Biotechnology & Pesticides

For another perspective on biotech, the Forbes magazine of 10 March 1997 
has an article by Robert Linzer and Bruce Upbin titled "Monsanto v. 

Interestingly, one of the major justifications cited for biotech in 
agriculture, the expected doubling of the world population, is called 
"absolute nonsense" in another article later in the magazine interviewing 
business management guru Peter Drucker. 

What is particularly compelling about the potential of biotech plants 
making their own pesticides is contained in a chart titled "Old potato 
equals waste." Manufacturing the pesticides needed for "old" potatoes 
requires 4 million lbs of raw materials and energy from 1,500 barrels of 
oil. This yields 3.8 million pounds of inert ingredients and 1.2 million 
pounds of insecticide. This 5 million pounds of formulated pesticide 
product is put into 180,000 containers and packages [which presumably must 
be disposed of in toxic waste dumps, etc.]. 

It requires another 150,000 gallons of fuel to distribute and apply the 
potato pesticides. However, only 5% of the pesticide even reaches the 
targeted pest. Thus, 95% of the pesticide is wasted and can potentially 
contaminate the environment. This is the real promise of biotech, reducing 
the pesticide load on the environment. It is certainly food for thought, 
whatever your ideological or philosophical position on biotech. 

Whether resistant plants, either the biotech or the conventional plant 
breeder kind, will ever achieve this pesticide reduction is another matter. 
Sometimes resistant plants hold off pests for many years, one of the 
classic cases being Hessian fly resistant wheat. Having worked as an 
agricultural pest control adviser and covered pest control as a journalist, 
I have tremendous respect for pests. It would be no surprise to me if pest 
resistance and new pests also create situations where both pesticides and 
biotech inputs are used, with little net gain. 

The sustainable approach advocated by many in this list seems to me a 
sensible context for discussing the role of biotech. I hate to see us take 
a Dark Ages type approach and reject all the modern science and potential 
pesticide reductions possible from biotech because of a few bad uses or 
failures. Rather, I think we should harness the best of biotech in the 
service of sustainable agriculture along with pointing out its misuses and 
curbing unwise uses. In other words, a proactive approach, not just 

Joel Grossman
independent writer and former pest control adviser