GMOs call for proactive farmer position

As debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) intensifies, farmers need to be aware of the political issues and be proactive in making their needs known, according to PhytoGen Cottonseed's global leader for cotton breeding, David Anderson.

Speaking at the company's recent field day near its headquarters at Corcoran, Calif., Anderson said, "Those in ignorance and fear will deny you the opportunity to meet this very significant challenge.

"Make sure," he urged assembled cotton growers, "no one denies you, though a legal-political process, access to the varieties you need to have for a stronger business."

Opposition to GMOs spans from fears the gene-splicing work might cause unforeseen problems in other plants, or even humans, to concerns that not enough research has been performed to determine long-term effects.

"Genetic engineering of cotton has about as much to do with affecting genetic diversity in other plants as cattle breeding has to do with the genetic diversity of elk populations," said Anderson.

"They are not the same thing, and we need to look at our cotton and other crops as domesticated species into which we are introducing traits to enable us to improve productivity per unit acre and produce more for less per unit."

For cotton, he said, GMOs or transgenic plants are all about improving yield and yield stability by incorporating traits of resistance to insects and disease or tolerance of heat, drought, or herbicides into varieties already known to be superior in output.

The idea caught on fast for cotton, he said. It expanded from mere seed increase acreages in 1995 to 80 percent of the Mid-South and Southeast cotton by this season, while the Western cotton industry also moves rapidly toward GMOs.

Varieties credited Citing USDA estimates that the annual chemicals bill for controlling insects in cotton is $100 million less today than in 1995, Anderson said, "A lot of that is attributable to transgenic cotton varieties carrying insect resistance traits."

And new developments are on the way. "Over the next year or year-and-a-half," he predicted, "we'll see introduction of molecular markers that will enable us to take advantage of wild race species. Today we have no practical way to tap the vast genetic resources that exist in breeding populations."

Further, methods to transform plants are rapidly changing. He said it now takes about two years for plants to go from the laboratory stage to the greenhouse stage.

"But soon we will be able to get genes into a breeding program in a matter of months. That will not only reduce the time needed, but it will reduce the cost of bringing new varieties to the market."

Several new genes are now being evaluated in cotton plants for certain traits, including expanded insect resistance to include piercing, sucking insects and boll weevil. Some are already in cotton plants at some level, either at the research level at a university or in the commercial application. Examples are drought and heat tolerance, ethylene metabolism to govern defoliation and cleanliness of lint after harvest, alternative times to reach maturity, resistance to fungal diseases, and fiber properties.

"Of course, underlining all of this is, regardless of the trait, it will have to be in a variety that is also high yielding," he said.

Opponents of GMOs are critical of the process, which deals with a single gene at a time. "The debate is whether that is a natural process, and whether the plant from it is a natural organism. The alternative of the normal breeding process literally scrambles 50,000 genes, and we don't have a clue as to what they are doing. To think that is somehow safer for the environment than a GMO to deliver a specific trait in a short time frame is nonsense."

Classical breeding has already widely scrambled divergent genomes, he noted. Wheat has three different plant genomes, triticale has two different genomes, and cotton has two separate genomes with 50,000 to 100,000 genes scrambled from different species of cotton.

Varietal packages of traits to fend off pests or adverse conditions, Anderson said, can prevent destruction of rain forests for land to feed and clothe the world's population, expected to double in the next quarter-century.

"If anyone wants to preserve rain forests they should get on the biotechnology bandwagon and help us increase yield on a per acre basis," he said.

The first trans-Atlantic voyage of the airship Graf Zeppelin in 1928 brought seven species of insects and two plant diseases in the bouquets of flowers on board. This called attention to the need for quarantines and the fact that people are not the only living things that travel.

Agriculture does more than put food on your table. In California, it contributed more than $80 billion to the economy.

In this country, we eat about 2,175 pounds of food per person each year and about 900 calories more every day than the worldwide average of 2,700, say Farm Bureau sources.

There are 1.8 acres per person of arable land in agricultural production to feed the current U.S. population. By 2050, that figure is expected to decline to 0.6 acres. This will result in higher food prices, imported goods and less diversity in our diet. Farmers look to advances in science, biotechnology, animal nutrition, technology and water delivery systems to help them stay productive and competitive.

What did one ear of corn say to the other? "Quit stalking me!"

What is the most commonly eaten food in the world? Rice. What food is grown on every continent except Antarctica? Rice. What food does the United States export more of than it consumes? Rice.

What do you call cattle with a sense of humor? Laughing stock.

Natural? Or organic? If you're talking about the method used to produce some foods-from growing to processing, they're not necessarily the same. "Natural" has no legal definition or regulations to guide production and processing and offers no guarantees that no pesticides were used. "Organic" includes a fully audited management system, guaranteed by a third-party inspection and certification.

Americans may not be getting sweeter, but their diet definitely is. Sugar consumption is up 28 percent since 1982. Farm Bureau sources say that equals about 68.5 pounds of sugar per person each year.

American beef consumption has been on the increase since 1993 and now equals that of poultry, pork and seafood combined.

Nematodes - a threat to dozens of California crops - are nearly invisible. Ten times finer than an eyelash, these microscopic worms with voracious appetites invade the roots of plants, suck out their juices and leave them vulnerable to attack by deadly fungi and bacteria. That's the bad news. Here's the good news: Genetic researchers found a rare strain of sugar beet that resists a half-dozen nematodes and are working to insert its disease-resistant genes into peaches, tomatoes, beans, carrots and potatoes.

Proud hunters who bag their limit usually haul the meat home to feed the family. To get the maximum enjoyment from your wild game, Farm Bureau suggests that you follow food safety procedures when dressing, storing and cooking the meat. Why? Of the cases of human trichinosis reported to the Centers for Disease Control, many were the result of eating bear and other game meats.

The most recent statistics indicate that California exports of milk and cream to Mexico increased $46 million to a total of $65 million annually.

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