Demystifying the science behind biotechnology

By Verenardo Meeme

September 14, 2018

Scientists are demonstrating the efficacy of plant biotechnology by taking Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows through the process of making genetically engineered crops.

Misinformation about biotechnology among global communities has inspired scientists to open up their workstations to the Fellows, some of whom are non-scientists, to explain how they advance indigenous breeding knowledge to produce food through the use of science.

Dr. Matthew Willmann, director of Cornell University’s Plant Transformation Facility, explained the importance of scientists in communicating how they develop GE crops. ”I have interacted with participants who believe only GE crops have DNA, which is not true,” Willmann said. “All plants have DNA.”

People have been modifying plant genetics for over 10,000 years, first by domesticating plants that had desirable traits, Willmann noted. Over 500 species of plants and animals have been domesticated by humans. People have further modified plant genetics through traditional plant breeding. Now scientists can also use genetic engineering and gene editing to improve plants.

The Plant Transformation Facility supports other plant scientists by providing them with transgenic and gene edited crops for use in their research. The facility also conducts research to improve these technologies. “Like most academic scientists, we do what we do to try to provide the world with better plants that meet the nutritional needs of a growing population and battle the effects of plant diseases and climate change on crop production — not for financial gains,’’ Willmann said.

Willman was one of several top researchers and educators who worked with the Fellows to improve their knowledge about the science behind agricultural technology.

Professor Andrew Kniss of the University of Wyoming instructed them on pesticides, noting that without proper pest management, farmers risk losing 50 percent to 80 percent of their yield. The use of GE technology in weed management has shown tremendous results, Kniss said.

Dr. Michelle Heck, a vector biologist, said biotechnology research has been useful in understanding how harmful pests, such as the stem borer and fall armyworm, transmit plant diseases and manipulate plant hosts.

Cornell Prof. Anthony Shelton demonstrated the safety of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) a gene used in the modification of maize and cotton. He tasted the Bt protein, which he said was harmless to human beings, then welcomed the eager fellows to try it themselves. In order to control insects, would you would rather use Bt, which produces a protein that harm insects, or apply pesticides, which will harm the environment? Shelton concluded

Shelton observed that biotechnology, just like traditional breeding, has led to the alteration of crops, as well as many nonagricultural products such as medicines, in ways that were not thought possible even by those who led the Green Revolution only four decades ago.

Shelton noted that agriculture is going through another revolution, but this time it is part of the larger revolution in genetics, which has been proclaimed as the third technological revolution, following the industrial and computer revolutions.

Technical aspects of agricultural biotechnology have been rapid, but their deployment and impact has been controversial.

“Plants have been genetically modified (GM) throughout the history of agriculture, but the present technology of moving individual genes through biotechnology is more appropriately called genetic engineering (GE),” he explained.

Plants have been engineered to resist attacks from insects and diseases, to tolerate herbicides and to have a longer shelf life. Additionally, plants are being engineered for such novel uses as remediation of metal-contaminated soils, vaccine production and nutrient supplementation, Shelton said.

”The number of countries growing transgenic crops commercially has increased from 1 in 1992 to 13 in 1999, demonstrating confidence of the technology by farmers,” Shelton told the Alliance for Science. “It is also important to note that insecticidal products containing subspecies of Bt were first commercialized in France in the late 1930s with the product Sporeine.”

In 1995, there were 182 Bt products registered by EPA, but even in 1999 the total sales of Bt products constituted just 2 percent of the total value of all insecticides. Bt was first introduced into tomato plants in 1987, Shelton added.

Dr. Walter De Jong, an associate professor of plant breeding at Cornell University, observed that genetic engineering is a useful tool for potatoes and other root tuber crops because it is slow and difficult to make progress by conventional breeding methods.

Joyce Van Eck, director of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, said scientists are developing GM crops that are more productive, nutritious, resistant to disease and able to withstand the effects of climate change.

GMOs and non-GMOs are similar except for the modification aspect, and GMOs are regulated by various government agencies to ascertain their safety. ”If I felt that there was something harmful that would come out of this type of work, I wouldn’t be involved in doing it,” she said.

Okon Odiong Unung, a Nigerian research scientist and 2018 AfS Fellow, said that based on the information he learned from the various scientific experts, he would recommend GM crops to farmers and consumers because it is one of the tools to achieve sustainable food security and improved livelihoods.

Conventional agriculture can no longer meet the demands for sufficient food as a result of the ever-increasing population, coupled with the emerging dynamics of rapid climate change, depletion of water resources, decrease in arable land as a result of urbanization, incidences of pest and diseases and other agronomic challenges, he said.

“It is also worthy to note that GM is not a ‘magic bullet’ to achieve sustainable food security,” Unung said. “Every farmer needs to adopt suitably improved farm management or agronomic practices for their specific farm and production situation to ensure optimum yield.’’

Gerald Andae, a Kenyan journalist and 2018 AfS Fellow, said he learned that there is a lot of misinformation about biotechnology, which has played a negative role in the adoption of these crops throughout the world.

“It was evident from the scientists that genetically engineered crops are safe and can play a major role in promoting food security in the world and also lift the economic life of farmers through increased earnings, as was the case with papaya farmers in Hawaii,” Andae said.

Verenardo Meeme is a Kenya-based journalist and 2018 Global Leadership Fellow.