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
independent writer and former pest control adviser