Let’s Talk Biotech
What are canola farmers doing to protect the environment?
Will biotech crops feed the world?
No. Only farmers will feed the world. Biotechnology is just one of the many categories of innovation that is helping to provide the tools that farmers need to be successful and to grow the foods that a world population needs to survive. And farmers are the ones who will integrate all of these innovative options into their personal, complex management of crop production.
There are many significant contributions that can come from biotechnology, but farmers also need to implement sustainable options such as rotating crops grown in each field, detailed record keeping systems to remind them of what crop protection systems were used in these fields as well as the varieties of seed planted and the yields per acre. And to achieve maximum success they need crop protection ingredients, fertilizers, genetic improvements made through “traditional breeding”, as well as sophisticated equipment and data-driven GPS systems.
Where can you get information about GMO issues?
There are a number of good resources on this topic.
- Biofortified is a site that was launched by graduate students in plant molecular biology that continues as a non-profit. It is one of the best forums for civilized discussions of the issues around “GMO Crops.”
- One very good, and probably the longest-running blog about biotech crops is from the Australian geneticist, David Tribe who posts as The GMO Pundit.
- Kevin Folta is the chair of the horticulture department at the University of Florida. He is an articulate advocate for biotechnology through public speaking, and has a blog called Illumination.
- There is an extraordinary video of a presentation that a former anti-GMO activist made at the Oxford Farming Conference in 2013. There he apologized for his role in the all too effective anti-GMO movement or which he was an early player. After learning how to understand science on the topic of climate change he revisited the issue of “GMO crops” and has now become an active advocate for their use to solve problems in the developing world.
- Another non-profit is the Genetic Literacy Project, which has its own writers and also reposts relevant content from many other sources.
- There is a website called GMO Answers where anyone can ask questions about the technology and get an answer back from an expert. It is sponsored by the plant biotech industry, but the answers are provided by a pool of knowledgeable individuals who are not compensated in any way for their efforts.
- There is a satirical Facebook group called GMOLOL which provides an irreverent and humorous perspective on the issue.
- Marc Brazeau has a great overall post about GMO crops, and now runs a vibrant Food and Farming discussion group on Facebook.
- Another Australian site that has the proceedings of an important international conference of “risk assessment in biotechnology” that was held in California in 1988. This is a good example of the careful thinking that went into the commercialization of biotech crops starting eight years later.
- From Saskatoon there is a “Know GMO”
- There is an articulate argument by Harvard’s Calestus Juma from 2011 about the potential for biotechnology to help with food security issues is Africa.
- The Economist magazine has some good posts about how anti-biotech forces are compromising the food supply for Africa.
- Robert Paarlberg’s book “Starved for Science” documents how this influence played out in detail.
- Academics at the University of Saskatoon have analyzed the benefits of herbicide tolerant “GMO crops” for small-holder farmers.
- A University of Wyoming weed science professor who provides excellent perspective on issues like “super weeds.”
- Plant biologist Pamela Ronald at the University of California, Davis has a site called Tomorrows Table and a book by that name which argues that biotechnology is not only a good idea for crops, but one that should be embraced by organic.
Related to the discussion:
- The skeptic site, Quora has some excellent posts about questions like “is Monsanto evil?”
- Skeptico is another site that has posts on this issue.
- The popular blog, “I Fucking Love Science” has weighed in on GMO crops.
- Food Safety Australia/New Zealand has an excellent summary of the technology used for “Gene Silencing” and why it isn’t something to worry about.
- There is a group of academic scientists at Cornell who have formed an Alliance For Science that articulates reasons we need biotechnology for crops.
- There is a nice animation about the very new technological breakthrough called CRISPRs that will make future genetic engineering even more precise and low cost. There is a detailed analysis of the benefits of biotech crops to agriculture and the environment.
Some mainstream news outlets have done some excellent coverage on issues:
- a New York Times article on GMO labeling
- (another from the Washington Post), the possible GMO solution to a pest that could end the Florida orange juice industry.
There are excellent farmer blogs on this topic such as:
- this one from Indiana, and
- An articulate argument from a European politician about why they should change their stance on GMO crops.
What are all the ways crops have been genetically modified?
Few crops look anything like what they did in nature prior to domestication. For millennia farmers selected from among natural genetic variation for the seeds or plants that were more desirable.
Somehow, farmers in ancient Babylon managed to select for a hybrid of three cereal grasses to create wheat. The ancient farmers in what is now Mexico took an unlikely wild grass called Teosinte and eventually selected what we now call corn.
Long ago farmers learned how to “clone” the rare examples of desirable perennial crops by making rootings or grafting. They even sometimes created cross-species specimens as when the European wine grape industry was saved from an introduced pest by putting the vines of the species, Vitis vinifera onto rootstocks of the different grape species that were native to North America. Eventually, the rules of inheritance were discovered and plant breeding became more and more sophisticated.
In the mid 1900’s, breeders increased their supply of genetic variants by exposing seeds to gamma radiation or mutagenic chemicals. Many familiar foods like the Ruby Red Grapefruit were developed using mutation breeding. Some of the improvements during the Green Revolution also came through mutation breeding, but also through organized international sharing of germplasm.
“Traditional” plant breeding continues to be a very useful tool, and increasingly it is now informed by the detailed knowledge of the genes involved because of the increasingly affordability of DNA sequencing technologies (Marker assisted breeding).
Starting in the early 1970s, scientists learned how to move, modify, and control specific genes using the tools of genetic engineering. That technology has made huge contributions in medicine and in industrial processes. It has also been used to modify crops. The first genetically engineered crops were made using a variety of gene insertion technologies (“gene gun,” “protoplast fusion,” “Agrobacterium transformation…”). With these methods small, precise genetic changes could be made without the mixing of thousands of genes, which occurs during conventional breeding.
Within the past few years, even more precise and efficient methods of genetic modification have been discovered (e.g. CRISPRs, talens, meganucleases) and will likely be used to make new crop options.
In summary, humans have been genetically modifying crops as long as they have grown them. Many of those modifications were dramatic even without any knowledge of the underlying biology. The most advanced genetic modification tools today provide unique new potential, but the global scientific consensus is that these new approaches involve not more but rather less risk.
What New GMO traits are coming?
The first generation of biotech crops mostly represented examples of herbicide tolerance and/or Bt-based insect resistance, and were offered in the major “row crops” (corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets).
There were limited examples in “specialty crops” like virus- resistant squash, insect- resistant sweet corn and virus- resistant papaya. Recently biotech soybean lines have been commercialized which have a high oleic acid content (the desirable oil component of olive or canola oil, Pioneer Hi-bred’s Plenish® and Monsanto’s Vistive®.
The potato company, Simplot, is introducing potatoes with reduced bruising which will reduce food waste. They also have potatoes with a consumer health advantage. They make less of the amino acid, xxx, which can convert to acrylamide during drying. Simplot has also used genetic engineering to move a Late Blight resistance gene from wild potatoes into desirable commercial varieties. Late Blight was the fungus that caused the Irish Potato Famine and which continues to require extensive fungicide use today.
A small, grower-led company in British Columbia called Okanagan Specialty Fruit recently got USDA approval for apple cultivars that don’t brown after cutting because the gene for the enzyme that causes the browning has been “turned off.” This has advantages for both fresh sliced apples and for making dried apple slices without the need for sulfites.
A tiny company called Revolution Bio is making genetically modified flowers with the goal of offering “GMO plants” that are a fun and esthetically pleasing way for consumers to experience a genetically engineered crop.
There are some new GMO crops that have been developed, but for which it is unclear whether commercialization will occur. The Florida citrus industry is facing complete collapse in the near future because of an exotic vector and bacterial pathogen that cause a malady called “Citrus Greening.” The growers funded university research that has produced a promising example of resistance to the disease. Whether it will be used is up to the big orange juice brands.
There is a tomato variety from the small company 3-Blades Foundation, which has a Steve, Is there a simpler word for ‘vector’ to clarify what this means to consumers? Is also problematic in Florida. Whether it will be used may depend on the fast food chains, which are the major customers for Florida fresh tomatoes.
There is an American chestnut tree that has been modified to make it resistant to the Chestnut Blight fungus that destroyed this important species which was once dominant in the forests of the Eastern US. The American Chestnut Foundation is a not-for-profit that has the goal of restoring this species to its former role as a major food supply for many animal species.
Finally, there are wine grapes modified to be resistant to Pierce’s disease – a deadly bacterial infection that threatens the Northern California wine industry because of a new insect vector.
Biotech do for the developing world? And ‘green imperialism’?
The application of genetic engineering advances has been quite limited in the developing world. The one major exception has been insect resistant cotton which is being grown by more than 12 million small-holder farmers in India and China. This offers these farmers a lower risk, higher- yielding crop which has greatly improved the farmer’s economic status. Bt-cotton also has great safety advantages to these farmers who would otherwise be hand applying insecticides with minimal protective equipment and would more often than not be using old, dangerous pesticides that have been long-since banned in the developed world.
Unfortunately, the wider application of biotechnology has been dramatically slowed or blocked by European-based anti-GMO groups like Greenpeace. This opposition has been a barrier to the introduction of insect- resistant eggplant (Brindal) in several countries where that vegetable is a staple. As with cotton, this trait would prevent the farmers (and often their children) from the need to repeatedly treat the crop with undesirable, old insecticides.
Non-profit organizations have developed “Golden” versions of rice or bananas as a means of providing a precursor of vitamin A in the diet of very poor communities. The goal is to offer the farmers a free means of preventing blindness and death, particularly among children. Crops like drought-tolerant maize and virus-resistant cassava have also been developed.
One of the great advantages of “GMO crops” for the developing world is that it is a technology, which can be “scale neutral.” Some advanced agricultural technologies are unsuitable for use by poor farmers that lack equipment or the funds for annual inputs. In many cases a genetically engineered crop can provide its advantages to any kind of farmer. The fact that so little of this technology has been made available to poor farmers because of the influence of rich world activists has been rightly called “green imperialism.”
What is going on in Hawaii about GMOs?
Hawaii has become a flash-point for anti-GMO activism in recent years. The Hawaiian economy was once largely based on agriculture with large plantations growing pineapples or sugarcane. Those industries became non-competitive as the shift to a tourism-based economy drove up the cost of labor.
There are some remaining farming operations like the large coffee farm on Kauai and the papaya industry on Maui, but much of the previously agricultural land has become untended and often over-run with invasive weeds.
Corn seed companies started coming to Hawaii in the 1970s because the tropical climate allowed 3-4 plantings of corn per year. This was very helpful for increasing new seed lines. These corn seed companies are all involved in genetically engineered lines (“GMOs”) although their activities in Hawaii are principally about normal seed line increase rather than the actual genetic engineering. These industries have played a critical role in maintaining the 100+ year-old irrigation systems that bring water from the wet to the dry side of islands like Kauai.
Some Hawaiian residents abhorred the idea that their islands were being used for the dreaded “GMO crops” and sought to find a way to remove them. On Kauai the activists found Hawaii Department of Agriculture records of “restricted use pesticide” applications and used that information to drive a highly emotional, “Stop Poisoning Paradise” campaign. The pesticide use in question was not in any way extraordinary in terms of amounts applied (far less than most fruit or vegetable crops in California or on the golf courses in Kauai), nor were the pesticides particularly toxic (most were less toxic than the caffeine in coffee or the capsaicin in a hot pepper). Still, a bill was ultimately passed, vetoed, and then overridden by a newly stacked city council, which would effectively make it impossible for the corn nurseries or Kauai coffee to continue to operate. The issue is now in the courts.
Similarly anti-GMO initiatives and laws have been passed on other islands of Hawaii including one on Maui that bans all new “GMO crop” plantings and requires a registration of all the “GMO” virus resistant papaya – an industry that was saved from destruction by a virus pest by a biotech solution developed by a Hawaiian native who had become a professor at Cornell.
While many of these measures remain to be resolved in the courts, Hawaii has become a focal point of anti-GMO activism with substantial funding coming from the mainland. What little agriculture remains on the islands is under constant attack.
These islands are almost completely dependent on food imports. But they have played an important role in the global food supply by providing a unique resource for winter seed nurseries – off-season plant breeding and seed production services organized to assist Northern Hemisphere breeders release new varieties of crops in the shortest amount of time possible. The Hawaiian Islands boast some of the best natural conditions for high yield and quality commercial seed production since there is low prevalence of insects and diseases and no hail or windstorms. That role may not be allowed to continue as the mostly non-agricultural societies there continue to be successfully frightened into opposition to biotechnology.
What is “No-till Farming?”
No-till farming is a farming system innovation which started in 1960 when some of the first selective herbicides became available. There was a major change in agriculture in the early 18th century when an English agronomist named Jethro Tull invented a “seed drill” to plant crops in distinct rows rather than scattering the seed. This allowed weeds to be controlled between the rows using a horse-drawn plow. This method dramatically increased the amount of farmland that each farmer could tend so that farming no longer required the labor of 90% of the population. The invention of the “polished steel plow” by John Deere in 1837 and the introduction of tractors further increased this efficiency. This sort of plow-based agriculture had several unfortunate downsides. Repeated tillage of soils degrades their organic matter content, which is needed to buffer nutrient supplies and better capture and store rainfall. The disturbed soils were susceptible to wind and water erosion. In the 1930s a drought combined with this style of farming led to the disastrous and socially disruptive Dust Bowl phenomenon. Soil conservation practices were introduced to partially mitigate this problem, but as early as 1943 xxx began to question the entire practice of plowing in his book, “The Plowman’s Folly.” When herbicides like 2,4-D became available, farmers began to experiment with approaches that did not involve plowing (no-till) or some sort of minimal plowing (strip-till, ridge-till…). Some of this was driven, particularly in the 70s, by a desire to save fuel costs. Increasingly the movement was driven by a desire to limit erosion and to build soil quality. Non-tilled soils were found to be better at capturing and storing precipitation. They had less runoff of nutrients and crop protection chemicals into waterways. Particularly when no-till is combined with cover-cropping, soils are being built in a manner which is more like how they improve over time in an undisturbed, natural system like a prairie. In some situations the soils were shown to be sequestering carbon and for a while there was hope that it would become an “environmental services” income opportunity for agriculture within a carbon cap and trade environment.
Reduced tillage farming is not without its challenges. Herbicide tolerant, biotech crops, have made it easier to reduce or eliminate plowing, but some insect and fungal pests are more difficult to manage without plowing under of crop residues. Unplowed soils are slower to warm in the spring because they are more reflective. Even so, after a transitional period that includes some risks, the medium to long-term economics of reduced tillage farming can be quite positive, and it has been an increasingly common practice throughout the developed world.
How will we modify crops in the future?
In the future, crops will continue to be modified using all of the available tools from spotting a by-chance beneficial sport or seedling to the most sophisticated modern biotech approach.
“Conventional breeding” will remain as a very important tool, but it will be increasingly informed by detailed knowledge of the underlying genes involved as genetic sequencing costs drop and as the knowledgebase grows concerning genes (genomics) and gene function (proteomics, metabolomics).
Agriculture is the beneficiary of the dramatically larger investment in biotechnology coming from the medical, pharmaceutical and industrial biotech spheres. It will also reap benefits from the rapidly advancing field of “synthetic biology*” which is developing new tools for “genome editing.” Editing technology allow specific, intentional changes to be made in existing genes such as site-specific mutations or deletions in the DNA. They can also be used for inserting new genetic material exactly where it is wanted into existing DNA.
Not only will these tools further increase the precision and intentionality of genetic changes, they will likely make the research much less costly and thus available to small companies and/or academic labs. Exactly how this will interact with regulatory processes is an unknown at this stage.
*Synthetic Biology is:
- a) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems, and
- b) the redesign of existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes.
Feeling out of touch with the production of your food? Blame Jethro Tull!
No, not the great 70’s rock band, but the early 18th century agronomist Jethro Tull who invented the seed drill and promoted the idea of growing crops in distinct rows so that weeds could be controlled with a horse-drawn plow or harrow instead of being pulled by hand. It was an innovation that helped to put agriculture on a trajectory from where 90+% of the population was needed for labor-intensive farming to what we see today where a tiny fraction of the population can not only feed nations like the US or Canada, but can also produce enough for export to rich and poor countries around the world.
Obviously this transition required many more innovations in farm mechanization, crop genetics, crop protection products and most recently biotechnology. This has been very good news for society in the sense that so many people have been freed up to pursue different careers. It is problematic for the remaining farming community because so few people have any personal perspective on what farming entails.
Society is easily convinced that farms are “corporate” or “industrial” even though most remain family farms regardless of size. Fortunately, many real farmers and farmer relatives are using various ways, including social media, to give some real perspective and insight on what farming really means in spite of the efficiencies that were initiated by Jethro Tull.
Is there GMO Pot?
The answer to this question is either “yes” or “no” depending on what sort of “genetic modification” we are talking about. The mostly illegal and sometimes legal production of marijuana (Cannabis) has changed in recent decades.
Current genetic lines have a much higher content of THC – the chemical that produces the sought-after effects of this drug. For obvious reasons, the detailed steps of how that happened are not publically available, but it is extremely likely that it involved the use of mutation breeding (exposing seeds to gamma radiation or mutagenic chemicals) and chromosome doubling (exposing cells to chemicals like colchicine).
These were “state-of-the-art” genetic modification methods around 1950-60. Although many familiar crops were improved this way, as genetic modification methods go these are far more likely to cause unintended and undetected additional changes in the plant’s DNA. There is no evidence that pot breeders were able to use more precise methods like genetic engineering and transgenics or cisgenics. It is unlikely that marker assisted breeding was involved. Now that genetic sequencing is getting so cheap, it would be interesting for someone to document exactly what changes have been made and which had the desired results.
Are GMOs Endangering Butterflies or Pollinators?
There has been legitimate concern about the status of the Monarch butterfly in North America and the status of honey bees in various regions around the world. These are actually complex issues that only have indirect connections with the cultivation of “GMO crops.”
There was one paper published in 19xx suggesting that the pollen of Bt corn could kill the larvae of Monarch butterflies; however, it was based on unrealistic quantities of pollen found on the milkweed plant which acted as host to the larvae. Milkweed is an invasive weed species that farmers have always sought to control. While it is likely that it has been more thoroughly limited since the advent of herbicide-tolerant crops, the most important stands of milkweed continue to exist in non-farmed areas such as roadsides, ditch banks and other untended lands. The solution to the Monarch situation is not for farmers to tolerate weedy crops, but rather to possibly do more intentional plantings of milkweed on non-cropping sites.
Monarch populations have also been influenced by loss of overwintering sites in Mexico as well as by climate change.
The situation with domesticated honeybees is quite complex involving issues with extensive, cross-national shipping of hives; fungal, viral and mite infestations; and feeding of hives with sugar (HFCS) during the winter. The lack of good pollen and nectar sources is also problematic in some regions. Intentional planting of pollinator feeding
What are Bt Crops?
Bt crops are designed to be resistant to very specific insect pests. This resistance is based on genes from a common soil-dwelling bacterium called Bacillus thuriengensis (Bt for short). The bacterium, Bt, has been known since early in the 20th century and it has been used for insect control in agriculture since the 1950’s. The bacterium can be grown in large quantities in a fermenter, spray dried, and then used as a sprayable insecticide.
There are many different strains of the bacterium and each makes a mix of crystal-forming proteins. Those proteins are processed in the guts of insects and part of the protein has the capability to very specifically bind only to the stomach lining of certain categories of insects. For instance, some Bt proteins only effect the larvae of moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera) while others only effect beetles (Coleoptera) or only mosquitos (Diptera). This great degree of specificity makes Bt highly desirable for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs because unlike some synthetic or even natural-product pesticides, Bts do not injure beneficial insects.
Bts have been a mainstay of organic crop production. The limitation of Bt as a spray is that the proteins are broken down quickly in sunlight, and so depending on the pest, it may be necessary to re-apply the product every few days when the pest is active.
The idea of expressing the Bt protein in a plant was one of the most obvious applications of genetic engineering to the early start-up companies in plant biotechnology. It was a trait that could be conferred with the expression of a single, known gene, and the Bt proteins were known to be extremely safe for human consumption. The Bt protein expressed in the plant has the same effect on the insects and the same specificity. Bt versions have been developed for many crops (corn, sweet corn, cotton, potatoes, eggplants).
Because Bt is so effective, there have always been concerns that its extensive use would mean that resistance could develop in the pest population. In fact, some resistance issues have occurred, much as predicted by mathematical modeling. This has been seen in the Diamond Back Moth, a pest of crops like cabbage, which did become resistant to the sprayed version of Bt.
Consequently, to decrease the incidence of resistance, farmers have been required to leave a certain percentage of the crop planted to a non-Bt variety; the non-Bt variety area acts as a “refuge”, reducing the selection pressure for resistance.
Fortunately, there are a great many Bt protein genes available and these can be alternated or mixed to manage the risk of resistance, As a result, it has been possible to continue to have functional systems for the farmers for all the Bt crops.
Are Biotech Crops “Doused” with Chemicals?
Critics of agriculture often use emotive terms like “doused,” “drenched,” or even “slathered” to describe the application of crop protection chemicals like herbicides, fungicides or insecticides. Such terms are severely misleading whether or not they are used in reference to non-GM/GMO crops.
A chemical that is applied at one pound per acre (a fairly typical real-world use rate) translates to 0.000023 pounds per square foot. That is 0.6 mg.
A very high use-rate chemical in agriculture would be something like lime-sulfur (24 lbs/acre), petroleum oil (15.7 lbs/acre), copper sulfate pent hydrate (13.8 lbs/acre) or sulfur (8.9 lbs/acre). These are examples of products approved, in the amounts mentioned, for use in organic production, and as they were applied in California in 2012, virtually all to non-GMO crops. At the other extreme are dozens of chemicals, mostly synthetic, that are applied at less than ¼ pound per acre.
Several crops have been developed which are tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate – “Roundup® Ready” crops. These crops were typically treated with a different, “selective” herbicide prior to the introduction of glyphosate tolerance. The total amount of herbicide applied to those crops has not changed dramatically since the introduction of GE options. In some cases glyphosate replaced a lower rate herbicide and in some cases a high use-rate herbicide. Overall the rates have stayed in the range of 1 to 3 pounds/acre.
In the case of Bt-insect resistance crops, the amount of applied insecticide has dropped because of the introduction of GMO technology – however that is actually just a different way of delivering an insecticide in that the plant is making its own protectant.
Realistically, the entire discussion about the link between biotech crop planting and pounds of pesticides used is misguided. What matters is the relative toxicity of the products to humans or and other species which were not to be exposed to the pesticides; their environmental fate; the number of times a spray needs to be applied (fuel and labour costs as well as the soil compaction which results), the effect on the land tillage required, and the efficacy of pest control. All of these factor into the pesticide-regulatory approval process and to the farmer’s adoption – neither of which would support the use of the pesticide should there be any problematic pattern.
Does Biotech “Foster Monocultures?”
When most people say this what they are really talking about are the issues of “rotational diversity” or “genetic diversity.” Virtually no commercial farming is done in “poly-culture” but rather in fields of single crops which might or might not be rotated to different crops in different years. Each field is a “monoculture” and that has nothing to do with GMO crops. In general, it is good agricultural practice to rotate to different crops in different years, and to plant a different sort of “cover-crop” if there is much growing season left after harvest of the main crop. Crop rotation is common in the growing areas where most biotech crops are planted, but only a two crop rotation is typical in the heart of the US “Corn Belt.” This is because corn and soybeans have a higher income potential than many other crop options, and since much of the land is rented, the rental price reflects that higher potential and so another crop like oats might not cover the rent. The mix of crops in rotations has not really changed since the introduction of biotech crops. Well before that introduction soybeans replaced much of the oat acreage which was once a primary animal feed.
Wheat would be a desirable component of the Midwest rotation for pest management, but in addition to lower income potential, wheat has the risk of damaging infection by a disease called Fusarium Head Blight, particularly when grown in the same region with corn. A biotech wheat with greater resistance to that disease was nearing commercialization around the year 2000, but pressure from export customers in Europe prevented it from being used. Ironically that would have been an example of a biotech crop helping to diversify a rotation.
The introduction of biotech crops has not reduced the genetic variation within each crop. Even when a given trait is present in 90+% of the crop, it has been introgressed into the wide range of genetic types that are adapted to different regions, season-lengths and soil types. That is accomplished by traditional breeding methods after the initial trait is developed.
In conclusion, the advent of biotech options in major row crops has had no notable influence on either the degree of rotational diversity or genetic diversity in those cropping systems.
What about “Saved Seed?”
For some crops, particularly cereals like what, barley or rice, the harvested output is only a seed. The same is true for many legumes such as soybeans or lentils. In these cases the planting material for the next crop can simply be taken out of the supply that is sold. This is called “saved seed.” This was the traditional way that crops were grown. Early in the last century hybrid crops were developed which have extraordinary vigor when the seed is produced from a cross of two “inbred lines.” For these hybrid crops, the seed will grow, but it will not deliver the uniform yield advantage of the previous generation and will be quite variable. Corn was converted to a hybrid crop in the 1930s and farmers have always purchased new seed each year since that time because of the considerable yield advantage.
Even in crops were “saved seed” works, growers frequently buy new seed each year because if the crop is intentionally grown for use as seed, more attention is paid to genetic purity, absence of weed seed, and careful drying and storage. There is a wellestablished system of “certified seed” production which is done by farmers under the auspices of state-level “Crop Improvement Associations” which check the seed fields and measure the vigor of the seed. Some growers buy certified seed every year (the slogan for many crop improvement associations is “It doesn’t cost, it pays.”). Most buy new certified seed at least every few years. It was also common for varieties and hybrids to be patented, even those developed by public institutions. For decades, it was the norm that if a farmer bought certified seed (with a few $/bag premium), they could save it for their own use, but not sell some to their neighbors – something that was called “brown bagging,” which was widely accepted as a prohibited activity.
When Roundup Ready soybeans were introduced in 1996, Monsanto asked its grower customers to sign a “license agreement” which stipulated that they would not save seed for the next season’s planting. The same agreement was signed by those who were buying from other seed companies that licensed the trait and introgressed it into their elite varieties. Some industry observers at the time were skeptical that farmers would accept this limitation on saved seed, but in fact they did and it was not a barrier to extensive adoption of the technology. Monsanto did sue farmers who blatantly violated the license agreement and in many cases they were “turned in” by neighbors who could tell that they were not following the rules. Particularly for soybeans, moving to an all new seed system has been a positive and accepted trend.
When there were wheat varieties being developed through biotechnology, the “saved seed” issue had to be revisited because it is much more common for growers to save seed at least for a few seasons. The biotech companies polled growers to see if they would be willing to sign something like a multi-year agreement with some technology fee paid even if saved seed was used. Growers were quite open to this arrangement, but the programs were shut down by export customer pressure before any commercialization could occur.
For the biotech crops that have been developed specifically for use in the developing world, the intention has been to allow saved seed in subsistence farming systems for which a specialized seed production industry is not practical. The assumption that poor farmers should always only rely on their saved seed is not always respectful of their needs. Any farmer would like to plant the most productive and pest resistant seeds available. The job of maintaining genetic diversity is better done by seed banks and public institutions. Saved, unimproved seed is the only viable alternative in some situations, but the goal should be to find ways to provide all farmers with high quality seed whenever possible.
Is There a “Terminator Technology?”
On anti-GMO websites there is a frequent narrative that Monsanto or other companies have developed a “terminator technology” which prevents crops from making viable seeds so that farmers will be forced to buy new ones every year. Some narratives imply that this technology could “escape” and shut down the food supply. The true story is quite a bit less dramatic. There was a group of scientists in the USDA who were interested in the possibility of using genetically engineered plants to make protein-based medicines which are typically quite expensive because they had to be made in higher-animal-based fermentation systems (e.g. CHO cells) in order to get the proper folding of the protein. Their concern was not wanting there to be any way for the trait of producing such a medicine to somehow find its way into the mainstream, food/feed version of that crop. They were working on a system which would allow the crop to grow but not to make any viable seed as a way to limit any concern about contamination. It was the USDA scientists who coined the name, “Terminator” making reference to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. These workers filed for a patent, and since some of their funding came from the cotton seed company, Delta and Pineland, it was also part owner of the patent. It turns out that their approach never actually worked, and general interest in the crop-based production of medicines disappeared anyway because of less complex alternatives. Years later, Delta Pine was purchased by Monsanto because they wanted access to their advanced cotton lines. From the very beginning Monsanto made it clear that they had no intentions of doing anything with the “terminator” technology. So, there has never been a “terminator technology” in use, nor are there any plans for the use of such an approach either in the developed or developing world.
Did Biotech Cotton Lead to an increase in Indian Farmer Suicides?
There is a persistent myth that either because of a financial risk or some mysterious effect of the crop, that farmers in India who planted the insect resistant, biotech cotton were more likely to commit suicide leading to a tragic epidemic. The Indian activist, Vandana Shiva has frequently promoted this story even long after it has been authoritatively and repeatedly debunked. In reality, biotech cotton has been a huge boon to the small-holder cotton production systems in India and in China. Between the two countries, over 12 million farmers plant these varieties year after year because of better crop performance, reduced risk, and reduced need for pesticide applications (often with older pesticides that have not been used in the developing world for decades). There are indeed troubling levels of suicide in Indian society, but rates among farmers (though still tragic) are lower than in the general population. Also during the time period of extensive adoption of biotech cotton, the suicide rates have been steady or declining.