Benbrook Speaks on Biotechnology

by Andy McGuire, Extension Educator

In his book, Pest Management at the Crossroads, Charles Benbrook argues that pest management is at a crossroads; we can choose between a better future of biologically integrated pest control or we can stay on the path of chemical dependency.

In his recent keynote speech at the NSAS Annual Meeting, Benbrook told the crowd gathered at the Leadership Center in Aurora that biotechnology might have passed the crossroads. He suggested that, unfortunately, the huge public and private investments in biotechnology could drive companies to develop new products, no matter how many, or how valid, the concerns were with the risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The momentum is currently with the "high tech" side of agriculture, rather than with the "multi-tactic, biointensive, systems approach" promoted by Benbrook in his book. However, the future of biotechnology is not trouble-free and the current optimism may end rather soon, according to Benbrook.

Benbrook, a pesticide policy analyst, promotes a systems approach to pest management, based on an understanding of pest ecology. In trying to balance environmental concerns and economic requirements, he argued that we have to choose how we want to design agriculture and food systems. The best solutions are integrated, complicated, subtle, and elegant, unlike the simple, overkill strategies which depend mainly on agrichemicals. The difference becomes apparent when looking at the risks associated with the use of Bt crops and with herbicide resistant crops.

Benbrook stated the following as risks of Bt transgenic crops:

· They are incompatible with Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM is the pest control strategy that the University of Nebraska wants to have implemented on 75% of the state’s cropland.

· The importance of Bt foliar sprays has been discounted. Benbrook believes that if Bt is lost as an effective bio-pesticide because of resistance developed due to the use of Bt transgenics, "it may be one of the greatest mistakes in agricultural history."

· Resistance is likely to be developed in as soon as three years and not more than seven. The resistance management plans, he says, may add up to 3-5 years if they are implemented, but the plans are only theoretical. With up to 10 million acres of Bt corn likely to be planted this spring, "we are effectively carrying out a large field experiment."

· Unanticipated consequences in food webs, pest pressures, and microbial communities. The ecology of the Bt transgenics is not being looked at seriously enough.

But even with all these concerns, Benbrook concluded that the sacrifice of Bt is unstoppable.

Herbicide resistant crops are another GMO that Benbrook said has high risks. These include the emergence of weed resistance and concerns about the unknown impacts on aquatic ecosystems and soil microbial communities. With perhaps 30 million acres of Roundup Ready Soybeans to be planted this year, the development of resistance is only a matter of time. Roundup Ready waterhemp is already plaguing farmers according to Benbrook. He also cited problems that have occurred with Bt cotton in the South. These problems come from trying to solve management problems with genetic solutions.

Although most experts agree that these problems exist, the product development is driven by the profits possible for the involved companies. When the problems become apparent, according to Benbrook, "it is the farmer who is going to suffer", and not the seed/chemical companies.

Is there a good side to biotechnology? Benbrook offered a series of criteria to use in evaluating future applications of biotechnology (listed below). He also mentioned some of the potential good uses of biotechnology. For instance, biotechnology methods could be used to manage disease suppressive soils, overcome Aluminum toxicity in many tropical soils, or to change the form of plant root development. Benbrook concluded by saying that we can not afford to reject all biotechnology. Instead, all potential uses of this technology should be subjected to the evaluation criteria, and if they do not pass the criteria, should be modified or rejected. Only in this way can we choose the design of our future food systems.

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