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December 16, 2009

GMOs -- Still Not Delivering
Tom Philpott at Grist has a great post on Monsanto, its magic seeds and its monopoly status. In it, he reminds us that "climate change-ready" -- and non-existent -- drought tolerant GM seeds aren't the only false hopes currently being peddled by Monsanto:

Meanwhile, there also recently came a cold slap to one of Monsanto's most hyped promises: that it will soon deliver genetically engineered corn, rice, and wheat strains that demand much less nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizer is a major ecological liability of industrial agriculture--synthetic nitrogen pollutes streams and blots out fish life, destroys soil organic matter, and enters the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon.

In a recent report (PDF), the Union of Concerned Scientists' Doug Gurian-Sherman pointed out that thus far, the GM crop industry has had zero success at engineering crops with "complex traits" like improved nitrogen efficiency.

Splicing in a gene that makes corn tolerate a certain herbicide is one thing; improving a highly complex, multi-gene, not-completely-understood process like nitrogen efficiency is completely different. Despite all the hype around nitrogen-efficient GM corn, the GM seed giants are conducting relatively few trials to test crops in the field, Gurian-Sherman reports.

"Although a few genes that appear promising for improving NUE [nitrogen-use efficiency] have been identified in the public literature, they have yet to demonstrate that they can improve consistently in various environments, and without significant undesirable side effects that could harm our agriculture, environment, or public health," Gurian-Sherman writes. Meanwhile, other methods of reducing nitrogen use, like traditional breeding and ecosystem approaches, have proven track records.

So, all together now, traditional breeding paired with agro-ecological techniques work better than Monsanto's over-hyped, overpriced, over-sprayed products. That's better.

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