Biotech on the Farm: Realizing the Promise; Genetic Engineering Can Help Farmers Feed Future Populations, but the Public Remains Concerned about GM Crops. to Ensure Safety and Reassure the Public, an Agricultural Expert Calls for the Creation of a Genetic Science Commission

Article excerpt

The promise of genetic engineering to conquer world hunger has not yet been realized. Researchers have produced genetically modified (GM) crops that are useful and interesting, but where are the high-yielding new varieties that were supposed to feed the masses? An element of fear has also crept into public consideration of genetic engineering's future. In the public's mind, genetic engineering's risks still outweigh its benefits--at least so far.

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In this time of environmental crisis, genetic engineering and other new technologies should be examined for possible flaws that indicate they might be environmentally hazardous or disruptive. On an ecological balance sheet, genetic engineering should be credited with both assets and liabilities. Consider these hits and misses in biotechnology's history:

* Toxic-waste cleanup -- a hit (potentially): Genetic engineering is now addressing the problem of toxic waste site cleanups by, for instance, modifying the genes of chemical-eating bacteria in order to improve their ability to detoxify waste. With many GM bacteria at work, a toxic site might be cleaned up less expensively than by using conventional treatments. Of course, field tests must be monitored carefully to detect unforeseen problems. The GM bacteria may be shown to be excellent performers, but it is also possible that natural bacteria may have the edge over their modified brethren.

* Nitrogen fixing -- a miss: Finding a way to use nitrogen-fixing bacteria more extensively has been a dream shared by many biologists. The bacteria colonize near the roots of alfalfa and other legume plants, and they provide their hosts with nitrogen obtained from the air. Corn, wheat, and other crops that do not have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria require applications of nitrogen fertilizer. Using genetic engineering, scientists tried to develop nitrogen-fixing bacteria that would live contentedly with non-legume host plants. Some experimental trials in the laboratory were somewhat promising, but field trials failed. The research was discontinued.

* Safer pest control -- hits and misses: Insecticides used to protect field crops are expensive and environmentally hazardous. Geneticists have succeeded in helping plants produce their own insect-killing toxin. From the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, they obtained a toxic gene, which they cloned and then transferred to plants. Cotton and corn genetically engineered with the Bt toxin genes are able to produce their own insecticide.

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On the negative side, there are still unanswered questions regarding the Bt experiment. Butterflies feeding on corn pollen have been killed by the Bt toxin, and other beneficial insects may be harmed. Also, if some target insects become resistant to the toxin, they will survive and breed new strains of hard-to-kill pests. Only time will tell if the Bt experiment was a success.

* Higher-yield crops -- raising concerns. The GM crops most popular with growers--corn, soybeans, and cotton--are high-yielding and possess other good qualities. For peak performance, GM crops require heavy applications of synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, and weed killers--chemicals that can damage the environment.

But farmers who want to help save the environment are disappointed by present-day GM crops, because they believe the crops' dependence on chemical treatments is a serious deficiency. Also of concern to environmentalists is GM crops' limited genetic diversity. …