Science supersizes crops

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A new “supercorn” with eight genetic modifications that make it even more highly resistant to insects and weed killers than earlier versions is just one of the agricultural developments Americans will see over the next several years as scientific advances enable technicians to customize crop plants with stacks of genes, biotechnology expert Clive James said.

Mr. James stressed the need for genetically modified crops to help farmers grow more food on fewer acres as the world is running out of land and water while the population is expected to climb to 9 billion by 2015.

“In the next 50 years, the global population will consume twice as much food as the global population has consumed since the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago,” Mr. James, chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, told reporters and editors Wednesday at The Washington Times. “You have a choice: You can think of it as a problem, or we think of it as an opportunity.”

Twelve million farmers in 23 countries are now using crops that have been enhanced with additional genes to achieve benefits such as resistance to pests and viruses, according to 2007 data from ISAAA, a nonprofit focused on spreading biotechnology to alleviate hunger and poverty in developing countries. Meanwhile, biotech crop area grew last year by 12 percent to about 285 million acres.

The U.S. is the world’s largest user of biotech crops, with about 80 percent of processed food including genetically modified soybeans or corn, Mr. James said. Ten other industrialized nations and 12 developing countries use the technology, which was commercialized in 1996.

In India, farmers who used Bt cotton — cotton that has been combined with a bacteria found in soil to resist insects — increased their crop yields by up to 50 percent and income by up to $625 per acre, Mr. James said, citing ISAAA data. They also saw environmental benefits, using 45 percent less pesticide, he added.

“Is the food from these crops as safe as conventional food? The answer is yes, and in some cases, safer,” he said.

Not everyone supports the technology, however. Some environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth oppose genetically modified crops, arguing they are unsafe or could have unforeseen consequences in the future. While Mr. James said his organization is “pro-choice” — biotech crops should not be forced on anyone — he was critical of groups he said were not being constructive.

“If you go to Greenpeace and say, OK, how are you going to feed the world, they say that’s not our business,” he said. “The activists have taken it upon themselves to make a decision on behalf of [farmers who have used the crops], which they shouldn’t be doing. Let’s ask these people.”

Mr. James said much of the opposition to biotech crops stems from a lack of understanding.

“Man doesn’t handle change very well. I think what you’ve seen is a society dealing with a new science and trying to get hold of it,” he said, likening the experience to initial opposition to pasteurized milk.

Ceding that biotechnology is not a “golden bullet,” Mr. James nevertheless stressed higher incomes and crop yields as undeniable benefits that result in a better quality of life for poor farmers, who are able spend more time with their families and less time in the fields plowing.

He was also optimistic about the spread of the technology to countries whose governments have been slow to support it, citing Korean approval of biotech crops and a strong endorsement from David King, an influential English scientist.

“For those not using this technology, the greatest risk associated with this technology is not using it,” Mr. James said, adding that countries who wait will only fall further behind as crops with multiple genes — thus multiple benefits — are introduced. “What you see today is the very, very small tip of the iceberg.”

About the Author
Kara Rowland

Kara Rowland

Kara Rowland, White House reporter for The Washington Times, is a D.C.-area native. She graduated from the University of Virginia, where she studied American government and spent nearly all her waking hours working as managing editor of the Cavalier Daily, UVa.’s student newspaper.

Her interest in political reporting was piqued by an internship at Roll Call the summer before her ...

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