A Sustainable Solution
Dec 12, 2008
The late newspaper columnist Bill Vaughan was famous for his aphorisms. Here’s one of his best: “When the insects take over the world, we hope they will remember with gratitude how we took them along on all our picnics.”
Well, that’s one way of putting it.
Everyone has swatted ants, squished spiders, or sprayed cans of Raid into suspected cockroach hideaways.
When it comes to insects, however, farmers are in an entirely different category from the rest of the world. You could almost say we’re professional exterminators. One of the most important things we do, after all, is eliminate bugs that will harm plants.
It’s not the very most important thing we do. That would be growing food. But growing food often means killing specific bugs--or, if you prefer, pests. You can’t do the one without the other.
Today, new research confirms the pest-alleviating benefits of biotechnology: It offers pest protection that’s both effective and sustainable. You could say it’s a sustainable solution that lets us have our picnic and eat it, too.
Farmers don’t kill bugs out of sadism, of course. We do it because we need to defend our crops from tiny predators. Some pests simply try to consume what we grow for people. Others chomp their way into plants, opening pathways for disease. The word “pest,” by the way, derives from the Latin word for “plague”--just like “pestilence.”
So we wage a never-ending war against these ruthless attackers. But we don’t need to kill bugs indiscriminately. As with any war, we try to focus on the true malefactors and limit the collateral damage. Just because I want to keep corn borers out of my fields doesn’t mean I also want to eliminate ladybugs.
We already know that one of the major advantages of GM crops is that they reduce pesticide exposure among farm workers. They happen to do the same thing among insects. In particular, they limit collateral damage among insects that aren’t pests.
The most common form of biotech crop makes use of a natural protein produced by a type of bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt for short. The protein is completely harmless to humans and most other living things. To certain types of bugs, however, it acts as an effective insecticide. Long ago, scientists learned how to use this potent trait by spraying the bacteria themselves directly on the crops. In fact, this is a preferred method of insect control for organic food production. More recently, they’ve figured out how to import the protein precisely into crops, through biotechnology.
Using this biotech approach has proven so effective at pest control over the last dozen years or so that farmers all over the world have rushed to use it. Soon, we will harvest the two-billionth acre of GM crops. (Check out the live biotech acre counters on www.truthabouttrade.org) The result is a lot more meals for hungry humans and many fewer garden parties for creepy crawlies.
But how do GM crops affect insects that aren’t pests? Are they effective because they just kill, kill, kill? It’s a fair question. Although sometimes it’s necessary to make trade offs between social goals, we do not want agricultural practices that don’t sustain the environment.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agency published its own conclusions, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Nebraska, Iowa State University, and the Environmental Protection Agency. They called it a “meta-analysis,” which is a fancy way of saying they performed a comprehensive examination of previous research into this subject.
The result is a ringing endorsement of biotechnology’s ability to deliver sustainable benefits: “Non-target insects are probably affected more by conventional insecticides than by crops that contain genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis,” said a press release. “Bt crops have considerably less impact on non-target insects than do conventional insecticides.”
In other words, biotech crops are a sustainable method of pest control. They provide protection without causing an undue amount of damage to harmless insect populations.
A wise environmental movement would cheer these results and realize that agricultural innovation is a friend rather than a foe. You might even say that the greens should imitate biotech crops--and do a better job of targeting their real enemies.