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Can Agricultural Biotechnology be Green?

Fred Gould


When engineering crops and designing strategies for effective use of transgenic insects for biocontrol, you should consider:

  • leaving the environment as intact as possible
  • having enough availability of food to maintain social stability
  • making products affordable and accessible to farmers
  • using patents in a way that promotes innovation

July 2009

What does “green” mean in agriculture?


Farming canola. Genetically modified canola is controversial but today a lot of farm acreage is devoted to the GM crop in some countries. Photo: Canola Council of Canada.

Gould: Green ranges from maintaining or increasing biodiversity and not harming the environment with toxins—leaving the environment as intact as possible—to implementing agricultural practices that support the stability of society as a whole. The issue of food sovereignty that you hear about today is related and very important. Food sovereignty was a policy framework put together in the late 1990s by environmental organizations together with farmers, indigenous peoples, anglers, and others. It means that instead of food being subject to market forces, people have the right to define their own crop food, livestock, and fisheries.

Social stability and greenness go hand-in-hand.

I have worked in the Philippines, China, and India. In the Philippines, for example, the government wanted to bring the Green Revolution to their country because they foresaw the need for high-yield rice varieties to feed its people. If you are talking about sustainability or green, however, it does not always matter if you make things green. For example, if you have unrest in your country and you destroy what you started or created, then you are really going to lose ‘greenness’ in the long term. If the Philippine government had not embraced Norman Borlaug’s idea of the Green Revolution,1 the country would have fallen apart.

I think that if you want to have green sustainable agriculture, you have to implement it in such a way that you have enough availability of food and shelter to maintain social stability. I think social stability and greenness go hand-in-hand. You can define green for the next twenty years, or you can define green much further, in terms of what is going to happen in this world if you do not take into account people’s rights. I am not sure where that definition fits because these approaches are often not opposed to each other, but there are times when they can be.

Are engineered crops of this generation sufficiently green?

Gould: I do not think those products themselves have any problem with being green. Questions do arise when we consider how they are brought to market, how they are used, and how they are developed. The National Academy of Sciences and other organizations stress that it is not just the process you use to make something, it is also the product that can either be green or not. I will also add that it is not just the product, it is also how the product is used in agriculture.

Herbicides could be made green.

For example, agricultural biotechnology (agbiotech) companies could develop genetically engineered soybeans, corn, and cotton that do not require Atrazine,2 one of the worst herbicides, for weed control. Better still, if we engineer these crops to have a glyphosate3 tolerance, now the product becomes an environmentally friendly herbicide. But social problems may arise. Adding a glyphosate-tolerance gene to a crop could make the genetically-modified product too expensive for people in places, such as Africa, where the cost of herbicides may be economically prohibitive.

Patents should not discourage innovation.

Furthermore, if there is a patent on the gene, it might make it legally impossible for breeders to use or improve that gene, unless they obtain a license from the company that owns the patent. My sense is that you have to tailor patents so that they increase productivity in invention. I think people are concerned that one could build a patent in a way that stifles innovation as opposed to helping it. I am not sure just where those lines are drawn, but it is an important issue. This is where the courts and the patent law have to determine what is real innovation and what is just a gene sequence. A patent should encourage innovation.

Do farmers have to get on the biotechnology bandwagon?

Farmers may have to embrace agbiotech to compete.

Gould: Consider ways that farmers might be affected. Are biotech companies going to assemble all these genes into one cultivar, that is, a selected or altered plant chosen for its special characteristics, almost to the point that you cannot afford not to grow it if you are a competitive farmer? What if in addition to including these patented, genetically engineered traits in the crop, scientists also improve breeding attributes for this crop—make it a higher yielding product than the original? Well, the farmer will be forced to buy this newly engineered crop because if he buys the alternative crop, which may have a 10% lower yield, he might lose his farm to the competition. You would wind up in a situation where farmers have no choice.

One does not need genetic engineering for that type of situation to happen, however; we have the issue in the poultry industry right now, where there is vertical integration—the farmers typically do not even own the chickens they are raising. The same thing could occur with crops, where farmers would not buy their seed, they would rent their seed.

Are there advances that are good for environmentalists and good for the farmer, too?

Gould: Yes, there are, but these too have their issues. It is hard to find an environmentalist who would admit that anything good for the environment has come from genetically engineered crops. If we are allowed to debate engineered crops only in terms of the environment and health, and we are not allowed to bring in social issues because they are taboo, issues will still arise.

Bt cotton improved farmers’ health because fewer pesticides were used.

For example, in the case of Bt [Bacillus thuringiensis] cotton in China,4 it is hard to see how that is not an environmental success story because it decreased the use of pesticides and improved the health problems of the farmers. Where is the downside to that? Surveys also showed that the adoption of this engineered cotton was good for the economy. Farmers increased their incomes by reducing their labor time and use of pesticides. There are good lessons here for other developing countries but currently only small farm seed companies sell the seed. It might be better to have a national seed company producing the product, but the decision to use genetically engineered crops is in the hands of the farmers right now.

Food security requires having many crop variety choices.

Sometimes the issue of food security comes up, that is: Can we rely on only a few varieties of a particular crop to ensure our food supply? One could develop genetically engineered products that are important to millions of people, like the International Rice Research Institute, which developed Golden Rice,5 lauded as a new crop with medical benefits because it was engineered to counter Vitamin A deficiencies. Some research suggests that the rice will not fix the malnutrition problem around the globe. Others argue that the rice is a biotechnology stunt to make money when there are other solutions to human health and malnutrition. Putting such controversies aside, I think that if you are developing any product important to the well-being of so many people, you should consider making it affordable or simply giving the product to the people. However, should such a product prove to be of immense benefit to people, will other varieties of the crop disappear, leaving us with few choices should disaster strike the dominant crop?

Can crops be made greener through technology than by conventional methods?

Gould: Yes, it is possible. Cotton in China is a good example—I would much rather be in a cotton field in China today than ten years ago, particularly in terms of the amount of conventional insecticide that was used in the past. Someone could ask, is it a better scenario than someone growing organic cotton? I think many times the answer involves asking: What products and uses are you comparing?

Regulations can ensure that agbiotech be green.

I think compared to conventional agriculture, if you have the right regulations, crops can be engineered to be better. We, as scientists, can direct the practice towards that and public pressure will help that happen. I believe it is just like having any good technology. If you have a push from society, there is incentive to produce a car that gets better gas mileage. If we push for good practices, biotechnology can be beneficial, but if those that oppose this technology push, or if the market changes, we may be forced to go in another direction.

Are genetically engineered insects effective for green biocontrol?

Here is an example that is undergoing tests. As we all know, malaria is a dreaded disease, infecting millions of people every year. No effective vaccine exists to date. The disease is caused by the single-celled Plasmodium parasite, which is transmitted to humans when an infected mosquito bites them. Researchers are experimenting with ways to stop malaria by making the mosquitoes themselves fight the disease. The technique involves making genetic changes to the mosquitoes’ DNA by manipulating Medea factors (nuclear elements).6

Insects for biocontrol are not commercially profitable.

Big companies are very interested in crop and pesticide engineering because of potential profits. Pesticide companies realize this technology is coming, so they know to get on the train if they want to compete. Monsanto, one very large player in the agbiotech business is very smart about trends, getting ahead of the game, doing a good job figuring out what they need to do. However, if you bring to such companies a way to genetically engineer pests, using methods like manipulating the Medea factor, they are typically not interested. There is more money in engineering pesticides than in engineering insects. Monsanto at one time considered putting Bt into bacteria that live in soil. But where is the profit in releasing the engineered bacteria that would propagate normally and not have to be released again? The same logic is used when thinking of natural biocontrol agents. If one were to bring a parasite of an agriculture pest from Asia and release it into our environment, companies are not going to make a profit.

The groups that are interested in insect engineering are governments. The USDA is very involved in importing biocontrol agents. Everyone knows that there is no profit down the line with genetically engineered insects. There are some small, start-up companies interested in this, but you never hear any of the big companies talk about it. Once the engineered insect is made, anyone could work with those insects in their back yard. If you had the right conditions, you could raise them and release them—it is a very different business plan. In fact, to most people, it’s not a business plan.

Why are public attitudes towards agbiotech different in different countries?

Gould: There are certainly different attitudes around the world. For example, Brazil is embracing biotechnology in farming whereas some European countries have said no to many engineered crops. Why is there such a difference in public perception? I am not an expert in this, but I hear people saying there is not enough faith in government agencies in Europe.

Sometimes food is a cultural consideration.

In France, food is a different thing culturally than it is in the United States. Camembert cheese is just one example of their cultural attachment to food. The French asked: Could you use pasteurized milk and still call it Camembert cheese? The issue is about pasteurization, an old technology, and I would not call it heavy-duty genetic engineering. Camembert has traditionally been made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, and it is ripened by the molds Penicillium candida and Penicillium camemberti. The French want to maintain this tradition and they do not consider other cheeses made with pasteurized milk to be true Camemberts. The U.S. and some other countries require dairy products to be pasteurized.

Is the current oversight process adequate for agbiotech?

Large companies are the winners of regulations.

Gould: Well I think that issues such as engineered foods that might cause allergies have fostered a stiffer oversight process. Every time the USDA makes a regulation for one product, they regulate the industry as a whole. Then, if something goes wrong, and environmental or civil groups protest, they have to tighten up their regulations. You could say in some ways, because the regulations are so tight, often the only people that can “win” in a situation are large corporations. I believe that most of the start-up companies that wanted to get into the genetic engineering business are gone. Small companies cannot afford to compete with the big ones.

It is a double-edged sword when regulations are increased. In some ways, it has become a healthy technology because of that. If biotechnology were any other technology, regulators may not have found out about the monarch butterfly issue, for example. Everyone was concerned that Bt corn pollen was harming the butterfly larvae. The public took up the cause. So regulators were forced to have studies done. Eventually, evidence revealed that there was no major harm done to the Monarch and everything turned out fine.

Fred Gould received his PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. After a short postdoc that followed up his thesis work, he went to North Carolina State University as a soil insect ecologist and later had his responsibilities broadened to insect ecology and genetics. Since 1986, he has conducted theoretical and empirical research aimed at increasing the evolutionary sustainability of transgenic insecticidal crops. He also conducted basic research for the understanding of the ecological and genetic factors that shape herbivore host range and that enable the evolution of complex traits such as sexual communication systems. Recently, Dr. Gould has begun using evolutionary theory in designing strategies for effective use of transgenic insects for control of insect-vectored human issues. Dr. Gould was interviewed at the AIBS Annual Meeting, May 2009, Arlington, VA.

Can Agricultural Biotechnology be Green?

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  1. Borlaug’s Green Revolution. Learn more about the 1970 Nobel Laureate and his Green Revolution that began a transformation of agriculture in 1945. (accessed July 21, 2009).
  2. Atrazine is an herbicide used to control broadleaf and grassy weeds. Atrazine is mainly applied to corn and soybean crops, but is also used on sorghum, sugarcane, pineapple, and Christmas tree farms. (accessed July 21, 2009).
  3. The USEPA defines glyphosate as an organic solid of odorless white crystals. It is a non-selective herbicide used on many food and non-food crops as well as non-crop areas such as roadsides. When applied at lower rates, it serves as a plant growth regulator. The most common uses include control of broadleaf weeds and grasses in: hay pasture, soybeans, field corn, ornamentals, lawns, turf, forest plantings, greenhouses, and rights-of-way. (accessed July 21, 2009).
  4. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium. Spray applications of Bt are one of the most important insect management tools in certified organic production of many fruit and vegetable crops. Through genetic engineering, the Bt gene can be “inserted” into cotton, so that the plant produces its own Bt toxin. Cotton plants expressing these modified genes provide control of tobacco budworm, pink bollworm, and cotton bollworm. In 1998, Bt cotton accounted for over a quarter of U.S. harvested cotton acreage. (accessed July 21, 2009). October 18, 2010 Link no longer available.
  5. Golden Rice was developed as a means to alleviate vitamin A deficiency (which causes weakened immune systems among many other things) worldwide. Golden Rice will be made available to developing countries within the framework of a humanitarian project. (accessed August 1, 2009).
  6. Maternal-Effect Dominant Embryonic Arrest (“Medea”) factors are selfish nuclear elements that combine maternal-lethal and zygotic-rescue activities to gain a postzygotic survival advantage. (accessed July 21, 2009).


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