Genetic Tinkering Sparks Battles. (Food Fight: Family Farms)

By Heffern, Rich | National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

Genetic Tinkering Sparks Battles. (Food Fight: Family Farms)


Heffern, Rich, National Catholic Reporter


The use of new biotechnology in agriculture and the processing of genetically modified crops into food have become a major health and environmental issue in Europe and the United States. Opinion is divided between those who believe the new technology will enhance our living and help feed the world's growing population and those who fear it will prove to be, like some other scientific/technological endeavors, an advance that goes too far.

The history of farming is a story of technologies. Virgin soil was first broken by horse-drawn plows. Later the invention of tractors encouraged specialization in crops. The crop rotation that was a common practice on small family farms worldwide yielded to monoculture--the cultivation of a single crop farm-wide. Heavy tractors compress the soil, making it difficult for plants to reach underground moisture, so more and more fertilizer is needed, which brings on more weeds. Farming became a never-ending battle against weeds, with accompanying high soil erosion.

As a result, about 25 years ago the practice of "no-till" farming was introduced. Seed is drilled in narrow rows without disturbing the soil, which lies protected under last year's stubble. With this practice, erosion is halted but weeds become more of a problem with greater need to apply chemical herbicides. Weeds become resistant, and increasing amounts and stronger varieties of chemicals must be used. A new solution was needed again.

It came in the form of genetically modified crops, which can withstand the heaviest application of herbicides. Through techniques of molecular biology, crops are engineered to be resistant to herbicides, also to be drought and cold tolerant and pest resistant. Soybeans, corn and cotton are the most frequently grown GM crops. It is estimated now that 60 to 70 percent of processed foods in the United States, such as cereal, soup, flour and infant formula, contain genetically modified ingredients.

Critics of these techniques include the Vatican and Britain's Prince Charles. Concern centers on the unknown effects on human health and on environmental consequences and unintended consequences to other life.

A key worry is that crops engineered for herbicide tolerance will crossbreed with weeds, resulting in the transfer of the herbicide-resistant genes from the crops into the weeds. These "superweeds" would then be herbicide tolerant as well. Also other introduced genes may cross over into non-modified crops planted next to genetically modified crops.

Not a magic bullet

Proponents say biotechnology in agriculture is the way to restore our farmlands, which have become "sick" places because of modern, intensive farming methods and heavy use of chemicals. At the same time, the results will be higher yields, reducing pressure on remaining uncultivated habitats, promoting wilderness preservation. Others say that genetically modified crops will only exacerbate the problem. The jury is still out.

"Bio-tech is not a magic bullet," Gary Barton, spokes-person for the St. Louis, Mo.-based Monsanto Corporation, a pioneer in agriculture biotechnology, told NCR, "but it is a key tool, especially in Third World countries now, for feeding hungry people. …

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