A Less Thirsty Future Through Engineered Crops?

September 13, 2012
Doug Gurian-Sherman
Former contributor

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 iStockphoto.com/Drbouz

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.

And then there are the Errors

A second serious problem with Thompson’s article is that it contains several errors. He claims that DroughtGard increases water use efficiency (WUE; less water use in “normal” times). That’s important given that agriculture already uses about 70 percent of extracted fresh water. But Monsanto’s own data in their petition to USDA for deregulation shows that this is probably not true. Thompson makes the common mistake of equating WUE with drought tolerance, but the scientists who study WUE show that this is not the case. Typically, drought tolerant crops do not use less water. And there have been only 9 field trials testing experimental GE crops for WUE compared to thousands for herbicide resistance and insect resistance. This does not demonstrate a commitment by the industry to develop this trait.

Thompson also claims that the risks of GE have been well managed. This is emphatically contradicted by the millions of acres of resistant weeds that have arisen due to mismanagement, which in turn undermines his claim of reduced herbicide use. And insect resistance to Bt is now hot on the heels of weed resistance.

Finally, he compares GE food to GE medicine, expressing exasperation at the greater acceptance of biotech drugs. But these two applications of biotechnology present very different benefits. Medicine is a choice, and we may accept serious side effects because the alternative may be more dire. Food is a daily necessity, and when our food supply is inundated by GE, our choices become limited.

As we note in our report (and other work), GE may make some contributions to drought tolerance and other important agricultural problems in coming years. But that does not answer the question of whether those benefits outweigh problems and risks from GE, and certainly does not demonstrate that GE is needed to improve agriculture.