with an unpleasant taste but flood survivability. The use of the GE rice in these areas increased harvests enough to allow women to sell their extra rice.
Ronald listed some sobering projections. “By the year 2050 the number of people will increase from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion.” It will simply be a necessity to grow more food on existing land and water. Her belief based on her experience is GE food will be essential to feeding everyone in the future but it must be done with ecologically sound farming systems.
Her definition of sustainable agricultural contained three pillars: environmental, social and economic. Environmental concerns include genetic diversity, reduction of energy and harmful inputs and faster soil fertility. The primary social concern is affordable nutrition for people. Economic viability is the third requirement for a technique, seed or crop to be sustainable.
Ms. Ronald believes that crop rotation and the use of cover crops practiced by organic farmers is a great step forward and could be practiced by conventional farmers to everyone’s benefit. She also pointed out that GE is not a simple solution. “It’s still a management question. You can’t simply plant one crop and rest.”
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