By Tom Still
MADISON – Biofuels such as ethanol are in vogue these days, thanks to record oil prices and the gnawing realization that our national security would be enhanced by producing more energy at home. While the debate continues on how best to unlock the energy potential of crops such as corn, a quiet revolution is well under way in a related field – genetically engineered crops.
The first Green Revolution passed by many of those farmers. It was dependent on farming practices that required significant upfront investments – irrigation systems, machinery, fuel, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. By and large, that was beyond the reach of the average farmer scratching out a living in sub-Saharan Africa, or even the delta country of Mississippi.
“The New Green Revolution” isn’t capital intensive, but knowledge-intensive. The advances being made today due to biotechnology and genetic engineering are incorporated in the crop seed, which makes it possible for all farmers to reap the benefits.
In a sense, this isn’t new. People have been genetically engineering plants and animals for thousands of years, usually by trial and error, in a search for better crops and herds. Only since Gregor Mendel made a study of peas in the 1800s has science taken some of the chance, and time, out of the process. But the goals are pretty much the same as they have always been: Higher yields; resistance to diseases caused by fungi, bacteria and viruses; the ability to withstand hot summers, drought and short growing seasons; and resistance to pests and weeds, Biotechnology does that by tapping into natural defense systems within plants, thus triggering mechanisms that allow plants to better protect themselves. It can also produce biopesticides, such as microorganisms and fatty acid compounds, that are toxic to targeted pests by harmless to humans, animals, fish, birds or beneficial insects.
There are several criticisms of biotech agriculture so far. First, most of the progress has involved feed corn, soybeans, cotton and canola rather than crops, such as rice, that are widely consumed in developing countries. About 250 million farmers grow rice and it’s a staple for 1.3 billion people. Iran and China appear closest to commercializing biotech rice, but more innovation is needed to fulfill the promise of feeding the world’s hungry.
There are enduring concerns about oversight. A recent internal audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that regulation of field trials of biotech crops has been inadequate, although 23 of 28 specific recommendations were quickly adopted by the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Still, the United States isn’t the only nation regulating such crops, which have gained growing acceptance in the European Union and beyond. Farmers around the world are reporting results, even as regulators keep a closer watch.
Biotech crops are fueling “The New Green Revolution.” With the right mix of innovation and oversight, it will continue to fulfill expectations – and fill empty stomachs.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.