RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Don't Be Fooled! We're The Biotech Defenders!

Consumer backlash against genetic engineering has spawned a new scientific age. This one features the scientist as biotech defender, forcing scientists to try to justify their work. Because most biotech research has studied how to make plant crops resistant to the herbicides that kill everything else in a field, consumers suspect that biotech research benefits herbicide companies rather than us.

With six billion people on the planet, an estimated 50% of us are hungry. But biotech crop yields have not risen. Food prices have not fallen. Now, consumers are learning that a banned, indigestible biotech corn--Starlink--has made its way into our taco shells. Consumers have not benefited from the biotech boom, and we're suspicious that this science will hurt us.

Because consumers are doubtful, scientists are learning to talk about biotech so that it sounds not only beneficial but necessary for the future. In other words, scientists are becoming adept at P.R. and re-writing agricultural history.

On December 6, 2000, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed signed by botanist Norman Borlaug and titled "We Need Biotech to Feed the World." Borlaug was born in 1914 in Cresco, Iowa, and developed wheat hybrids at the Mexican government's National Promotion Agency for Seeds.

Before hybridization, wheat was primarily grown in cool climates. Borlaug's hybrids produced good yields in hot climates. The wheat was perceived by governments as a modern improvement on traditional crops. So beginning in the 1960s, governments persuaded farmers to displace traditional crops and plant the new hybrids. Farmers abandoned traditional farming methods, which relied on animal and human labor and caring for native plants selected over generations.

Borlaug's Mexican lab was funded by the Ford Foundation. The seeds were sold by Pioneer, a seed company recently purchased by DuPont. The successful coup of industrialization over tradition was dubbed the "Green Revolution." Besides making it necessary for farmers to buy seed, the Green Revolution encouraged farmers to buy out neighbors and to farm larger fields. The labor of so many rural people became unnecessary, and younger generations clogged cities.

And there have been other "Green Revolution" problems. In Eastern India, generations of people had developed a food system based on fish, vegetables and thousands of varieties of rice planted from seeds saved each year by local farmers. Borlaug worked tirelessly to convince the Indian government to replace the local rice with miracle-yield hybrid wheat. He succeeded in 1966. An estimated 12,000 rice varieties were wiped out in the transition. In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Prize.

When wheat flour instead of rice appeared at the markets, people rioted. Because a war with Pakistan was going on and the Indian government wanted miracle yields, the government ordered more hybrid wheat seed. Later generations of Indians have become accustomed to eating wheat, but the diet is now vitamin-deficient and blindness is epidemic. A new movement now encourages farmers and eaters to go back to traditional ways.

Another new movement works to convince consumers that biotech is the way to solve blindness. This is the "Golden Rice" that Americans see advertised. "Ah, yes," we are supposed to respond, "biotech is the way of the future."

But we have figured it out. Industrial farming won't feed the world, or prevent epidemics caused by poor nutrition. Industrial farming can only put production into fewer and fewer hands.

In truth, we can't blame scientists for doing what scientists do. The scientific method requires that they solve one problem at a time, and control their experiments to make sure that no variables enter the experiment. Nature and human culture, however, don't follow the scientific method. Nature and human culture survive by exploiting variables.

For every niche, like a monoculture of wheat or corn, nature supplies critters to take advantage. Fifty years after the Green Revolution we're still trying to understand the problems of monocultures and how to solve them.

When consumers reject biotech foods, we recognize that science has stumbled in the past. Scientists want us to think we'll benefit in the future. "While activists inveigh against introducing a gene from one plant or one species into another," writes Borlaug, "conventional breeders have been doing just that for many years." Note that word "species." When a scientist says "species", the word has a special meaning.

In biological classification, a species is a specific group that breeds with one another in nature. Poodles and spaniels are in the same species. So, even though they look different, they can make babies.

Next in biological classification is genus, a more general group. Dogs and wolves are both part of the genus "Canis." Dogs are classified as "Canis familiaris," (in the species "familiaris,") while wolves are from the species "lupus," and called "Canis lupus." Still, genus members like dogs and wolves (or horses and donkeys, or tigers and lions) can be mated and bear young.

Here's a verbal trick to help remember classifications: Genus is more general, and species is specific.

There are larger classifications, with each step based on characteristics for each critter. Several Genuses are grouped together under a Family, then Order, Class, Phylum, then Kingdom, as in the plant or animal kingdom. Some microscopic critters are both plant-like and animal-like, but these naturally-occurring critters are not like biotech cells cooked up in a lab.

While scientists remind us that farmers have been crossing species "for many years," biotech science has gone far beyond crossing species or genuses--like short pea plants with tall ones--and are now swapping genes between Kingdoms, like fish genes into tomatoes. That gene swap, by the way, made it possible to ship tomatoes thousands of miles for sale at your local grocery store. The resultant tomato has no taste, as you know, but taste wasn't the scientist's goal.

Another favorite franken-crop is genetically engineered corn, with a bacteria gene inserted to kill insect larva. The Starlink variety of that corn is indigestible, but digestibility wasn't the scientist's goal. From a scientist's viewpoint, the corn is successful if it kills insect larva and can be sold to farmers as bug-proof.

Biotech benefits industries by creating new products to sell. Borlaug's new wheat crops provided more wheat than the traditional crops, but, to grow the new crops, farmers had to buy seed, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. To pay for these things, farmers work increasingly larger fields, so they replaced animal power with tractors. This is good for industries like Monsanto, DuPont, John Deere, Ford, and others that thrive when mega-farmers spend money.

There are other high costs. Our industrial farming destroys farmland as deeply-plowed topsoil washes into ditches and down the rivers. In the United States, there was a major drought in the late 1980s that rivaled the Dust Bowl but no 1930s Dust Bowl occurred. Why? 1930s topsoil was as deep as 30 inches. High winds picked it up and blew it across the prairie. Seventy years later, we've farmed the topsoil away.

Besides farming away our topsoil, industrialization has replaced traditional inputs--like manure and straw--with chemical inputs like fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. Mostly petroleum products, these chemicals were relatively cheap in terms of money, but expensive in terms of longterm human damage.

We're figuring it out. At the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in San Diego, April 29-May 6, 2000, researchers announced "people who had been exposed to pesticides were approximately two times more likely to develop Parkinson's disease than people not exposed to pesticides." It's taken 50 years of exposure to learn that.

Prepare yourself for more of the scientists' claim that biotech solves problems. As Borlaug said in the Journal, "We must do a better job of explaining such complexities to the general public, so people will not be vulnerable to antibiotech distortions."

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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