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3-Food: Lessons from a decade of genetically engineered crops

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TITLE:  Forum - Lessons From a Decade of Genetically Engineered Crops
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Research Magazine
DATE:   Jan 2003

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Forum - Lessons From a Decade of Genetically Engineered Crops

In May 1994, the Food and Drug Administration approved the Flavr-Savr 
tomato, the first whole food developed by genetic engineering. Approval 
came after more than 5 years of scrutiny, including extensive gathering of 
public comments. In this tomato, scientists had taken out a gene affecting 
softening and reinserted it backwards. The result was a tomato that ripened 
well and resisted spoilage longer.

We have come a long way since then. In 2001, U.S. farmers grew 88 million 
acres of genetically engineered crops, mostly soybean, corn, and cotton. 
Farmers liked the genetically engineered soybean and cotton varieties so 
much that they planted them on about 70 percent of each crop's acreage. For 
corn, the total was about 25 percent. Other genetically engineered crops 
have been approved for commercial use, including papaya, canola, tomato, 
potato, flax, squash, sugar beet, and radicchio. Notably, however, most of 
these other approved crops are not grown today - including the Flavr-Savr 
tomato - and some have never been grown, despite approval for release.

Why? What lessons can be drawn from this rather low success rate? One is 
that genetic engineering does not solve all problems. Virus-resistant 
squash was only partially resistant and thus did not replace the need to 
control insects carrying the virus. As a result, it was commercially 
unsuccessful. Another lesson is that the bottom line counts. The Flavr-Savr 
tomato was exactly as advertised. But with the heavy investment in 
research, it cost more than conventional tomatoes and didn't sell well 
enough to become profitable.

Probably the most important lesson is, "The customer is always right." This 
certainly pertains to the ongoing globalization of trade, which has 
increasingly thrown together consumers from diverse backgrounds in a 
marketplace that must serve them all. Especially in the European Union, 
consumers began to voice distrust of this technology and created a backlash 
against its large-scale use. Regulations quickly followed that require 
segregation and labeling of genetically engineered foods. This gives 
farmers a strong incentive not to grow genetically engineered crops 
whenever exports to Europe might be a significant part of sales.

Regardless of consumer concerns, it remains true that genetically 
engineered foods haven't made anybody sick. Debates over the last decade 
have focused instead on specific scientific questions about the massive 
introduction of genetically engineered crops.

Three major environmental questions were highlighted by recent reports from 
the National Academy of Sciences. Might insect pests develop resistance to 
genetically engineered "plant- incorporated protectants"? Will these agents 
cause unintended damage to beneficial insects? Could engineered genes 
spread to nearby vegetation?

Of course, all these questions can also be posed about nonengineered genes. 
But the genetically engineered traits have been the subject of controversy 
because they are presumed to be novel, without years of accumulated wisdom 
about their impact.

This issue of Agricultural Research carries an article about genetically 
engineered corn that resists rootworms (page 4). The corn rootworm enjoys 
the dubious distinction of triggering more insecticide use than any other 
single pest in U.S. agriculture. Genetic engineering may greatly reduce 
this insecticide use.

The objectives reported in the article typify one type of our agency's 
biotechnology risk assessment and risk mitigation research. Under this 
umbrella are objectives as diverse as developing ways to prevent the spread 
of engineered genes; confining the expression of engineered genes to 
specific, nonedible tissues-such as roots, to foil root-feeding pests; and 
documenting changes in pesticide movement into rivers and lakes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a competitive grants program 
to support biotechnology risk-assessment research. Typically, the program 
has funded 2- to 3-year projects, mostly by university scientists. In 
contrast, the Agricultural Research Service carries out longer term 
projects, such as testing of cropping strategies to suppress development of 
resistant insects, and multiyear monitoring of the actual resistance level 
of pests occurring with current farm practices.

Both ARS and grant-supported research will document the benefits as well as 
the potential risks of genetically engineered crops. They both stress 
comparisons to real-world production systems that pose their own risks, 
such as heavy insecticide use to combat corn rootworm. The data, collected 
by spending public funds, will be made available for public scrutiny and 
provide a more complete foundation for science-based regulation of genetic 

The future of genetic engineering is bright, with potential benefits 
perhaps not yet imagined. But like all new technologies, it must be 
deployed properly to prevent unintended consequences. Globally, consumers 
have clearly demonstrated a desire for more information about the risk of 
any unintended consequences, and this desire has limited markets for U.S. 
agricultural products.

Public confidence can arise only from public knowledge that regulatory 
agencies are overseeing the new technology comprehensively, fairly, and 
rigorously. USDA is playing an important role in the process through new 
research to provide high-quality data to help regulatory agencies make 
sound decisions. As a result of this lesson learned, the second decade of 
genetic engineering in agriculture is expected to have many more success 
stories than the first.

John W. Radin ARS National Program Leader Plant Physiology and Cotton 
Beltsville, Maryland

"Forum" was published in the January 2003 issue of Agricultural Research 


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