Biotechnology
  Paul Fell cartoon  
Agricultural biotechnology is a collection of scientific techniques, including genetic engineering, that are used to create, improve, or modify plants, animals, and microorganisms. The big news for food security concerns crops created through biotechnology or bioengineered crops. In many cases, the crops you see on farms today look very little like the original plants they came from.

Modern techniques now let scientists offer farmers new crops by transplanting specific genes from one plant to another. Scientists can use newer genetic techniques to move genes among unrelated species to create plants with novel traits that cannot be produced by traditional breeding.

For example, some varieties can now resist herbicides that used to kill them as well as the weeds. These new strains allow more herbicides to be applied by farmers without hurting the crops. Using bioengineered crops like herbicide-resistant soybeans, lets farmers reduce plowing to control weeds and decrease the amount of chemical herbicide they use. They get higher crop yields and a cleaner harvest at less cost. Around the turn of the 21st century, about 25 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. came from seeds that were genetically modified. Biotechnology crops can boost nutritional value, reduce the need for agrochemicals and pesticides, reduce the need to till the soil to control weeds, improve crop yields, increase resistance to drought and reduce the amount of water needed for crops.

But, not everyone embraces biotechnology. Some critics question the environmental safety of the new technology. They are concerned that genes from genetically modified plants could escape into the environment through cross fertilization and result in "super weeds" that are resistant to certain herbicides. Others are afraid that plants that produce their own pesticide/insecticide – such as the "Bt" corn (corn that's been genetically altered to resist the corn borer) – will cause insects to develop resistance to its toxic effects and become "super bugs." And some people question the effect food made with bioengineered ingredients may have on the human body. They worry that food made from bioengineered crops might contain toxins and/or cause allergic reactions in people.

One example of the controversy is being fought in Europe. Many countries in the European Union do not want genetically engineered crops in their food supply. In 1997, the European Union put a moratorium on imported bio-engineered crops. U.S. exports of corn to Europe fell from $191 million in the year before the ban to less than $2 million in 2002. According to the U.S. State Department, America continues to negotiate proposals to label genetically modified products for European customers. But the labelling program is opposed by many U.S. food companies.

Another example of the controversy was the StarLink situation. Nebraska farmers joined farmers in Iowa and Illinois in a lawsuit against Aventis CropScience Company, the maker of an unapproved gene-altered corn that entered the food chain in 2002. Farmers said their crops were contaminated by StarLink corn, which was not approved for human eating because of fears it might cause an allergic reaction. But the StarLink corn was detected in food products. Farmers say the value of their corn crop went down as a result.

StarLink corn was originally developed to be resistant to the European corn borer insect pest. Traces of the corn were discovered in taco shells, leading to recall of the food products. StarLink was also detected in food in Japan and South Korea, setting off a decline in the import of U.S. corn in those countries. In 2003, Aventis agreed to pay farmers who grew StarLink corn between 1998 and 2002 and those who planted corn within 660 feet of the variety, which ran the risk of cross-pollination. Aventis is also paying farmers who grew corn beyond the 660-foot zone but accidentally mingled it with corn grown near StarLink.

Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.