ForumLessons From a Decade of Genetically Engineered Crops
In May 1994, the Food and Drug Administration approved
the Flavr-Savr tomato, the first whole food developed by genetic engineering.
Approval came after more than 5 years of scrutiny, including extensive
gathering of public comments. In this tomato, scientists had taken out
a gene affecting softening and reinserted it backwards. The result was
a tomato that ripened well and resisted spoilage longer.
We have come a long way since then. In 2001, U.S. farmers
grew 88 million acres of genetically engineered crops, mostly soybean,
corn, and cotton. Farmers liked the genetically engineered soybean and
cotton varieties so much that they planted them on about 70 percent
of each crop's acreage. For corn, the total was about 25 percent. Other
genetically engineered crops have been approved for commercial use,
including papaya, canola, tomato, potato, flax, squash, sugar beet,
and radicchio. Notably, however, most of these other approved crops
are not grown today including the Flavr-Savr tomatoand some
have never been grown, despite approval for release.
Why? What lessons can be drawn from this rather low success
rate? One is that genetic engineering does not solve all problems. Virus-resistant
squash was only partially resistant and thus did not replace the need
to control insects carrying the virus. As a result, it was commercially
unsuccessful. Another lesson is that the bottom line counts. The Flavr-Savr
tomato was exactly as advertised. But with the heavy investment in research,
it cost more than conventional tomatoes and didn't sell well enough
to become profitable.
Probably the most important lesson is, "The customer
is always right." This certainly pertains to the ongoing globalization
of trade, which has increasingly thrown together consumers from diverse
backgrounds in a marketplace that must serve them all. Especially in
the European Union, consumers began to voice distrust of this technology
and created a backlash against its large-scale use. Regulations quickly
followed that require segregation and labeling of genetically engineered
foods. This gives farmers a strong incentive not to grow genetically
engineered crops whenever exports to Europe might be a significant part
Regardless of consumer concerns, it remains true that
genetically engineered foods haven't made anybody sick. Debates over
the last decade have focused instead on specific scientific questions
about the massive introduction of genetically engineered crops.
Three major environmental questions were highlighted by
recent reports from the National Academy of Sciences. Might insect pests
develop resistance to genetically engineered "plant-
Of course, all these questions can also be posed about
nonengineered genes. But the genetically engineered traits have been
the subject of controversy because they are presumed to be novel, without
years of accumulated wisdom about their impact.
This issue of Agricultural Research carries an
article about genetically engineered corn that resists rootworms (page
4). The corn rootworm enjoys the dubious distinction of triggering more
insecticide use than any other single pest in U.S. agriculture. Genetic
engineering may greatly reduce this insecticide use.
The objectives reported in the article typify one type of our agency's biotechnology risk assessment and risk mitigation research. Under this umbrella are objectives as diverse as developing ways to prevent the spread of engineered genes; confining the expression of engineered genes to specific, nonedible tissuessuch as roots, to foil root-feeding pests; and documenting changes in pesticide movement into rivers and lakes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a competitive grants program
to support biotechnology risk-assessment research. Typically, the program
has funded 2- to 3-year projects, mostly by university scientists. In
contrast, the Agricultural Research
Service carries out longer term projects, such as testing of cropping
strategies to suppress development of resistant insects, and multiyear
monitoring of the actual resistance level of pests occurring with current
Both ARS and grant-supported research will document the benefits as
well as the potential risks of genetically engineered crops. They both
stress comparisons to real-world production systems that pose their
own risks, such as heavy insecticide use to combat corn rootworm. The
data, collected by spending public funds, will be made available for
public scrutiny and provide a more complete foundation for science-based
regulation of genetic engineering.
The future of genetic engineering is bright, with potential benefits
perhaps not yet imagined. But like all new technologies, it must be
deployed properly to prevent unintended consequences. Globally, consumers
have clearly demonstrated a desire for more information about the risk
of any unintended consequences, and this desire has limited markets
for U.S. agricultural products.
Public confidence can arise only from public knowledge that regulatory agencies are overseeing the new technology comprehensively, fairly, and rigorously. USDA is playing an important role in the process through new research to provide high-quality data to help regulatory agencies make sound decisions. As a result of this lesson learned, the second decade of genetic engineering in agriculture is expected to have many more success stories than the first.
John W. Radin
"Forum" was published in the January 2003 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.