Genetic Technology's Answer to A Major Insect Pest

July 29, 2013 | 4:03 pm
Doug Gurian-Sherman
Former contributor

It’s a huge insect pest problem on soybeans, one of the country’s major crops. A recent paper estimates that it costs growers 2 to 5 billion dollars annually in lost productivity and insecticide use. But fortunately technology has an answer—several genes that control the pest, and can reduce or eliminate the need for chemical insecticides that harm people and the environment.

Genetic engineering to the rescue? Have Monsanto and the other big seed/pesticide companies finally found another blockbuster, after largely failing since the introduction of Bt and herbicide resistant crops over 15 years ago?

So far, only these few engineered genes have been widely successful, despite huge investments of time and resources. Most GE traits on the horizon are more of the same: herbicide-resistant crops that promise to greatly increase herbicide use and lead to multiply-resistant weeds—a treadmill that farmers will have a hard time exiting, as long as they are in the thrall of GE/pesticide companies.

Monsanto’s first attempt at GE drought tolerance can only be called disappointing for a technology associated with such high expectations and hype. My report from last year showed that this gene is likely to be useful only in areas where moderate drought is relatively predictable, and that would produce a national yield benefit of only about 1 percent—a small fraction of the progress from conventional breeding and improved management. As my colleague Mardi Mellon detailed in her recent blog post, Monsanto’s drought tolerance gene is also overshadowed by cover crops, part of the sound agroecological farming systems that need to replace our current unsustainable practices.

The biotech industry clearly needs a new success to try to win over the many skeptics around the world to “the promise” of GE. Could this be it?

The short answer is no, because the genes I referred to above are found in some soybean varieties and soybean wild cousins, and are being utilized by conventional crop breeding, not GE.

First spotted in U.S. fields in spring 2000, the soybean aphid has since spread to at least 24 states. Besides reducing yields, they can transmit deadly viral diseases to a crop. Photo by Stephen Ausmus

First spotted in U.S. fields in spring 2000, the soybean aphid has since spread to at least 24 states. Besides reducing yields, they can transmit deadly viral diseases to a crop.
Photo by Stephen Ausmus

Enter the villain

The insect pest described above is called soybean aphid. It arrived in the U.S. from Asia in 2000. Small numbers of aphids cause little direct harm. But they can reproduce rapidly through an asexual process called parthenogenesis, and before long, susceptible plants can harbor thousands of these bugs. They can also sometimes transmit plant viral diseases.

Even though the aphid resistance genes have been known for at least seven or eight years, you probably have not heard about them. Unlike the hype that follows genetic engineering, these naturally occurring, effective genes  get little attention.

Given the role of breeding in this story, you may wonder about the title of this post. What does breeding have to do with “Genetic Technology”? Breeding is a process by which genes are manipulated and shuffled between plant varieties, and is therefore a form of genetic technology. In many ways it is every bit as sophisticated scientifically as GE, and more effective, but unfortunately does not get its due.

Even though it’s not GE, is the private sector taking the lead?

So who is responsible for discovering these genes and doing the important research to develop them? You might expect that given the impact of the pest, Monsanto and its competitors would have been all over this. After all, the big seed companies have big breeding programs, as well as GE.

Having read or examined many of the research papers on these genes, it is striking that the scientists and the funding have been from the public sector, not the chemical/seed industry.

And so far, the big seed companies have released very few soybean lines containing these genes, as seen from this recent review from Iowa State University, the heart of soybean country. Most are from small seed companies and the public sector. To be fair, it has not been very long, in breeding terms, since these genes were discovered. But had the big seed companies been excited about this from the beginning, we would expect to see more from them, even by this time.

So far, the companies seem more interested in the lucrative business of selling insecticides to combat the soybean aphid, including neonicotinoid (neonic) seed treatments implicated in seriously harming bees and other beneficial organisms. (More on this in my next post.)

The public sector comes through

Even though funding for public sector breeding has languished, it continues to be highly productive. According to a recent report by the President’s Council on Agricultural Science and Technology (PCAST), the returns on agricultural research are often 10 to 1 (in other ways, though, the report was disappointing, as I described in an earlier blog post).

And it is more and more clear, based on our latest research, that the potential of breeding is largely untapped, as the authors of a recent paper from the journal Nature point out:

“Since the mid-1990s, progress in conventional plant breeding has slowed, despite the phenomenal yield gains of the past. Part of the reason is that only the tip of the biodiversity iceberg has been explored and used.”

Biodiversity in this case means the great variety of unexplored genes found in crop varieties and wild relatives around the world that are accessible through breeding, and often under the stewardship of small farmers who should be supported in their efforts.

From drought tolerance and flood tolerance to pest resistance and nutritional enhancement, numerous examples show over and over again that despite the meager funding noted by these scientists, breeding continues to greatly outperform GE. This does not mean that GE cannot or will not make some contributions to agriculture. But the relative merits of these technologies should be considered when arguments about the necessity of GE are made.

Breeding alone will not solve our agricultural challenges either. It must be done in the service of agroecological farming methods, and with the participation of the farmers who will use these varieties. For example, use of agroecology can reduce the number of soybean aphids (see my next post), reinforcing the effectiveness of resistance. In the past, breeding, like GE, has mostly served the needs of industrial monoculture agriculture, rather than sustainable agriculture, and this must change.

We must encourage public agencies that conduct or fund agricultural research, like the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, and the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA, to increase funding for these types of vital but neglected research, rather than continuing to favor the wrong kind of agriculture.

In my next post, I will discuss how the big seed companies are actually increasing the need for insecticides for controlling soybean aphids, while agroecology can work with breeding to control this pest with little or no need for insecticides.