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Agbiotech not without consequences

Posted 27/07/2010 by RoseS

I first read Rachel Carson’s Silent spring as a student more than 20 years ago. Reading an interview with biofuels expert Bruce Dale of Michigan State University this week, I was reminded of how pertinent some of Carson’s warnings about the state of the planet and our role in shaping the landscape still are today.

In the interview for the European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology (EFIB), Dale comments that the main challenge ahead for the biotechnology industry will be: ‘To lead the way in showing how we can improve both food and fuel and achieve large energy and environmental security improvements in the process.’ He also remarks that: ‘Large scale biofuels will happen sooner than most people realise.’

Carson’s Silent spring was first published in 1962. The villain of the piece was ‘toxic’ agrochemicals, which Carson blamed for killing natural wildlife and putting in jeopardy human health. This time around, the transformation in the world’s farming landscape – driven as much by the need to ramp up food productivity as to produce greener modes of energy for transportation – is expected to be effected using fewer chemicals. The mantra is that farmers will need to ‘do more with less.’

Instead of inputting more chemicals, farmers will be required to divert resources to growing newly developed and faster growing, ever more efficient crops. Tall and resilient species like switchgrass and miscanthus, capable of thriving often even on soils where previously little else might have been expected to survive. GM crops, despite the widespread opposition in the UK and elsewhere, will inevitably play an equally large part in this impending agricultural revolution. Indeed, they are already helping to reduce the chemical inputs that Carson argued so eloquently against.

Biotechnologists argue that they are merely speeding up the natural processes that plant breeders have used for centuries to grow new and improved varieties of crops. New precision genetic engineering technologies are expected to see this process accelerated even faster, as researchers have already begun to create new plant varieties with so-called ‘stacked’ or multiple genetic traits.

The full consequences of all these planned changes in our natural environment, however, have yet to be fully worked out. This week, scientists in the US claim to have discovered the first evidence of established populations of genetically modified plants in the wild. Transects of land along 5400km of roads in North Dakota were found to support varieties of canola, some of them with multiple genetic traits that have not yet been released commercially – ‘a finding that suggests that feral populations are reproducing and have become established outside of cultivation,’ according to one of the study co-authors.

The world’s farmers today need biotechnology to deliver the necessary agricultural productivity gains just as much as they relied on chemicals in the past. But nor will biotechnology be without consequences.

Cath O’Driscoll – Deputy Editor

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