domingo, septiembre 30, 2012

A Less Thirsty Future Through Engineered Crops?

A Less Thirsty Future Through Engineered Crops?

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An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal sees a bright future for crops engineered for drought tolerance, water use efficiency, and other useful traits. The author, R. Paul Thompson, criticizes our recent report, “High and Dry,” for expressing too little faith in the ability of science and technology to make good on its unmet promises about genetic engineering.
The basic point of the article is that new technologies typically start slow, but get more effective and less expensive as they mature,  so we should expect GE to get cheaper and more effective too.

Corn plant in drought-cracked soil. Copyright
New Improved Biotech?
Clearly technologies can advance, and the author provides a few cases in point. But technologies do not always significantly improve or become much cheaper. The backers of nuclear power claimed it would become “too cheap to meter” after it was rolled out more than half a century ago. Nuclear power is still expensive, and still faces big technological hurdles such as the disposal of nuclear waste. And after Fukushima, we are less sanguine about its safety as well.
Technologies may face challenges that ultimately do not find adequate solutions, for technical, social, or economic reasons. Thompson implies that UCS considered only current aspects of GE drought tolerant crops without understanding that they may improve over time. In fact, we did analyze the prospects of GE drought tolerance for coming years.
Thompson ignores the part of our report that examines why the technology faces significant challenges in addressing drought. These include unanswered questions about complex and unpredictable interactions of engineered genes with the rest of the workings of the crop that may result in undesirable tradeoffs in crop properties.
An important reason for considering the current state of genetically engineered drought tolerance, and its prospects, is to inform our investments in agricultural science to improve our ability to confront the challenges that Thompson and others have noted. Should those investments be based on our best information regarding what works, as we contend, or on the hope that we will find ways to make GE substantially cheaper and more effective?
And the truth is, we can make major headway toward answering agriculture’s challenges now–we don’t need to hold our breaths to see if GE will improve! We already have multiple ways to substantially address Thompson’s agricultural challenges, but we are not implementing them widely, or adequately supporting research to improve them.
Conventional breeding is already producing numerous drought tolerant crops, as noted in “High and Dry”. There is also substantial evidence from recent genetics studies to suggest that conventional breeding can continue to produce big improvements in drought tolerance and other traits, which is also discussed in the report. And there are clear benefits from ecologically-based farming systems that employ practices like long crop rotations (alternating crops from year to year) and the addition and recycling of nutrients and organic matter in the form of manure, mulches, and cover crops.
For example, Thompson wants to blunt the damaging effect of fertilizers and pesticides on the environment. But we already know that cover crops can typically reduce nitrogen fertilizer pollution by 40 to 70 percent, reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizers, enrich the soil, and maintain or increase crop productivity. Cover crops are not widely used today due to misplaced policies like insurance penalties, and lack of research and infrastructure to make them more farmer-friendly. Other ecologically based farming methods can provide similar benefits.
The typical refrain from some promoters of GE is that we need all of these methods of meeting our agricultural challenges. That remains an assertion that has never been demonstrated, because there are probably several paths to achieving food security that include conventional breeding, agroecology, reducing food waste, empowerment of poor farmers (especially women), and more judicious consumption of meat, which is an inefficient source of protein and calories.
And Thompson never mentions that producing enough food alone won’t ensure that everyone is well fed, as the billion people who have too little food now demonstrates. It is not enough to understand the safety and efficacy of a technology, as Thompson contends, we also need to understand whether it may be compatible with justice and fairness.
One could argue that prudence suggests that every technology should be aggressively pursued unless there are compelling safety reasons to the contrary. In a world without substantial resource constraints, that might be the case. But in the real world of limited resources, we need to make informed choices. Our reports, and major reports like the IAASTD, are part of a growing body of evidence that supports an emphasis on agroecology, other agronomic and infrastructure improvements (e.g. more efficient irrigation and reducing waste) and conventional breeding, not GE.

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