The road leading to the future of genetic modification in agriculture is rife with potholes, blind corners and off-ramps.
Plant genetics is an area that presents multiple challenges to researchers, companies, farmers and consumers. It is complicated by a variety of factors, including profitability, environmental opposition and public perception.
“It’s not an easy field to work in because you really have to do a lot of guessing and a lot of politics to determine where you direct your efforts,” said Ruth MacDonald, chair of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at Iowa State University. “I don’t think there’s any doubt in the scientific community that the technology is very effective and has great potential. There is very low risk to human health and environmental health. It’s not a concern to the scientific community.”
External pressures are affecting GMO research. Many environmental groups are vocal about opposition to genetically modified plants. The legal and regulatory system also play a role, including lawsuits regarding the use of Roundup and problems with dicamba damage to conventional crops.
“It’s not an agronomic decision. It’s going to be determined partly by lawsuits,” said Bryan Young, a weed scientist at Purdue University. Some companies have plans for stacked traits to be ready by mid-decade.
“But how much do you invest in that right now? Bayer has a lot invested in dicamba, so I think they’re going to bend over backward to make sure they have a label they can defend with the EPA, even if it’s just pre-plant use.”
Bayer officials were unable to provide comments as of press time.
Not all scientists are in agreement about the value of genetically modified plants. One professor at a Midwestern university believes research should be focused elsewhere.
“I only work with non-GMO lines,” said the professor, who did not want to be identified. “Not because I am against biotechnology, but mainly due to the environmental impact of the highly toxic chemicals that are used during the cultivation period as well as the unfair and expensive access to seeds.”
Early GMO research focused on weed and disease management on major cash crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton. But efforts to come up with other traits are under way.
“There are so many ways it can go. Researchers are looking at climate change and trying to understand how to address crop production during changing climate,” MacDonald said. “That’s a big focus: improving quality of food supply, enriching nutritional value and increasing quality of plants as far as their ability to produce nutritional foods.”
Issues related to global food production are getting more attention today.
“Researchers are looking at drought resistance, heat and changes in climate related to wetter climates as well,” MacDonald said. “We’re seeing places where there is more water. It’s not just drought, but extreme weather of all kinds.”
Aside from the use of GMO crops in large-scale agriculture, the technology also benefits those in Third World nations.
“There are developing countries that are growing genetically engineered crops, and there are significant benefits to those farmers,” said Greg Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Clearly this is a technology that can be used in those countries for producing food. On the whole, the technology is in the seed, in the plant material, so many of these traits are scale-neutral. You can use it on a thousand-acre farm in the Midwest or a one-hectare farm in sub-Saharan Africa.”
MacDonald said many consumers do not understand “the whole picture” of what the technology can do, including reducing the amount of pesticides and fertilizer used in agriculture.
“It’s a very complicated field,” she said. “There is a lot of emotion around it, which is unfortunate. The science is strong and robust, and we have the potential to use it well.”