Auburn, April 19---Virtually
everyone believes the recent completion of the human genome map will
open avenues for scientific discovery scarcely imagined only a
decade ago. But genome mapping that already is well under way with
other animal and plant species already has led to major
Case in point: genetically modified row crops.
"They’ve already got the genetic codes mapped
for about 60 or 70 organisms and expect to have as many as 100
completed by the end of the year," says Dr. James Hairston, an
Alabama Cooperative Extension System water quality scientist.
"At this rate, we’ll probably have genetic codes completed
for most of the major plants involved in food production in the near
As the name implies, genetically modified crops have
had genetic material from other species added in ways that render
them resistant to insect predators or to other external threats,
such as farm chemicals used to control weeds.
One of the best known examples of a genetically
altered crop is "Roundup Ready Cotton," a product designed
by Monsanto Corporation to survive several sprayings of an otherwise
lethal herbicide known as Roundup and that already is being widely
used throughout the world. Likewise Bollgard Cotton, another widely
used Monsanto product, was developed to withstand bollworms.
Herbicide-resistant crops, such as Roundup Ready
Cotton, have enabled producers to drastically reduce spraying to
control weeds, just as "Bollgard Cotton" has allowed
producers to reduce insecticide spraying.
In spite of these advances, genetically modified
crops have ignited a firestorm of criticism among many environmental
groups, especially in Europe. As a result, many governments have
imposed outright bans on foods derived from similar products.
Because of these widespread human fears, scientists ultimately may
not be able to carry on with research that could yield even more
environmental benefits in decades to come.
Indeed, Hairston believes many of these fears are
"Ironically, many of the people who oppose
genetically modified crops are also bitterly opposed to synthetic
chemicals used in pesticides," he says.
Pesticides manufactured from chlorinated
hydrocarbons, for example, are especially long lasting in the
environment because of their resistance to microbial decomposition.
Rising public concerns about the widespread use of chlorinated
hydrocarbons and other farm chemicals prompted Congress to pass the
Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, which imposes a far more
stringent standard on the types of chemicals permitted for
The new law forced manufacturers to replace
chlorinated hydrocarbon products with entirely new chemicals that
are considered safer for the environment.
Ironically, in reducing these new chemicals’
durability within the environment, manufacturers ended up creating
new classes of chemicals that pose a greater short-term risk to
humans and other nontargeted organisms.
This is one reason why many experts like Hairston
find genetically modified crops so appealing from the standpoint of
human and environmental safety. Genetically modified crops use
biochemical safeguards taken from other organisms for protection
against predators, thereby reducing the need for chlorinated
hydrocarbons and other potentially dangerous chemicals.
James E. Hairston, Extension water quality scientist,