Genetic Engineering

Part 3: Current and Future Directions of Transgenic Crops

Rakesh S. Chandran, Ph.D.
IPM Specialist
WVU Extension Service

This article was published in the May 2001 issue of West Virginia Farm Bureau News.

Recent breakthroughs in genetic engineering has sparked heated discussions of national and international interests. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have played a silent but active role in our daily lives over the past few decades. Some medicines (insulin, vaccines, etc.) and common food products (breads, yogurt, cheese, etc.) are processed with the aid of genetically engineered microorganisms.

An estimated 60 percent of the items on the grocery shelves have genetically modified components. GMOs have undoubtedly become part and parcel of our daily lives. However, research on this technology’s indirect effects on human health and the environment is continuing.

Based on current information, it is highly unlikely that research findings would pose major hurdles on the implementation of this technology. This final article in the series covers future directions of the technology.

According to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP), Bt corn plants (a hybrid capable of resisting the pest European corn borer) have saved 60 million to 70 million bushels of corn yearly that otherwise would have been destroyed by the European corn borer.

Bt cotton plants have eliminated the need to spray 2.7 million pounds of pesticides each year. Roundup Ready soybeans (a soybean hybrid capable of resisting the herbicide glyphosate) have reduced weed control costs by more than $200 million per year.

More than 20 million acres of field corn, 10 million acres of cotton, and 40 million acres of soybeans were planted with genetically engineered cultivars last year. An NCFAP scientist says that this represents a significant acreage of U.S. agricultural production and notes that the crops have superior ability to withstand agricultural pests.

Dr. Val Giddings of the Biotechnology Industry Organization claims that approximately 40 percent of the food grown today is lost to spoilage, insects, diseases, and other postharvest problems. He says that such losses are preventable by using biogenetics.

Transgenic crops have had international success stories. Dr. Stanley Wallach of the American College of Nutrition says that more than 100 million children worldwide are deficient in vitamin A, a condition that may lead to as many as 250,000 cases of childhood blindness.

To address this devastating health crisis, a transgenic rice hybrid, commonly known as “Golden Rice,” was created through biotechnology to produce beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Scientists also are trying to improve the nutritional profiles of many of the world’s foods to enrich crops with higher levels of iron and vitamins C and E. According to the World Bank, biotechnology could boost food productivity in the developing world by 25 percent, feeding more people while using fewer resources.

Dr. Gunter Blobel, a professor at Rockefeller University and winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize in medicine, says the following about the science of genetic engineering: “Cells have been dividing for over 3.5 million years, and each cell comes from a pre-existing cell. Continual division of cells has given rise to all organisms, starting from a single cell to the human cellular makeup as it exists today. It is all done, to a large extent, by genetic engineering.

“The problem is to sort it all out, and we will be better for it. Insertion of certain gene traits in plants or organisms may have some consequences that we don’t intend, but more research will counteract it. Like all new technology, we must look at its benefits, risks, and the means (taken) to reach its goals.”

Several transgenic crops are in the pipeline for the farmer. Two that may be of particular interest to West Virginians are herbicide-resistant alfalfa and herbicide-resistant turfgrasses.

Scientists also are genetically modifying potatoes to protect us against E. coli and tomatoes to protect against hepatitis B. Virus-resistant squash and tomatoes with enhanced flavor and extended shelf lives have been developed.

University of Florida researchers are working on citrus cultivars that could grow under colder conditions. The University of Berlin has even developed barley with a gene makeup that will help keep the foam on beer!

Genetic engineering is a branch of science still in its infancy, and we have yet to understand its long-term benefits and risks to human society and the environment.

Genetic Engineering Series