Guest Commentary: Don’t back away from biotechnology

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As we might have expected, the introduction of biotechnology products has had its ups and downs.

Until now, most of the traits added through genetic modification make the crop easier to produce by conferring resistance to particular herbicides or by building in specific insecticides.

Modifications of grain crops to directly improve output traits, such as quality or nutritional content, have not been commercialized. Thus, primary beneficiaries of biotechnology seem to be the companies that sell the technology to producers, and, to a lesser extent, producers themselves.

Where’s the benefit?

Consumers have consistently said that they would accept GM foods if that means an improvement in quality. There have been few such quality improvements for consumers to accept.

Instead, the Bt protein in StarLink corn hybrids has shown up in food products, even though it is not approved for food use.

It was no mystery how this protein ended up there: Producers were not adequately instructed to keep it out of food processing, there was cross-pollination and seed contamination, and the offending protein was an easy target for those who wanted to discredit biotechnology.

Can’t run and hide.

In the face of some real damage to the reputation of the United States as a reliable producer of top-quality corn for export, there has developed what I see as a disturbing tendency by both company and public officials to run for cover, trying to remove from the production stream all GM crops not approved by all major export markets.

This impulse is understandable: We want to rebuild among our customers faith in our ability to deliver a good product. But is this really the time to let the “we were wrong, we’re sorry, we won’t do it again” mentality break through the dikes?

Despite the hype, what we’ve seen so far in GM crops is hardly a “revolution.” We have some pest control options that we didn’t have before, and some of these allow us to use less pesticide, or to use pesticides that are more environmentally friendly. We also have improved corn quality due to less insect damage.

But it’s clear that the technology isn’t all that indispensable.

The very fact that GM products represent rather minor departures from traditional hybrids provided the opportunity to be neutral and to try to present concepts like risk, etc. in a way to promote thinking among the public, if not actual bias-breaking.

From my vantage point, at least, companies that have products that require special handling and market channeling have for the most part been very careful to assure that farmers who produce these hybrids have a place to sell them. Now, with no evidence that this hasn’t worked in most cases, come the appeals to stop selling such seed altogether.

From a short-term financial standpoint, since such hybrids do not represent large segments of the seed business, a number of companies have found it relatively easy to stop selling them. Some companies have already taken this action voluntarily, withdrawing from the market seed of hybrids unapproved for export to the European Union.

What message.

While the action by companies to remove such seed from the market is understandable, what are we saying if we remove all such hybrids from the market?

If we admit that we are unable to separate (identity-preserve) crops, that’s a blow from both a positive and negative standpoint – we can’t keep “bad” things out and we can’t assure that “good” things will be there either in an “identity-preserved” future.

Lost in all this is the fact that the failure by the EU to approve such corn still has no rational basis; the “unapproved” genes are almost certainly innocuous.

If we knuckle under and withdraw all unapproved genetics, I think we will be sending a number of unhealthy messages: 1) these crops could actually be dangerous; 2) our best efforts to separate crops may not be successful; 3) the technology isn’t all that indispensable, now and in the future; and 4) pursuing this technology may have been a large and costly mistake.

While farmers may have “voted” that they don’t absolutely have to have these current GM technologies, are we willing to send those messages?

It’s not our job to ride to the rescue of biotech companies, but I am uncomfortable with the willingness to run for cover at this point, thereby giving up the ground of consumer acceptance of safe, sound products.

Conceding that irrational and unfounded arguments can stop biotech products from coming on the market is an admission of defeat by all of us, as I see it.

We cannot afford to throw away the real potential of biotech – things like true drought tolerance, yield genes, and other wonders we haven’t even imagined – because of some serious, but ultimately inconsequential “growing pains” as we move toward an identity-preserved future.

(The author is a crop production specialist with University of Illinois Extension.)

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