I have to hand it to Mark Phillipson of Syngenta. It can’t be easy to be a spokesperson for genetic engineering of food. Phillipson recently gave a talk to a community group in a lower income area on the windward (east) side of Oahu. Syngenta has research facilities and agricultural test beds on several islands across the state of Hawaii, and often meets community resistance for a variety of reasons. The company is starting to do some outreach and education programs to create community support for their work, and with good reason: the EU, many individual countries (Hungary being an extreme example), as well as states and counties are either banning the growth of GMOs outright, banning their import, and/or requiring them to be labeled (California started with the required labeling of “frankenfish”, and may well be the first state this November to pass a statewide labeling requirement…at the moment, Yes on Prop 37 supporters haver garnered about 65% of polls ahead of the election, despite Dupont and Monsanto spending millions to influence the vote). (Here’s a list of the countries that are requiring GMO labels.)
With this distrust of GMO’s causing a sense of unrest in the normally quiet community food meetings, Phillipson started his presentation by saying, “We’re not here to convince or sway anyone, just to present the data as we know it.”
Hawaii has a number of large genetic engineering companies. Monsanto, Syngenta, and Pioneer all have a strong presence in the islands. According to Phillipson, Hawaii makes a good place because the companies can plant 365 days a year, so they can get 3-4 plantings per year, which speeds up the plant breeding process. Hawaii also has a “coordinated framework of regulatory process, agricultural land available, irrigation infrastructure, and the skilled workforce that sugar and pineapple plantations helped develop.” (paraphrased)
Syngenta has 7100 acres in production, representing about 12% of Hawaii’s productive land. It employs just over 225 full time employees in Hawaii (26,000 worldwide, in 90 countries), including the scientists at its laboratory. One of the primary complaints many people have against genetically engineered foods is how chemically dependent their large scale monocrop farms are. After all, genes are often inserted into plants to provide that plant resistance to a particular herbicide. The genetic engineering firm may use the seeds themselves as a loss leader, selling seeds extremely inexpensively, and then making up the difference by selling farms the particular herbicide they’ve inserted the resistance for into their seed crops.
According to Phillipson, the stated goal of genetic engineering is to reduce use of pesticides and fertilizers, improve output, and provide value added material into the plant. These goals can be accomplished in a number of ways. First is what is referred to as “Input traits”–those that have potential benefit to the farmer. Genetic engineers can input a gene/trait into a plant that is resistant to insect pests, resistance to diseases, tolerance to broad-spectrum herbicides, protection from environmental stresses such as heat, cold, high salt, drought. The potential result of this is less pesticide use, less tilling, less topsoil erosion, and an ability to grow in broader climate ranges.
Output traits are those that have potential benefit to consumers–nutritional enhancement, more starch or protein, more vitamins, anti-oxidants, improved taste, increased shelf-life, and better ripening characteristics, for instance. Genetic engineering can also produce “value added traits”. Plants can effectively become “manufacturing facilities” to produce large quantities of materials, including textile fibers, biodegradable plastics (corn based takeout containers are most often made from genetically engineered corn). Genetically engineered crops can also produce oils for paints, detergents, and lubricants, and plants can also be developed that phytoremediate. Phytoremediation is a process wherein plants can help clean up their environment. For instance, plants can be bred that can pull heavy metals out of soils. The plants can then be disposed of properly, leaving the soils less full of things like lead.
The research and development pipeline includes a 7-10 year testing process for allergens and other potential health hazards, according to Phillipson. According to Vandana Shiva, global human rights activist, this particular process is less than perfect, as the testing process is done internally, not by outside, third party scientists.
In addition to genetic engineering, Syngenta also does a fair bit of old-fashioned, Mendelian hybridization, meaning they cross breed existing plants to try to bring forth new generations of plants with certain characteristics. It was unclear how much of their business comes from this avenue, but it’s clear from the general discomfort in the room in the community meeting that people are much more fearful and distrusting of the genetic engineering side of the business. Syngenta and other biotech companies may do this old-fashioned hybridization, but the financial incentive is not quite as clear for them to do so. The idea that genetically engineered seeds can earn these companies a patent means that they can make a much larger return on investment on them than on something they just hybridize naturally.
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