Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Biotechnology II

OK, so last week you chose a agricultural crop that is produced using biotechnology. Take some time to read about the crops others wrote about. Get a general feeling for the types and volumes of crops where biotech is used. What are your thoughts around the use of biotechnology for food production? What are the positives (society, production & environment) as well as the downside? Make sure you do the reading for this week before blogging! :)

A discussion this morning with a local organic veggie producer wound around to the topic of biotech and genetically modified (GM) crops. GM crops are not allowed in organic production, and are generally against the grain of most ecologically minded growers. Most of these growers would probably style themselves as agroecologists, if they know the term, and are against most of the methodology of the Green Revolution.

Agroecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design, development, and management of sustainable agricultural systems. With this definition, cropland is viewed as an ecosystem first, rather than an economic or industrial model. Crop rotation, selecting appropriate crops/varieties, composting, using little or no pesticides and creating refuges for beneficial insects are all tools for good ecosystem management when producing crops.

Therefore the questions beg to be asked: what happens when you genetically alter the traditional organisms within the ecosystem? What happens when you destroy portions of the system with soil degradation, loss of soil biology, salinization, and further pollute and kill other organisms through the use of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides?

However, with gene mapping, it doesn't seem unreasonable to speed up natural plant breeding techniques to use existing modifications across closely related species. You could theoretically create those crosses through breeding trials (and error), looking for the ideal mutation or cross. My friend even thought that using biotech methods to produce these GM crops is one of the best uses of biotechnology. However, she was very clear that she drew the line at introducing radically different species genes into our food. For example, fish DNA into tomatoes, or Bt into cotton or corn.

In the past weeks we have been discussing the merits and deficits of the Green Revolution (GR), and how does GM fit into the future of food production. In a policy brief published by Food First, they list ten reasons why trying to introduce the GR again in Africa will not produce any better results the second time. Most of the reasons have to do with the issues around the the components that made the GR successful where it was successful. Industrial-style agriculture, expensive technology packages, increased use of fertilizers and pesticides increased and/or exacerbated existing health, environmental and economic consequences in more marginal areas, and did not increase the ability of poor people to grow or buy more food.

At the same time, promoters of organic and sustainable farming practices are producing studies showing that agroecology practices can produce similar amounts of food as conventional, industrial style ag using GM crops. The key difference is the management of the underlying land use. The practices previously mentioned may take more time, but leave the soil in at least a similar, or possibly improved, condition from season to season and can be practiced in most rural and marginal regions. It has marginal production costs, can be accessed by the poor, and has environmental benefits. An evaluation using these principles for rice production is summarized in a Cornell University paper.

Well, I'm slightly off-topic or not, depending on your point of view... To summarize, yes labeling and accountability is important. So is choosing what and how to tinker with the genetic material of other organisms. Is relying on biotech and a Gene Revolution in addition to a Green Revolution the whole answer? No!

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