June 12, 2014

Reunion forum explores genetically engineered crops

What role should genetically modified organisms (GMOs) play as we try to find a sustainable way to feed the world’s growing population? A capacity crowd of alumni flooded Warren Hall June 6 to find out, at the Liberty Hyde Bailey forum, “Modifying the Future of Food: What if GMOs Are the Only Option?” which featured a panel of experts.

Corn breeder Margaret Smith, Ph.D. ’82, associate director of the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station, noted that the largest acreage of genetically engineered (GE) crops is dedicated to field corn, cotton and soybeans engineered for insect and herbicide resistance.

“Genetic modification has been happening for a long time with farmer selection – thousands of years,” Smith said. “Genetic engineering is a new tool in this history.”

This new tool could combat devastating plant viruses more sustainably, the panelists said. It has already done so for the papaya. Panelist Dennis Gonsalves, emeritus professor of plant pathology, developed the virus-resistant GE “Rainbow” papaya in the early 1990s by inserting a coat protein gene from the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) into the plant, effectively vaccinating it against the disease. The variety came just in time; by 1995, PRSV had almost wiped out Hawaii’s papaya industry.

Panelist Ricke Kress ’73, president of Southern Gardens Citrus, said the U.S. citrus industry faces a similar threat from citrus greening, or Huanglongbing (HLB) disease. The bacterial disease was first seen in Florida in 2005. Today, every grove in the state is infected at some level, Kress said.

“We’ve lost 800,000 trees from this disease. The Florida citrus industry currently has 135 projects working on HLB at a cost of $75 million,” said Kress, whose company is the world’s largest supplier of Florida not-from-concentrate orange juice for private label and major brands. Kress said biotechnology offers the best solution for saving the U.S. citrus industry and eliminating its reliance on spraying chemicals to control the insect that spreads HLB.

Panelist Amy Harmon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New York Times, said she found that people who say they oppose all GMOs often overlook the reduction in pesticide use made possible by insect-resistant GE crops.

“That’s the contradiction,” Harmon said. “We buy organic because we don’t want chemicals on our food.”

And while Kress wonders if U.S. consumers could do without domestic orange juice, there may be other crops they can’t do without if biotechnology solutions are taken off the table. This is especially true in developing countries, where the stakes of crop failure are higher and farmer resources are limited, Smith added.

This is why Gonsalves believes public sector researchers have a critical role to play in judiciously developing and testing new GE crops that solve problems in plants not considered profitable enough by private companies.

“Land-grant universities were created to help the public. The public sector has the best chance to bring in the human element of this technology,” Gonsalves said.

Attendee Steve Heller, M.S. ’75, Ph.D. ’77, said he was glad the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) provided a forum to debunk myths and falsehoods.

“It’s especially helpful to understand the range of GE crops out there, to know what they do,” added his wife, Joan Schmidt Heller ’74.

The event, hosted by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was moderated by Ronnie Coffman, Ph.D. ’71, International Professor of Plant Breeding and director of CALS International Programs.

Sarah Thompson is a freelance writer.