Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Genetic Engineering of Pest-Resistant Plants Faces Public Resistance

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Genetic Engineering of Pest-Resistant Plants Faces Public Resistance

Article excerpt

Plant biologists have a message for crop pests. Their science is ready for takeoff in using genetic engineering to enhance crop plants' natural defenses. But the pests, in effect, have an answer. They developed biological resistance to cope with chemical pesticides. Now they can rely on human social resistance to genetic engineering to blunt the scientists' efforts.

What R. James Cook of the US Agricultural Research Service at Washington State University in Pullman calls "the current information explosion in the biological sciences" has brought pest management with genes, rather than chemicals, to a historic turning point. Plant breeders have used such management for a century. They developed pest-resistant crops by cross-breeding among related varieties or between a crop plant and wild relatives. This moved desirable genes into the crop plant. Now they can read the genetic blueprint for a plant's natural defenses directly in the plant's DNA. They now are learning how to manipulate the genetic instructions to make those defenses more formidable.

This is the new science of pest management using transgenes - that is, using transformed plant genes or even genes from unrelated species. It promises to extend the development of pest resistance as far beyond traditional breeding as modern breeding techniques have progressed beyond medieval agriculture. Yet as Dr. Cook told a symposium during the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Philadelphia in February, "{the} question of social acceptance of pest management with transgenes ... remains a deterrent to plant biotechnology...." This seems irrational to many plant scientists. They cite statements by the National Academy of Sciences and by 11 scientific societies that insist there is no scientific difference between plants transformed by traditional methods and those transformed by transgene engineering. The issues of safety and acceptability should be decided on a plant by plant basis, not by the method that produced the new plant, these organizations say. …

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