STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — If there was ever a “college consensus” on the use of gene-splicing technology on field crops, it’s this: We don’t understand enough to put the technologies to use.
The interactions between fields with pollen and insects, the interactions between cultivars, and the potential of a “Challenger” moment all linger in front of us, according to several who spoke Feb. 4 during a Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) Farming for the Future Conference at Penn State.
The forum, “Let’s Talk About GMOs,” drew several dozen growers and agri-industry representative at the Penn Stater Conference Center in State College, Pa.
“We can’t throw these technologies out there and walk away from them,” said Dr. Shelby Fleischer, Penn State professor of entomology. “We have to pay attention to interactions with cultivars.”
Fleischer noted that Bt field corn reached its peak at 32,000 acres in the U.S. in 1999. Bt corn is genetically modified to contain a protein that kills European Corn Borer larvae — but is harmless to animals and humans.
Bt potatoes were grown in the mid-1990s, reaching their peak in 1996, until processors realized there was too much market risk from the GMO-modified potato plant and stopped buying from Bt producers, according to Fleischer.
Sales of Bt potatoes essentially stopped completely in 2001.
Fleischer said his studies are not heavily influenced or funded from large corporations — only 3 percent of his funding is used to field chemical company tests.
But Bt technology has proven beneficial in a wide variety of ways to organic growers because of the elimination of a great deal of insects in the fields.
In fact, the benefits have equaled $6.8 billion, benefiting up to 68 percent of the organic production on non-Bt fields. The key is to maintain a lot of resistance management and use fields that will help control resistance.
Fleischer noted that, unfortunately, the abstinence of GMOs in today’s agriculture is “unsustainable and counterproductive.”
Andrew Kimbrell, attorney, activist and author, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, Washington, D.C., noted that virtually “unregulated” technology has been allowed to be planted and sold to the American farmer in full by larger companies who have been able to lobby their way in Washington.
But planting herbicide-tolerant crops (93 percent of soybeans planted are herbicide-resistant varieties) without looking into potential for dangerous “superweed” formation is “the opposite of sustainable,” said Kimbrell.
“It’s irrational. It’s incoherent.”
Dave Mortensen, Penn State professor of weed ecology and biology, is concerned about “packaging,” or creating a system in which a farmer is dependent on a company producing both the herbicide-resistant plant seed and the herbicide needed to be used with the “package.”
Some opponents believed at the turn of the century that the idea of “packaged” genetics would “never fly,” said Mortensen. “There would be tremendous opposition to it.”
Instead, 93 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn planted are in herbicide-resistant packaging category. Growers have adopted the packaging without looking for pest and weed resistance — allowing the expression of potential “superweeds.”
Now in development: 2,4-D and Dicamba-resistant plants.
Mortensen said more studies of what happens between fields, from the moment of pollination through to insect and herbicide interactions, are needed.
“We need to know a lot more about this before moving ahead and allowing use of these new technologies,” he said.