When my fellow Iowan Norman Borlaug started what came to be called the Green Revolution, he had only the best of intentions for farmers. Using chemicals, farmers could be converted into superhuman producers able to supply society with cheap and abundant food. In 1970 Borlaug won the Nobel Prize—a kind of trumpet sounding for the decade when chemical farming truly showed its stuff. But by the 1980’s we realized that the Green Revolution was a monster, an Eden severely contaminated with agrichemicals, eroded and barren of wildlife. Massive production also spawned a farm policy that was enormously expensive and infinitely insane.
Now comes the biotechnical revolution in farming, which many feel will deliver us from the sins of the agrichemical age. Bioengineering already has or will soon: provide us with inexpensive food indefinitely, lower our dependency on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, limit erosion by shrinking the amount of land needed for farming, and provide foods that are convenient, nutritious, and infinitely varied.
Sounds too good to be true? There is a fair chance that it is. But first, a little more on the positive potential of agricultural biotechnology. Today, using many techniques borrowed from medical biotechnology, ag researchers are cloning, splicing, enhancing, and creating entire new species. The majority of the work is a variation on traditional breeding programs, borrowing traits from one variety or species and applying that quality to another variety or species which does not have it. The natural ability which allows some plants to retard weeds is being nurtured in crops which today require herbicides. The ability to fix nitrogen in legumes is being grafted to all kinds of crops to make them self-sufficient fertilizer manufacturers. Disease resistance is being built into plants and animals. Climate tolerances are being built in, so that fruits, vegetables, and field crops can be grown in parts of the country or world where it has never been possible to grow them.
Some of these new combinations of genes would take decades or more for traditional breeders to achieve in their labs. Other crosses, where material from different species is used, could never be accomplished without the new methods. It is as if the world’s natural processes have been sped up a millionfold and then delivered a bit of totally unexpected English topspin. We are limited only by our audacity and creativity in the lab.
Most publicized have been the experiments to create “super” species: super chickens, super hogs, super cows, giant tomatoes, watermelons the size of the Nagasaki bomb. Certainly it is amusing to think of chickens as big as a Honda walking about; but ag researchers no longer laugh at such ideas. There is a great excitement at isolating traits and perfecting the ability to transfer them to anything one wishes.
Consequently, those scientists who create these plants and animals sometimes lose their perspective on the effects of their creations on the agricultural community. Certainly, little attention has been given to the quality of life of the new organisms they create. Consider that the first bioengineered animal to be patented is a mouse with a built-in cancer that makes it invaluable to medical researchers.
Or consider these two examples. A leading researcher at a major Midwestern agricultural college, recruited from the National Institute of Health, where she learned to extract very small bits of genetic material, is today isolating the set of genes in swine which collectively make the animal disease-free, strong, and large. She explained to me that she is creating new things in the lab setting almost daily: new genetic strains, new species, all of them close but not quite what they are after. For the time being her team documents the discoveries and saves them. Her telling remark: they have outstripped their ability to understand and analyze what they can create.
Nowhere is that weakness in the system more evident than with the recent release of a synthetic bovine growth hormone. This naturally-occurring material, usually found in small quantities, can be produced in huge quantities by using bio-engineering techniques. When injected into cattle it speeds up the metabolism. Beef cattle reach their market weight in half the time. Dairy cattle find that their milk production can be increased by up to 50 percent. The discovery of synthetic bovine growth hormone came on the scene at precisely the time when we were awash in surplus milk. By allowing it to be commercially produced, the USDA has really destroyed tens of thousands of small dairy farmers who cannot compete with large operations, which will use this product to boost their own production and drive down milk prices—a case of a wonderful creation whose time should not have been allowed to come.
It is this dualism that has many agricultural observers worried: infinite creativity on the one hand, a lack of thorough analysis of the impact on the other. All we know at the moment is that biotechnology could take farming in a number of different directions. In early 1986, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) published Technology, Public Policy and the Changing Structure of American Agriculture, produced with the help of the best and the brightest in the various agricultural fields. It is here, perhaps for the first time, that this concern over farming’s future has been voiced. OTA emphasized that agriculture faces many possible futures. Some are very good for all concerned. Others are moderately acceptable, with some trade-offs—usually meaning the dislocation of a significant portion of the farm population. Some of the possible future scenarios are not positive for either farmers or the country.
What is striking in reading the report is the mutability of that future. In other words, things which will be happening five, ten, or 20 years from now may be irrevocably affected by the sequence of events and introductions which take place today.
Most people are aware of the pressure that has been exerted on agrichemical companies to minimize contamination of our groundwater from pesticides and fertilizers, and to restrict the use of pesticides on our foods. For a variety of reasons, the use of pesticides has been declining in the 1980’s. At the same time, these giant agrichemical companies have been acquiring over 100 seed corn companies. They have seen the obvious trend and are getting directly involved with the development of crops that move us away from our chemical dependency. So far that sounds good. But be advised that this is not a totally humanitarian gesture.
A 1980 Supreme Court ruling determined that new living organisms (bioengineered) could be patented. Since that decision, thousands of patents have been filed on key genetic material. Many agricultural experts believe that the introduction of super hybrids will push everything else off the market. The gene pool will essentially be held captive, just as in today’s dairy industry a very small pool of breeding stock accounts for nearly all of the cows being milked. This gene pool industry in crops will be an estimated $12 billion-a-year business. Not only will it crush competition and put all the seeds into the hands of a few, but it will dictate what kind of crops will be planted and who will get them.
To show how complex this issue is, remember that it is agrichemical companies acquiring the genetic material. Now consider that 28 seed companies (owned by agrichemical companies) are currently working on “herbicideresistant” crops. That means we take a crop that wilts on exposure to a popular herbicide, and we breed into the crop properties that have allowed other crops to withstand exposure to it. In short, the chemical companies have discovered that it is easier to change the plant to accept an established product than to go through the long and expensive process of developing a new pesticide.
At face value that seems fair and sensible. The problem is that the pesticides to which crops are being made resistant are very suspect compounds indeed. They are old chemicals which came on the market before the EPA developed its most recent testing procedures. In the case of atrazine, one of the most popular pesticides, the EPA has been within an eyelash of banning it altogether, because of a very large body of data that links the pesticide to cancer, and its widespread contamination of groundwater. Of course the new herbicide-resistant varieties, because they are tailored to work with these old compounds, throw a double whammy into the EPA’s plans. First, there will be great pressure to allow the continued use of atrazine (and the other pesticides having crops made for them). Second, these compounds will probably get relicensed because of some recent changes in the law, which will extend the life expectancy of the product.
But here we also have one of those divergent paths alluded to earlier. At the present point in the research process, it would be just as easy to perfect weed-resistant crops as herbicide-resistant ones. The difference is obvious. A weed-resistant plant does not need to be sprayed with pesticide. Thus it reduces the farmer’s need for pesticide. So progress is not being made for farmers. It is being made for the agrichemical companies. It is predicted that when these herbicide-resistant plant varieties hit the market, it will quickly reduce the number of chemical companies now making pesticides from about 50 to three to five. It will also mean that agri-giants control all inputs: seed to be planted, chemicals to be applied, expertise to show how to farm it. If Frank Norris were still writing, he would have a perfect sequel to his The Octopus.
Which brings us to the fate of the farmer. That OTA report also predicts that by the year 2000 we will have lost over one million of the 2.1 million farmers we now have. Most of the loss will be due to innovations in technology which keep market prices very low and so drive out less efficient, i.e., conventional farmers. Theoretically, the introduction of almost any new biotechnological innovation should be able to be adapted by anyone. But the OTA concluded that for a variety of reasons, it will be the large farmers who are in a position to make the changes and benefit from them—particularly at that critical early period in any innovation’s lifespan when great profits are made because the market prices have not adjusted. Smaller farmers will change, but it will be in response to the flooding of the market with cheaper foods created by the new technology. Most of these smaller farmers will be too late in making the change, and they will be forced out of business. Each wave of change in farming has followed this same pattern.
This might lead to another social crisis in farming similar to what we have just gone through (thanks to increases in farm costs against declining values for land). The OTA considered several choices which are available to us, if we hold constant that biotechnology is inevitable and we have to work around it. The most obvious scenario is that the government gets out of the farm subsidy business—as it is now trying to do. With cheap and abundant supplies of food, mostly coming from about 50,000 large farms, the country will continue to be fed. Meanwhile, a great weeding out of small and medium-sized farmers will take place.
OTA did consider the economic cost to America if for some reason we wanted to “save the family farm,” as we have been trying to do. For this it would be necessary to create a two-tier system, in which farmers who did not use technology were subsidized as they now are. The other farmers would not be subsidized. This kind of system does not seem very likely or very popular. No one would be happy with it. The costs could be staggering—far more than the $30 billion in farm subsidies which we have seen in recent years.
A third possibility is that those who do not utilize technology will stay on the acres as hobbyists, possibly growing alternative crops and selling direct—in effect, avoiding the main food chain. There is nothing wrong with this. But it certainly changes the role of farming.
Ultimately, what is at issue here is a question of direction. The federal agencies have only danced around the issue of regulation of biotechnology in agriculture. Remember that in the health science area we have excellent checks and balances, reviews of procedures, rules and regulations, and clear designation as to who is overseeing biotechnological research. In the agricultural field, where the experiments are infinitely larger and potentially more dangerous, we have almost no such control.
These days, it would seem, Prometheus wears overalls. We should not make the mistake of judging the man by his attire. The new bionic farmer ain’t exactly American Gothic.