The New York Times article, Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops rightly argues that herbicide resistant GMOs haven’t reduced the use of chemicals on the farm. But by equating genetic modification with herbicide resistant plants, this article is misleading. Many of us agree there are problems with herbicide resistant plants, and that misuse, overuse and eventually resistance in weeds has put users on a toxic herbicide treadmill.
But GMO technology isn’t just about herbicide resistance. It can also be deployed to reduce pesticide use and, there are new ways to engineer plants and animals that don’t mix and match genetic material from vastly different species. Take potatoes engineered to resist one of the most destructive potato pathogens, late blight, the disease that devastated Irish potato crops and kicked off the Great Famine. When blight strikes it can destroy crops so rapidly that growers often use multiple applications (sometimes more than a dozen a season) of toxic fungicides to prevent disease. A decade ago 2000 tons of fungicide were applied to potato crops just here in the states. In turn, blight has evolved to resist many of those pesticides. For such an aggressive disease, genetic engineering may be one of the few options for growers wishing to reduce their use of toxic chemicals. In this case rather than inserting genes from a totally foreign species, one approach is to insert disease resistance genes from a more resilient relative.
The potatoes recently engineered by scientists at The Wageningen University Research in the Netherlands for example are, they say, indistinguishable from the potatoes we love to bake and fry. Why use engineering when a grower might breed for resistance, an ages old practice? One reason is speed. Engineering enabled the production of a disease resistant crop in three years rather than three decades. And unlike transgenics like Roundup Ready and Bt crops which introduce foreign genes onto an unfamiliar “genetic landscape” of the target species – the GMO that everybody loves to hate – these so-called cisgenic potatoes introduce new traits into familiar territory, reducing concerns for unintended consequences. Additionally, Wageningen University Research retains the intellectual property and offers non-exclusive licenses to parties interested in working with the genes or resistant plants in an effort to thwart corporate control. The cisgenic process along with other techniques like gene editing are providing opportunities for genetic engineering that call for reevaluation. Genetic engineering is a technology, not a product.
Below: an image from the Hartsfield-Jackson airport. Couldn’t resist, check it out next time you’re there.