Biotechnology – A Failed Promise

August 25, 2011 | 4:03 pm
Margaret Mellon
Former contributor

This is the first post in a blog about food, agriculture, environment and technology. Before I get started, I thought I might say a bit about my somewhat checkered background and perspective.

Cornfield near house

Photo: Dodo Bird

I grew up Iowa in the 1950’s in a city where the expanding housing developments were cheek-by-jowl with fields of corn and a sprinkling of pigsties. Agriculture was all around me, but in truth I never thought much about it. I wanted to study biology, which was in the throes of the revolutionary discoveries about DNA and RNA. So off I went to study molecular biology, and eventually earned a Ph.D.

While I was in graduate school, I became in interested in the environment—I chaired the first Earth Day at my university—and shifted gears and went to law school.  After a stint in an environmental law firm, I ended up in the early 1980s working in an environmental think tank in Washington, D.C.

Although my job centered on pesticides and toxics, the air was full of the new science of genetic engineering. The new “biotechnologies” had been successfully applied in the manufacture of insulin and other new drugs, and were headed outdoors, mostly in applications related to agriculture.

The vision

The vision offered by genetic engineers in those days was stunning and seductive: high crop yields without the application of poisons to kill pests and weeds. The appeal went right to the core of environmental concerns.  In the future, Rachel Carson could rest more easily. Spring would be silent no more, but instead the sounds of birds and insects would again fill the air.

Genetic engineering would also address another fundamental challenge for farmers—dependency on chemical fertilizers. Scientists promised to equip corn plants with new genes so they could themselves convert nitrogen into the reactive forms essential to the construction of plant and animal life. Farmers would no longer have to rely on the chemical fertilizers, which, for the most part, ran right past the crops to pollute wells and coastal ecosystems.

This was a sweeping vision of agriculture unlike any the world had known. It would solve farmers’ age-old challenges—lack of soil fertility and eternally unwelcome pests. It was breathtaking. And it was going to be so easy—just switch to the new miracle seeds (or eventually the new animals) made by molecular biologists.

To be sure, there were concerns about the inadvertent creation of harmful organisms and the prospects of the application of genetic engineering of humans sometime in the future.  But at the beginning, a revolutionary and benign vision of a new agriculture dominated the conversation.

And I confess, I was taken in by the promise. To me, the snipping and rearrangement of pieces of DNA was familiar and exciting, not scary. Molecular techniques had revolutionized biology, why not agriculture?

The reality

As decades have gone by, I have outgrown my initial enthusiasm for the use of genetic engineering in agriculture.  I am not, like some, fundamentally opposed to the technology.  It has undeniably beneficial uses, especially in research laboratories, and even has scored a few successes in agriculture.

But twenty years after its inception, the achievements have been few and modest, the sum of them not even close to the inspiring vision of the early years. The talk now is more mundane than revolutionary, more about improvements around the edges of the same old agriculture system I grew up with. The shimmering early promise of genetic engineering has evaporated like dew on a summer morning. In some ways, I’m perhaps still a bit disappointed that molecular biology didn’t have the solution.

But over the decades, I’ve come to understand that there are other, better ways to achieve the vision. High crop yields are possible without poisonous inputs and soil fertility can be achieved with fewer of the destructive effects of chemical fertilizers.  It won’t be as easy as buying miracle seeds. It will require a sophisticated understanding of soils, the environment, and crops and livestock.  But it can be done—and, indeed, has to be done if we are going to feed the addition billions of hungry people expected on our planet in the next 40 years.  We can’t afford to take agriculture for granted as I once did.

These issues have formed the core of my professional life and interest me deeply. Blogging on them is a good way to sharpen my thinking and engage in productive dialogue. Let the blog begin.