March 8, 2001

The Technology Of Agriculture

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From bananas that vaccinate against Hepatitis B to rice that helps infants fight blindness, food now does more than simply satisfy appetites. New technology has enabled agricultural scientists to engineer plants so that they can hold more vitamins, require little or no pesticides and replace the pricks of vaccination needles.

However, these scientific advances have made some wary about the possible health risks associated with bioengineered produce.

“I think it’s being rushed into without examining the consequences. I’m not militantly opposed, but cautious,” said Greg Godwin, farm manager of Dilmun Hill Student Farm.

Other students, such as Justin Consor ’02, stressed that these products should undergo further research and testing before being put on the market.

In response to growing public concern, a group of agricultural bioscientists met recently at the University of California at Davis to discuss ways to deal with the controversy.

Prof. Tony Shelton, entomology, who attended the conference, acknowledged that agricultural biotechnology has become a focal point of controversy.

“Some people see agricultural biotechnology as a simple extension of what people have done for the last 10,000 years to improve crops or enhance farming strategies. Others see [it] as large corporations becoming more dominant players in the farming systems and [therefore] oppose this,” he said.

Shelton pointed out that the Internet has made it easier for people to distribute unreliable information about the issue, and suggested that Cornell and other institutions have a responsibility to inform the public about agricultural biotechnology.

“It is becoming harder to have a civil dialogue on the pros and cons of agricultural biotechnology. There is often much heat, but little light,” he said.

He also acknowledged that the debate about biotechnology is difficult because agricultural scientists and consumer activists often do not see eye to eye.

“Sometimes when people discuss biotechnology they may not really be discussing the techniques of moving a gene from one plant to another. More often it seems people are debating something about the way they see the world or want it to be. [It is more of a debate about how they] want their food and fiber to be produced,” he said.

Other Cornell agriculture professors support agricultural bioengineering.

“My personal feeling is that genetic engineering is one of many useful technologies used to improve food crops in ways that allow agriculture to meet society’s needs,” said Prof. Thomas Bjorkman, vegetable crop physiology.

Some proponents dismiss concerns about bioengineered food.

“Significant crop improvements have been made by genetic engineering, and I consider many of the health concerns about genetically engineered food to be alarmist and exaggerated,” said Prof. Richard Robinson, horticultural sciences.

Opponents fear not only possible health hazards from the engineered produce itself, but also from the crops’ pollen, which could contaminate both organic and conventional crops. Others worry that pests will develop resistance to bioengineered crops while non-targeted organisms fall victim to them.

Bjorkman believes that the public’s concerns are valid, and deserve acknowledgment from scientists.

“I find that many of the strongest biotech proponents are victims of the same non-scientific hysteria that they accuse their opponents of,” Bjorkman said.

“The deployment of genetically engineered food, like other technological advances, must take into account wider social, economic and biological impacts. By failing to recognize, and address candidly, valid public concerns, [proponents of bioengineered foods] are ultimately harming [the] adoption of agricultural biotechnology,” he added.

In some areas, action has already been taken against the products. The cultivation of bioengineered crops has been banned in some areas, such as Boulder, Colo., until more is known about potential health hazards of the crops. Opponents have proposed a moratorium on genetically engineered crops in New York as well.

Students at Cornell also voice concerns about possible hazards.

“My worry is that engineered strains will interact with unengineered strains, creating who knows what, that scientists can’t even imagine,” Kate Morrison ’01 said.

Nicole Mason ’01 agreed, noting that bioengineered agriculture’s unknown health ramifications also worry her.

Archived article by Stephanie Hankin