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APRIL 2009



Sustainability and Crop Engineering

Jared Flesher,
NY Times Online/Blog,
April 30, 2009

Genetically modified cotton was held up as an example of sustainable genetic modification at a conference this week.

A three-day conference - "Feeding a Hot and Hungry Planet: The Challenge of Making More Food and Fewer Greenhouse Gases" - kicked off at Princeton University Wednesday, bringing together scientists and agricultural experts from across the globe.

The use of corn, cotton, and soybean crops that are genetically modified to be resistant to certain pests or herbicides is already widespread in many parts of the world, so all the big issues were on the table - including whether genetically modified crops are "sustainable."

Maarten Chrispeels, an expert in molecular agriculture at the University of California, San Diego, began his keynote address by addressing that question.

"The toolkit that we are now developing is absolutely amazing," he said in outlining advances in biotechnology that will allow sustainable traits in plants species to be propagated in ways that wouldn't be possible in nature. By way of example, he pointed to the success of Nerica rice, which took the high yields of Asian rice and combined them with the excellent durability of African rice.

Meanwhile, Carl Pray, a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics at Rutgers University, presented findings that show the use of cotton engineered to contain a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis - known as Bt cotton - has resulted in significantly reduced pesticide use in China, and dramatically increased yields in India. (The modified cotton is pest-resistant.)

But others at the conference said that, in the bigger picture, genetically modified crops have failed to live up to their early promise.

"The benefits have not yet been that great from the environmental standpoint, or even from a production standpoint," according to Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. "At least from published studies, Bt cotton is it."

Others experts, including Wayne Parrott, a plant genomics researcher at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, called for patience.
"We're in the era of the first black and white television," Mr. Parrott said. "We haven't gotten to color televisions, and we're nowhere near a flat screen yet."