A Tale of Biotech, Butterflies and Bedding Plants
Against a backdrop of protesters dressed like vegetables and apologetic biotech company CEOs, the floriculture industry contemplates its inevitable venture into the world of GMOs.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), biotech foods, transgenic plants – whichever name you choose, chances are you ate some this morning. The chances are even greater that if you did eat some you didn’t know it.
Genetic engineering is very much in the news these days, and it’s relevant to the floriculture industry because most of the action has been in GM crops.
Granted, we’re talking field crops – corn that fends off insects, soybeans with conferred resistance to herbicides, canola with enhanced oil composition. Last year, 47 percent of the soybeans and 37 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. were genetically modified to resist herbicides or fight pests. While much of these GM crops went into animal feed, we have been consuming small amounts in breakfast cereals, French fries, snack foods and condiments.
A GREEN REVOLUTION OR JUST A REVOLUTION?
The increased use of GM crops, with the parallel prospects of increased yields and decreased pesticide use, has spurred talk of a new green revolution that will benefit farmers and consumers around the world.
But a growing chorus of critics are asserting that GMOs are a direct threat to the dinner table. Until very recently, American biotech companies, farmers and distributors took comfort in the belief that anti-GMO sentiment was largely confined to several European nations. This is no longer the case. Americans have awakened to the issue, as demonstrated by the upheaval last December during the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.
Most anti-GMO spokespeople concede that the risk of GM crops to humans and to the environment is not yet known. Undeterred, these critics accuse the biotech industry, in complicity with the U.S. government, of using the American family as guinea pigs in their rush to bring GM products to market.
Countering the claim that GM products have not undergone long-term studies to ensure that they won’t trigger deadly allergies, wreak havoc on the environment, or otherwise behave badly, the biotech industry has argued that dispassionate science actually became the first casualty in a war of emotionally charged words.
Consider, for example the recent skirmish between the biotech industry and a loose alliance of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that has gained favor among reporters. The unwitting object of this skirmish was the monarch butterfly.
It all began with a laboratory study conducted at Cornell University, which indicated a higher mortality rate among monarch larvae that ate milkweed leaves dusted with Bt corn (a crop genetically engineered to protect itself from corn borer damage using Bacillus thuringiensis) pollen than among those that ate non-treated leaves. First published as a letter in the May 1999 issue of Nature, the study became the subject of articles in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune, among other newspapers and news magazines.
Not surprisingly, this mass media coverage elevated the beloved insects’ plight to a topic of national interest, and raised many questions about the safety of Bt corn.
"Our study was conducted in a lab," says John Losey, the Cornell University professor who conducted the research. "While it raises an important issue, it would be inappropriate to draw any conclusions about the risk to monarch populations in the field based solely on these results."
John Foster, professor of entomology at the University of Nebraska, agrees that the popular press missed "the subtleties" of the research. "Even the intent of the study was overblown," he asserts. "It was a preliminary study even by the authors’ admission."
Since then a slew of studies have been cited to reassure the public that the threat to the monarch, in the words of Losey, "is not as bad as it could have been."
Nonetheless, Bt corn took a major beating in the national press.
"When I heard about the monarch butterfly study I thought, ‘Oh no, this will be a classic case of sound science against sound bite,’" says Mike Murgiano, senior product manager with Downers Grove, Ill.-based Novartis Seeds Flowers, a division of Novartis, a front-runner in the research and development of GMO products. "These are issues that you rarely win short-term in the arena of consumer perception."
Despite the lack of evidence that genetically modified crops are hazardous to human health or the environment, anti-GMO feelings have forced some companies to consider going "GM-free" by removing all GMO foods and additives from their product lines.
But thus far, only a few companies, notably Gerber Products Co. and H.J. Heinz Co., have eliminated GM ingredients from some or all products. Many major food producers, including Kellogg Co., Quaker Oats, General Mills, and McDonald’s, are standing pat, stating that they can’t guarantee their products are free of GMOs.
Assuming that all evidence to date points to an extremely low level risk in GMOS, why are consumers so wary? Much of the fear among European consumers stems from the outbreak of mad cow disease, and the problematic way the British government responded. If this response was a bungled public relations effort at worst, we can still appreciate why many European consumers would feel a crisis of faith in science and governmental regulatory agencies.
But here in the States, some observers point to our inherent distrust of big corporations and big government. Many consumers may have concluded that biotech industries put the interests of large biotech companies and agribusiness ahead of the consumer.
Indeed, many of the major biotech players are acknowledging varying degrees of insensitivity to consumers. Novartis CEO Daniel Vasella told Business Week, "If the consumer had a health benefit from these crops, I think the acceptance would have been there."
Even Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman has gone on record to admit that technology, in this case biotechnology, got a bit ahead of politics – always a prescription for trouble in the arena of public opinion.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
So what impact will all this have on the future of biotechnology?
"I believe things are actually settling down in Europe and that will have an effect here," says Mike Dobres, president and CEO of Philadelphia-based NovaFlora Inc., a plant biotechnology company.
On a recent trip overseas, Dobres says he saw and read coverage of the biotech issue that presented both sides of the debate, and even drew attention to some of the flaws in the anti-GMO arguments presented by Greenpeace and other environmental groups."The foreign press is finally presenting the other side," says Dobres, "so Europeans are now reading about the science and not just the scare tactics of a select few."
Dobres believes that while biotechnology got off to a bit of a rough start in the agriculture market, it will eventually sweep through other markets, including the ornamental plant industry.
"The bedding plant market initially was a difficult market for this technology because there are so many individual varieties and lines," says Dobres. Adding that the bedding plant market is very small in comparison to corn and other field crop markets, Dobres says that the now-considerable cost of applied biotechnology will decline over time. "More players will be able to take advantage of the opportunities out there. We did," notes Dobres.
NovaFlora recently licensed a "dwarfing gene" that will confer a compact or dwarf phenotype on plants without the need for chemical plant growth regulators.
Novartis’ Murgiano agrees with Dobres. "Biotechnology will absolutely be in the future of horticulture. How could we as an industry ignore the benefits it could bring to growers and consumers? It would be like denying that the Internet will have an impact on the way that we do business."
But in addition to the current high cost of genetic engineering, other factors have kept biotechnology from fully crossing the threshold into horticulture. "The economies of scale apply to genetic enhancement," says Murgiano. "When we add Bt to a corn hybrid, that one event can affect hundreds of thousands of acres."
But the number of varieties in even one series of bedding plants is much larger and the volume of the crop itself is much smaller. So the event must be worth doing, he says.
Conversely, even a single bedding plant series can contain numerous genetically different varieties. A grower’s crop of this series might number in the hundreds of plants, compared to a field crop measured in thousands of bushels.
The likely avenue by which biotech will enter the floriculture industry will be through companies that can spread the cost of development across a wide range of crops, including field crops and vegetables.
KEEPING THE CONSUMER IN MIND
Despite all the uproar, it seems that biotechnology will be here to stay, as long as we learn from our mistakes.
"The key is keeping everyone informed," says Dobres. "We cannot assume that because we know the technology is safe, the consumer will simply accept it without question."
Urging the need for the biotech industry to remain sensitive to consumer concerns, Dobres also ventures that consumers might prove the driving force behind the introduction of genetic enhancements in the floriculture market.
"The ultimate beneficiary of biotechnology in horticulture will be and should be, the consumer," he explains. "Consumers want new, novel plants. Plants that simply require less growth regulator or insect spray will be developed, but these will be secondary. We must create a paradigm shift and put the interests of the consumer ahead of those of the producer."
Murgiano concurs. "Novartis is committed to sound science, which may take longer because understanding the facts requires more effort than does picking up a sound bite. But wouldn’t it be a great consumer benefit to eliminate the need to weed flower beds, or to enhance fragrance and shelf life in our products?"