'Green' Genetic Plant Claims Draw Skeptics

A biotech company says it has created genetically engineered canola and rice plants that need only half as much nitrogen fertilizer. But some environmentalists don't think that any genetically engineered crops can really be "green."

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Biotech companies say they've got something new, something that is great for the environment - genetically engineered crops, which don't require as much fertilizer. That could mean lower costs for farmers, less damage to wildlife, less global warming. But as Dan Charles reports, some environmental advocates aren't convinced that any genetically modified crop can truly be green.

DAN CHARLES: It was an accident, really, that revealed the gene that some researchers say could help save the planet.

Dr. ALLEN GOOD (University of Alberta, Canada): To be honest with you, until we sort of stumbled on it, I wasn't really thinking a lot about nitrogen fertilizers.

CHARLES: Allen Good at the University of Alberta in Canada was looking for a way to help plants tolerate droughts. He changed one gene in some canola oil plants and gave a bunch of seeds to a new graduate student for her to plant. Some had the new gene, some didn't.

Dr. GOOD: It turned out that no one had bothered to tell her that you have to fertilize these plants.

CHARLES: Soon the unmodified canola plants looked sick. They weren't getting enough nitrogen - a plant's most important nutrient. The ones with the new gene, though, prospered.

Dr. GOOD: They were a lot bigger, they're a lot greener. They didn't appear to be showing the normal signs of nitrogen stress.

CHARLES: Good has been trying to figure out why. He says the new gene seems to make the plant a more aggressive eater. It can scavenge nitrogen more efficiently from the soil.

The company Arcadia Biosciences in Davis, California bought the right to this genetic innovation.

Eric Rey, the CEO, of Arcadia Biosciences, says nitrogen efficiency is a very, very big deal.

Mr. ERIC REY (Arcadia Biosciences, Inc.): Nitrogen is the agriculture as gasoline as to the auto industry. It's really the fuel that makes it go.

CHARLES: It's used on a massive scale. And just like gasoline, nitrogen has huge environmental consequences.

Consider a typical cornfield like this one on Maryland's Eastern Shore. A farmer will spread about a 180 pounds of nitrogen on every acre of this field this year.

Thomas Simpson, an environmental scientist from the University of Maryland, says about half of it will be wasted.

Mr. THOMAS SIMPSON (University of Maryland): When it rains a lot in the fall and winter, after that crop is grown, then we tend to wash the nitrogen out of the soil. It goes down to the ground water and then flows through the ground water and comes out in our creeks and rivers and eventually flows to the Chesapeake Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.

CHARLES: It fuels blooms of algae, which suck oxygen from the water and kill fish. Some goes into the air as nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas; in fact, nitrous oxides from the world's farms contribute more to global warming than all of the cars in America.

But, Simpsons says, supposed the corn plants here only needed half as much nitrogen.

Mr. SIMPSON: If I only put half as much down, I don't have as much nitrogen left here to get washed off and to get lost to our rivers and coastal waters.

CHARLES: And Arcadia Biosciences said it could also help slow down global warming. The company has signed deals with bigger partners to work with particular crops. Monsanto has canola plants that seem to do just fine with only half the normal dose of fertilizer; other companies are working one corn, rice and wheat.

Eric Rey from Arcadia Biosciences says these crops could cut the release of green house gasses from the world's farms in half.

Mr. ERIC REY (Arcadia Biosciences): So it would be the same sort of impact as taking all the cars in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany off the roads.

CHARLES: It sounds like a wonderful thing for the world's environment. But some independent scientists say don't believe Arcadia's hype. They don't think this will work in the most important crops like corn and rice, which take the most nitrogen.

Also, many campaigners for a greener world aren't quite ready stand up and cheer. Reyes Turado(ph), a researcher with Greenpeace International in England, says inserting new genes into food is just too risky.

Ms. REYES TURADO (Researcher, Greenpeace International, England): We don't really know what are the consequences of introducing these plants in the environment. And we know they're risky for bio-diversity. They can become pests once they are introduced in the farm or in the natural environment.

Turado says there are more practical ways to attack the destructive flood of nitrogen. Framers could simply used less of it, or they could plant so-called cover crops on their corn and soybean fields in off seasons, or they could convert some corn field to pasture.

We know these things really work, she says, and farmers can start doing them right now.

Fort NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.

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