Can Biotech Crops Feed The Developing World? Biotech has promised innovations like drought-resistant corn and vitamin-packed cassava to the developing world. But how has it delivered on those dreams? Ira Flatow and guests discuss the status of those projects, and how "technologies in a seed" fit in with other agricultural improvements.

Can Biotech Crops Feed The Developing World?

Can Biotech Crops Feed The Developing World?

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Biotech has promised innovations like drought-resistant corn and vitamin-packed cassava to the developing world. But how has it delivered on those dreams? Ira Flatow and guests discuss the status of those projects, and how "technologies in a seed" fit in with other agricultural improvements.


Glenn Stone, professor, anthropology, professor, environmental studies, Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.

David Fischhoff, lead, Technology Strategy and Development, Monsanto, St. Louis, Mo.

Richard Sayre, director, BioCassava Plus program, director, Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute For Renewable Fuels, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, Mo.

Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist, Food & Environment Program, Union of Concerned Scientists, Washington, D.C.


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're broadcasting today from the St. Louis Science Center here in St. Louis, Missouri. And you know, one thing we've heard a lot about in the last 10 years is feeding the world through better agricultural technology, especially biotech.

But how many of those genetically engineered food crops we've heard about are actually growing in small farmers' plots today, feeding people in the developing countries?

Remember golden rice? Well, it's not in any rice bowls yet. So what is the timeline like? What are some of the obstacles for these things coming and reaching those places that they're intended to be?

There are other promising projects that are in the pipeline, too, like more-nutritious cassava, for example, or drought-tolerant corn to help farmers cope with hotter weather, drier soils.

There are thousands of varieties of corn in Mexico cultivated by farmers for generations. Couldn't we just tap into that library of specialized varieties to breed more drought-tolerant species instead of using genetic engineering? What advantages do genetic-engineered crops offer?

Well, that's what we're going to be talking about, a lot of that stuff and more. And if you're here in the audience, I invite you to join in and step up to the microphone right there in the aisles and ask a question.

If you're listening at home or in your car, please don't cell while you're driving, but you can move over to the side and dial us, 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK. And if you're actually in your office, we're also live video-streaming today on the Internet, and you can go to our link at and click on that little link to watch us on SCIENCE FRIDAY here from St. Louis. Also, we're podcasting and blogging. If you want to tweet us, a lot of people tweet us, our tweet is @scifri, that's @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Let me introduce my guests. Glenn Stone is a professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University here in St. Louis. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Stone.

Dr. GLENN STONE (Professor, Anthropology; Professor, Environmental Studies, Washington University, St. Louis): Thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. David Fischhoff is the lead for technology strategy and development at Monsanto, based here in St. Louis. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Fischhoff.

Dr. DAVID FISCHHOFF (Lead, Technology Strategy and Development, Monsanto): Thank you.

FLATOW: Richard Sayre is a director of the BioCassava Plus program at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center here in St. Louis. He's also director of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute For Renewable Fuels there. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Sayre.

Dr. RICHARD SAYRE (Director, BioCassava Plus; Director, Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute For Renewable Fuels, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center): Happy to be here.

FLATOW: Richard Gurian-Sherman is a senior scientist with the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, and he joins us from our studios in Washington. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. DOUG GURIAN-SHERMAN (Senior Scientist, Food & Environment Program, Union of Concerned Scientists): Thanks for having us. It's Doug, but I'll answer to Richard if you'd like to.

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FLATOW: Doug, I'm sorry. Well, you're now officially part of the group of names that I get wrong all the time. So welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Dr. Fischhoff, let's begin. Last month, you published a paper in Science with some other researchers, including Nina Fedoroff, the science advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in which you talked about climate changes and what that means to agriculture in the 21st century. Could you tell us a little bit about what you talked about?

Dr. FISCHHOFF: Yeah, what we addressed there was the impact of climate change on agricultural productivity, and the conclusion we reached is that it's really necessary to bring to bear all sorts of agricultural technologies to food production because the world is already at a point where we're going to need to increase food productivity and do it more sustainably in the next 20 or 30 years, really double food production, and climate change only adds to that urgency.

FLATOW: How much can genetically tinkering with the genome increase the yield on some of these crops or better make us suitable to face what's going on with climate change?

Dr. FISCHHOFF: Well, what we see as possible is a doubling of the productivity in the major food crops over, say, the next 20 or 30 years, and it's really not just biotechnology.

We think of it like a three-legged stool. There's biotechnology, which can do certain things. There's significant improvements through plant breeding, and there's also agricultural practices. And it's really the three of those together that we think has the potential to double food production.

FLATOW: Doug, you're not a believer in the climate-change argument for genetic engineering?

Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well, I don't think we're in a position where we would entirely discount, you know, the potential for genetic engineering to contribute to some extent, but I think we have to remember at this point that so far, genetic engineering, despite a lot of effort over the last 15 years, has not been able to produce crops with these kind of complex traits like drought tolerance or tolerance to saline soil.

The two crops out of the dozens, or hundreds actually, of genes that have been gone through the field trial process at the Department of Agriculture, you know, pretty much all with the hope of developing commercial, genetically engineered crops, have really only produced the BT crops, the insect-resistant crops, which have a handful of different genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil microbe, and the herbicide-tolerant crops, mostly glyphosate or Roundup tolerant crops have been most successful.

So of all the genes that have been attempted to go through the field trial process, only those handful - and then a couple other have been quite successful, such as virus-tolerant, virus-resistant papaya in Hawaii. But of course, it's a much smaller crop.

So, you know, that and an analysis that we've done looking at yield, the potential to increase yield and what the technology has done so far lead us to believe that the technology really has improved itself. It's also very expensive compared to other forms of breeding, agro-ecological methods that can improve multiple aspects of farming at once and at much lower cost.

So it's not that we discount it completely, but we do have some real skepticism about the likelihood that it's going to contribute, especially in the near future.

I don't think anybody, you know, would want to venture how much a technology may improve in 20 or 30 or 40 years, but in the next, you know, five to 10 years, there may be a few of these crops that emerge. But compared to what's already being done...

FLATOW: Let me go on and get to some of these (unintelligible) because I'm sure you could go on a lot longer about this, but I want to talk to some talk about some specific examples.

And Richard Sayre, Doug was talking about something he mentioned. One creative way of engineering foods is to make them more nutritious. Tell us he mentioned a bit about the BioCassava Plus Program, about using cassava plants to change what's actually in the plant and make them more nutritious.

Dr. SAYRE: Yes. The BioCassava Plus Program is a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation under the Grand Challenges in Global Health Program. And we are part of the Grand Challenge 9, which is to provide complete nutrition in a staple crop for people living in developing countries.

So most of us know cassava probably as tapioca. It's also known as yucca. It's a crop that originated in Brazil, moved to Africa, where it's a very important crop, but it doesn't it's very good at providing calories in the diet, but it's deficient in a number of nutrients.

The five that we're focusing on are protein, provitamin A, vitamin E, iron and zinc. And we're trying to elevate those levels between 10 and three-fold, depending on the particular nutrient.

FLATOW: And where would they where do these crops, where do you intend them to be grown? In what places?

Dr. SAYRE: Well, initially we're targeting two countries in Africa: Nigeria, which is the most populous country in Africa, also the world's largest consumer of cassava. Cassava's a part of the meal every day for most Nigerians. And the other country we're currently targeting is Kenya, but we have partnerships developing in Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana.

FLATOW: And why would a farmer want to plant these crops? These farmers say I plant crops to make money, right?

Dr. SAYRE: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: Are they going to make any more money planting this?

Dr. SAYRE: Yeah. Well, cassava is really a food security crop for much of Africa. It's drought tolerant - we've already touched on that point just a moment ago. It grows in very poor soils, and it can be relied upon to provide food for a long period of time. Most importantly, you can leave the roots in the soil for up to three years, come back and harvest them piecemeal, as you need food, and so it extends the growing season effectively over three years.

FLATOW: One of the criticisms or the observations that Doug Gurian-Sherman had was that it takes forever, or it seems like it's taking forever, to get these new genetic varieties to market. How close are we to getting the reality of this plant also?

Dr. SAYRE: Well, that's a great question. We started this project in 2005. We're now finishing up Phase 1. In 2008, we'd actually hit our target objectives in the greenhouse for virtually all the traits that we were focusing on.

At that time, the Gates Foundation recognized that we were making very rapid progress and provided us supplemental funding to bring it to the farmers even more rapidly than we had imagined. So we received an additional amount of funding. Where were project us to be, as far as delivering the product to the farmer, is somewhere probably after 2018. That's the most optimistic...

FLATOW: Wow, that's not very close, is it? Why does it take so long?

Dr. SAYRE: Well, at this stage, we're actually conducting our first confined field trials in Nigeria. And we're proud to say, through the efforts of Dr. Martin Fregene, that we were the first ever approved transgenic crop allowed to have a confined field trial in Nigeria.

That's the first step in the process is to demonstrate that the plants are behaving normally, that they're producing the trait of interest, but then we go through a number of other regulatory steps along the way before the crop is approved for dissemination.

FLATOW: And this crop does not is not propagated through seed, correct?

Dr. SAYRE: Correct.

FLATOW: These are cuttings, which may make them more acceptable overseas.

Dr. SAYRE: And very importantly, it helps us in terms of our genetic strategy. Since it's generally not propagated by seeds - some varieties will produce seeds, not all when we introduce a transgene into the organism, then we clonally propagate it. So it's a one-generation process rather than many years, which is typically involved in breeding.

FLATOW: How do you get the gene into the plant?

Dr. SAYRE: Well, we use a bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. It's a bacteria that grows in the soil. Many years ago, it was recognized that this bacterium could engineer plants by inserting pieces of its DNA into the chromosomes of plants.

So investigators - actually here in St. Louis, Mary-Dell Chilton was one of the original investigators to take advantage of this strategy - used the plasmids, the DNA of these bacterium, to insert foreign genes of interest into the chromosomes of plants.

FLATOW: Very interesting. We're going to come back and talk lots more about these plants and other plants and bioengineering. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We're also Twittering. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and also if you're in the audience here, please don't be afraid to step up to the mic. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about biotech crops. You have heard about drought-resistant corn or more-nutritious cassava that we've been talking about this hour. And there are markets for these things, and one of the countries and I want to bring in an expert, Glenn Stone, who's professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University here in St. Louis.

I saw a site, we have actually a picture of this up on our Web site, of places in India where there are just seed stores lined up in blocks and blocks and blocks of selling seeds. What's going on in these places? Where do these seeds come from? What are they doing there?

Dr. STONE: Well, the stores you're talking about are selling seeds and fertilizers and lots and lots of pesticides, and it varies from crop to crop, but with cotton in India, the farmers plant almost exclusively hybrid seeds, which are seeds that you have to buy every year. And so it's there's a really large seed sector there in India, and there have actually been lots of problems with it. So the and this is one of the places where genetically modified cotton is being introduced, and it's actually a really unstable situation there.

FLATOW: What do you mean it's an unstable situation?

Dr. STONE: Well, there's been a pattern there of very poorly regulated seed supplies, and so new seeds appear on the market really rapidly. And I found in my research that farmers tend to sort of careen from seed to seed. They'll plant a seed for a year or two and then move on to something else, as opposed to the classic pattern of farmers planting on a small scale to evaluate it and then moving on to plant it on a larger scale.

FLATOW: And you've observed that even though we can engineer new pest resistance into the crops, the pests mutate, don't they, to learn how to get around some of these genetically engineered...

Dr. STONE: Well, yeah. Just recently, there was an announcement from Gujarat - which is in the other part of India from where I work, this is over in Western India - where one of the major cotton pests called pink bollworm has just shown the first signs of having mutated to where it is, in fact, resistant to one of the genes that's being using. There's still another gene that's being used, as well.

FLATOW: Dr. Fischhoff, you're instrumental, you were instrumental in developing the technologies behind the insect resistance in GM crops. Do you anticipate this happening over the years, that sooner or later, they're going to become resistant to whatever you put into them?

Dr. FISCHHOFF: Well, you know, development of resistance is something that has to be anticipated, and you know, one of the keys with the development of the BT crops, like the insect-resistant cotton that's used both here, as well as India, and many other countries around the world, is deploying them in ways that help mitigate that development of resistance.

And, you know, to put it in context, in India, Indian cotton production has just about doubled since the advent of insect-resistant cotton. Productivity is way up, and we're dealing with a system there where there's literally millions of small farmers who are using those seeds, which I think is a great tribute to the technology.

And at the same time, clearly, you know, there's the first reports of resistance in isolated pockets in one state in India, but at the same time, even in that state, we expect next year that the second-generation insect-resistant cotton that has two different BT genes will be on 80 or 90 percent of those acres, and those plants show no resistance in the insects.

So we've already got pieces of a solution in hand, but it does highlight the need for education and appropriate, what we would call, stewardship of these crops in order to make them the most effective they can be.

FLATOW: Doug Gurian-Sherman, there's a controversy in India right now over another insecticidal crop, the Bt brinjal or eggplant, and you were just over there. What's going on with that?

Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well, it would be the first widely grown vegetable or fruit crop. As I said before, papaya, virus-resistant papaya, is being grown in Hawaii, but it's a much smaller crop that eggplant or brinjal is in India.

And there was a lot of concern both among civil society and among scientists, which I think is an important point to make, about the quality of the risk assessment that was done to both demonstrate the food safety of the crop and also the environmental safety.

I was directly involved in some of the analysis of the data that was submitted on something called gene flow, or contamination, and from what I could see, as well as several internationally respected academic scientists who work on gene flow, the data was really sorely deficient.

So what the...

FLATOW: Deficient in what way?

Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well, there weren't the studies that were claimed to show that gene flow would be minimal or would not have an environmental impact were just either not done or done in a way that didn't really provide the needed information.

So the literature shows, for example, that there are some wild relatives of eggplant that live in India, and it has to be remembered that India is a center of diversity for eggplant. So the gene pool there is very important to maintain to provide genes in the future that can provide things like drought tolerance and other important properties.

But the and gene flow can potentially have an impact on that. So the studies that were done looked at the ability of pollen to travel from the crop to other members of the crop or wild relatives. That study really was not sufficient.

They didn't use the right kind of pollinators probably, in terms of the bee species they used. The plots were small, but also it's been widely agreed National Academy of Sciences studies and others that currently, we don't have the technology to prevent gene flow in that kind of pollination.

And the reports there, the studies there ignored more-recent literature. It cited one paper from 1979 that gene flow could not occur, but a number of international experts and published studies have indicated that gene flow to these wild relatives could occur.

Another problem, briefly, was that it was asserted that there were no important insects on these wild relatives that might be harmed, the moth species, lepidopterous species, by the gene, but there were no studies provided to support that. And it's not an easy thing to really do because you could have different of these insects in different parts of the country because eggplant is widely grown in India.

So, you know, that's kind of just a flavor of the kinds of things that were either done poorly or not done, and the same could be true of the human safety studies.

So the environment minister decided to step back and hold some public hearings, take testimony from and comments from scientists internationally. And I think importantly, the scientific community, you know, there were certainly supporters of the fact that of the assertion that it was safe. But you know, often in this debate, I think it's very important to understand, you know, if you read the media, it's often portrayed and often portrayed by proponents of the technology as scientists being for the technology and activists, maybe well-meaning activists, that don't understand it being having concerns about it. I won't say against it because most of us are not intrinsically opposed to it, but we do have a lot of concerns about how it's regulated and so forth.

But in this case and in many others, many scientists, independent scientists, weighed in on their concern about the risk assessment, including M.S. Swaminathan, who is considered to be the father of the green revolution in India. Push Babardvo(ph) is often considered to be the father of molecular biology in India, and then, as I said, many independent scientists.

FLATOW: Okay. We have to move on. Let me take a question from the audience here.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi, welcome to St. Louis.

FLATOW: Thank you.

Unidentified Woman: First of all, two questions from the consumer's point of view. When Tropicana added calcium to my orange juice, I could taste it. So I'm wondering, these nutrients that you're putting into the cassava, does it change the taste?

Also, here we use cassava, as you said, for tapioca and sometimes for yucca. Could you talk a little bit about the use of cassava in the African nations?

Dr. SAYRE: That's a very important question and something that we're the issue of palatability and will the farmers like the biofortified cassava is a very important issue for us.

The way we're addressing that initially is first we're going to be engineering farmer-preferred cultivars. These are the varieties that they prefer to eat in their local area. So we've done extensive surveys to identify what those cultivars are, and we're currently at the Danforth Center under the direction of Nigel Taylor(ph) developing transformation systems for those.

We will be putting in some traits that will alter the color of the cassava. Beta-carotene, which is the orange color of carrots, is one of those. In many cultures in Africa, orange color is not considered desirable, but fortunately in Nigeria, our major target country, there's a food product known as garri. It's produced from cassava. It's an orange-color food because of the addition of palm oil.

So it's our expectation that in some countries, in some regions, we may encounter some resistance, and in other regions not likely. But to help in the adoption and acceptance of these biofortified cassavas, we're also introducing additional traits.

These include reduced cyanide toxicity. This plant produces a lot of cyanide that has to be removed before you can eat it. It includes virus resistance, and it includes increased shelf life. We think those drivers will help with the adoption and acceptance of these new crops.

Dr. STONE: If I just could add something...

FLATOW: Go ahead, Glenn.

Dr. STONE: ...about the use of cassava. One of the reasons that cassava is a particularly interesting crop to be modifying for use in Africa is it not only has these advantages that Dick mentioned about the use in poor soils and so on and so forth, but it's a very good crop to be sold or eaten. That gives it a very important kind of flexibility to the farmer.

So I think it's important to look at these crops that are being developed, that they actually vary quite a bit in terms of what sort of impacts they might have in developing countries. And I think this particular project with the nutritionally enhanced cassava has got the sort of advantages that a lot of other GM crops don't have.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. FISCHHOFF: And if I could just add one thing, cassava is something we often, here in the U.S., don't talk much about, but there's also a project at the Danforth Center where Monsanto has been able to contribute some technologies to help the plants become resistant to some devastating viruses. As I think someone noted already, Cassava is vegetatively propagated not from seeds, so viruses can build up in that stock, in the pieces of the plant that are replanted. So controlling virus disease is really important.

And I think what that says is that to really effectively deploy some of these new technologies to help developing countries - really a whole package of technology. Sometimes it'll be a couple of biotech traits together, sometimes it'll be improved breeding and agricultural practices, as well as biotech that really make a difference.

FLATOW: I have a question. It's an interesting point that you bring up, it's good to hear about that. Why would Monsanto which - I would think that a small market like Africa - poor Africa, it's not a big market that Monsanto might make a lot of money. And why would you be interested in trying to create those kinds of products?

Dr. FISCHHOFF: Well, you know, we see that - and I think this is true of many who work in industry - we have some technologies that could have a really profound impact in developing countries, even in crops that we don't directly work on. So we're happy to donate them. In addition, you know, in Africa, there are seed markets. As Glenn noted, there are seed markets in India. And over time, we expect, you know, increased productivity leads to increased profitability for the growers and markets will develop even more so.

FLATOW: You're looking long term, that this is where you'll have additional markets someday?

Dr. FISCHHOFF: Very much so.

FLATOW: Richard, you want to join?

Dr. SAYRE: Yeah, I might add to that. Our first milestone of BioCassava Plus was actually to have freedom to operate on intellectual property for various enabling technologies and genes we were using. And many of those are patents held by Monsanto. Monsanto was actually the first corporation that came forward and provided access not only to the genes we asked for, but their complete stable of gene technologies for humanitarian purposes. And humanitarian purposes in this context is defined as an income per farmer of less than $10,000 a year. And when you live in Nigeria on $200 year, $10,000 is stratospheric.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Were talking about genetic engineering in farming this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here in St. Louis.

Any - I know you're not here, Doug, any follow-up that you'd like to follow-up on any of these?

Dr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Yeah. I think there's a couple of issues that are important here. If this cassava can be developed and shown to be safe, which is a question, and also shown to not have really undesirable side effects - something we should talk about - then it certainly could be valuable if the farmers there want it. And that was touched upon in terms of the quality. But there's a growing food sovereignty movement of farmers around the country, and we - you have to remember that they're the ones who are going to be using it and eating it. And they need to be part of this discussion.

Beyond that, nutritionists have concerns about whether this is the best way to use scarce development dollars to get at these problems, because nutritional problems are obviously much more complex than even several nutrients, as in the work of Dr. Sayre. And given a relatively limited amount of development dollars, you know, we really should be asking where can we best use them? Now, this cassava project might be one that would warrant that but that question is not really asked nearly enough. And...

FLATOW: Let me get Dick Sayre to react to that.

Dr. SAYRE: Yeah. That's a great comment and it's actually an issue that we're addressing currently. At the behest of the Gates Foundation, we were asked to do what are called ex-ante impact analysis studies of these projects. And we had two economists involved in that project, Jack Fiedler and George Norton. They've independently come up with similar numbers, but I can give you those. The benefit to cost ratio is estimated to be 43, that's quite high.

And then there's another term that's called disability adjusted life years saved. And economists put a value on that. If the value is less than the annual income of the farmer, then it's considered a good intervention. And our value is about $40. The average income in Nigeria is $600. So it's a very, very cost-effective strategy. I can also give you an estimate of the bottom line for the complete project over the 20-year course. And the estimate is $40 million.

And then, one last point and that is, the other type of interventions which are vitamin supplementation and fortification of foods, those are continuously ongoing strategies, they never end, whereas this is potentially a one-time solution to the problem. But more importantly, we've also compared the benefit cost ratio of biofortification to supplementation. And again, biofortification is much more cost-effective.

FLATOW: All right. We...

Dr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Can I just comment on that (unintelligible)?

FLATOW: All right. We've got about 30 seconds. Go ahead. We've got 30 seconds.

Dr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Yeah. I mean, the economic analysis that I've seen generally done - and I haven't seen this one - are fairly limited in terms of their standards of comparison. So biofortification, of course, is one approach. But what would be much better, of course, would be for farmers to have the ability to grow a variety of plants that are really more important for a balanced nutrition anyway. And these go to economic issues, infrastructure issues and other issues that are not really going to be addressed by genetic engineering.

FLATOW: All right, Doug, thank you for the comments. We have to take a break. We'll come back and talk more with Glenn Stone, David Fischhoff, Richard Sayre and Doug Gurian-Sherman. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us and watch us online, go to SCIENCE FRIDAY, we have Web streaming today, video streaming. You can watch our show as we're doing it.

Stay with us, we'll be right back, taking more of your questions after this break.

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about genetic engineering and how biotech crops impact the developing world. We're here in St. Louis, at the St. Louis Science Center with my guests, Glenn Stone of Washington University, David Fischhoff of Monsanto, Richard Sayre of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, and Doug Gurian-Sherman is in Washington with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the audience here and get a question.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yes. I happen to be giving a talk later today to a high school social justice class about conservation. And so you've touched on this a little bit, but I'm curious for these high schoolers who aren't getting as much public radio as they should, what will they see as far as how genetically modified crops are effecting conservation of local plants, you mentioned gene flow, things like that?

FLATOW: Glenn, you want to anybody wants to tackle that?

Dr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: I could take a stab at it or...

FLATOW: Okay. Okay, go ahead. Go ahead, Doug.

Dr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well, I mean, the social justice issue, I think, would best be looked at starting domestically because we've been growing the crops here longer and we do have markets which Monsanto is hoping will develop in Africa after a number of years. And there, I think, are some troubling trends. One is an issue of the inability of scientists or difficulty to get access to genetically engineered seed in order to do the kinds of research that they say is important to do.

The patenting of these seeds makes it really problematic - this is something new over the last about 20, 25, 30 years - for independent research to be done in a smooth and unimpeded way. And there been several important articles about this over the past years in the New York Times, in Nature Biotechnology and other journals. So that's one issue.

Another is that companies like Monsanto, and especially Monsanto, have been buying up seed companies left and right and now control a huge part of the market for this seed. As a matter of fact, the Department of Justice is in the process of investigating Monsanto to see if there you know, to check whether there are antitrust violations going on. Just today, I think, in the Los Angeles Times - and there have been a number of articles on this - noted that seed prices have risen dramatically over the last 10 years - doubled, tripled, just in the last couple of years have gone up 35 or 40 percent for some of these major crops.

You know, Monsanto justifies it by saying that they're providing the farmer with traits, and thats certainly true. But there's a huge question as to how much choice the farmer has. There have been...

FLATOW: Well, let me stop...

Dr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: ...number of complaints about that...

FLATOW: ...let me just stop there and give David Fischhoff a chance to respond to some this.

Dr. FISCHHOFF: Well, I think that competition in agriculture is really alive and well. And I you know, it's true, the Justice Department and the USDA are holding a series of workshops about agriculture in general, not just biotech by any means. But I really believe that, you know, the competition is out there. There's a variety of companies who are independently developing traits. We license our technology to hundreds of seed companies around the world.

But back on the issue of conservation, I think that the traits that are already developed are having a profound impact in a couple of different ways that are really important as far as conservation goes. One is the insect-resistant traits provide a way of controlling insects much more selectively that very, very significantly reduces the amount of hard chemical insecticides that are needed to control pests in those crops. Provides big advantages in terms of increasing yield, and the herbicide tolerance traits actually promote conservation tillage, which means that farmers don't have to plow up their land every year with the consequent impacts on reduction in top soil.

So I think we can't overlook the benefits. And these are benefits that are seen not just here in the U.S. and in the developed countries, but every place that we've been able to introduce these technologies.

Dr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: I don't want to take up too much time, but I think there's several real inaccuracies in those statements and I think they really need to be challenged. Monsanto has been, you know, saying that these crops increase yield. We, of course, as some people know, have done did a report about a year ago on this, focusing on the U.S., where we have the best data and where we can tease out the contribution of the transgenes separate from the varieties, because you have to remember that the conventional genetics, conventional breeding continues to go on and provide an improvement to these crops.

So we wanted to look at that. And what we found was that, yes, indeed, the BT gene does provides some yield impact in the U.S., but it's very modest, it's only about three or 4 percent on an aggregate basis. Some farmers will see much higher yield improvement - eight, 10, 12 percent. But for most farmers, they would not see that kind of yield improvement.

But I think what's very important - and this gets back to the idea of using the proper standards or comparison. When you look at USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Data, over that same period of time that these genes have been commercialized, other methods - conventional breeding, better improved management of the crops - have increased the yield in corn by 28 percent. So only about three or 4 percent by our calculations, which are rough, but I think are definitely in the ballpark. Others that even support the industry have come up with similar numbers. It's only a small contribution so far to yield increase. So I think it's really misleading to suggest that some major impact...

FLATOW: Well, David, do you have any response to that?

Dr. FISCHHOFF: Well, I think this is an area where Doug and I probably just disagree. I think looking at other studies, we would say that there have been significant yield increases.

And, you know, when you go out into the fields, as I have done in the U.S. and in other countries, and talk to growers, they really see the benefits. I can give you just one example. When we first introduced our corn product, resistant to corn rootworms, which are little worms that live in the soil and damage the roots, was in a couple of years here in the Midwest where we had really significant drought conditions. And, you know, you could just visually see the difference. The plants even treated with chemical insecticides to control the rootworm that didn't have the trait were stunted and hardly had any yield at all, and the ones that have the trait were growing nicely and at least provided some yield.

And I think, you know, that's an example of the kind of thing that growers really benefit from, which is the protection of yield. You know, plants have an intrinsic ability to produce a certain amount of grain. And one of the things that biotech has done so far, and even the drought-resistant corn that's in development will do even more so both here and in Africa, is to protect what the plant is capable of doing.

FLATOW: All right. Glenn, you were champing at the bit here to get in.

Dr. STONE: Yeah. If we could move the conversation back to the third world, where we started out. I think the picture there of how well the GM crops had done is actually fairly mixed. On balance, there have been a lot of studies that have shown decreased pesticide use and some increased yields. At same time, there have been a number of studies that have shown that it drops. It depends on a lot of different situations -local institutional factors, education of farmers, local ecology.

In some cases, pesticide use even goes up. There was a major study that I was just an adviser on recently that compared four different countries. And in Colombia, the people who had adopted Bt cotton were actually using higher levels of pesticide. So actually, I think the fairest way to characterize it is that the results have been promising but mixed in developing countries.

FLATOW: Richard, you want to...

Dr. SAYRE: Yeah, there's one more comment, I think, that's appropriate, and that is for these orphan crops of the developing countries. Many of these are sterile crops. Banana plantain is an example. Cassava - many varieties don't produce seeds. We're left with only one choice here if we're going to improve that, and that's through genetic modification.

FLATOW: All right. Let's go to the audience here. Yes?

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) on bioengineering plants for -specifically for fuel as opposed using food crops?

FLATOW: Fuel plants. I know Richard is working on algae. We'll get into this a little bit. Richard, you want to talk about that a bit because we want to devote a whole show to this, but let's...

Dr. SAYRE: Yes.

FLATOW: about it a little bit.

Dr. SAYRE: Well, certainly, there has been a lot of focus on using crops for biofuels. The first generation biofuels were corn-based ethanol. We're moving into second generation, which is cellulosics and hemicellulosics, where you actually use the entire plant - the stems, the leaves, the food portion of the plant. We're moving into third -what I would call third generation that's getting a lot of attention now, and that is oil-producing crops, such as algae. And we're moving away from food crops to crops such as algae that can be grown on marginal land with much less impact on food.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to the phone, to Chuck(ph) in San Francisco. Hi, Chuck.

CHUCK (Caller): Hi. Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: Hi there.

CHUCK: A lot of this talk about increasing yield and productivity and farmer's income and so forth makes me think that we're talking about countries where there is a certain degree of industrial agriculture, not maybe the poorest countries where hunger is the biggest problem. You've got a lot of subsistence farmers.

So I'm wondering if the improvements you get in drought resistance, pest resistance, that sort of thing, is just going to make an incremental difference and is not really going to seriously impact the hunger in the countries. Whereas the biggest problem - and if really what was - is going on here is a certain amount of maybe outsourcing of industrial agriculture to lure cost producers and not really looking at the context in which this hunger is taking place, which is to say countries where you have subsistence farmers and maybe a different approach, rather than the sort of approach you'd take in a developed nation is appropriate.

FLATOW: Okay. Let me get an answer.

Dr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Yeah. If I could start on this one. I think that's a really important point. So, you know, yield increases were talked about for these various crops. And for maize, for example, which is a very important subsistence crop in parts of Southern Africa, the Bt gene can provide some real increases in some circumstances - sometimes 20 to 40 percent, occasionally higher yields have been seen.

But again, I think, you know, I really want to get back to this idea of what we're comparing genetic engineering to. You know, ultimately, it's very expensive to develop these genes. The industries' estimates usually are $100 million roughly. Dr. Sayre mentioned about 40 million for his project.

And if you contrast that to agroecological approaches, which address the caller's question, because instead of just dealing with one trait at a time, you're dealing systemically with the entire ecosystem. So, for example, the push-pull system, which addresses the stem borer, but also adds fertility to the soil through leguminous cover crops, provides fodder for animals, and suppresses a major weed, striga. That tends to more than double yields, and at much, you know, at low costs. So there's a direct comparison with Bt in maize, and that much cheaper technology with much more benefits to the farmers in the communities comes out way ahead.

FLATOW: Okay. We're talking about biotech crops this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Somebody wanted to jump - Glenn, yeah.

Dr. STONE: Yeah. I think if the topic of conversation is hunger in the third world, it's easy to overestimate the importance of crop productivity in that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. STONE: It's quite common in the third world to have the coexistence of a lot of hunger with enormous food surpluses.

FLATOW: They've always said - I've always heard over the years, there's plenty of food to go around, we just can't get it to the right people.

Dr. STONE: Yeah. Well, in some cases, there's more than enough to go around. I mean, when I was in India in 2002, which was the year that they first approved their first genetically modified crop, which was cotton - not an edible crop, but still the first GM crop. And much of the discussion had to do with what sort of technologies do we need to try to feed our hungry population. India in 2002 had more hungry people than any other country in the world. In 2002, their surplus in their state buffer stocks of grain was 42 million tons. That was 42 million tons over the amount they wanted to have in their buffer stocks. And there were articles appearing in the newspapers suggesting that they dump the crops into the sea to make room for the next crop. So it's...

FLATOW: They just - they couldn't distribute it. They had it in the storehouses but it was not getting out.

Dr. STONE: There are long list of problems in connecting the food to the people...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. STONE: ...but the most overriding one is simple poverty.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right, let's see if we can get a couple of questions in here before we have to go. Yes, sir?

Unidentified Man#2: Hi, I teach high school science in the St. Louis area and was wondering if there were any programs or aspects of the research for the institutions in the area that might involve high school students.

FLATOW: How can we get high school - Richard, do you want to...

Dr. SAYRE: Yes. We have a very active education program at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. And Terry Woodford-Thomas has programs that actually go out to the high schools. And the high school teachers coming through the Danforth Center in the summer are trained how to use these new technologies. And then these suitcases go out to the teachers during the regular school year.

FLATOW: A question over here. Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified Woman #3: Hi, when seeds are patented and all these small companies and large seed companies are being bought up, the reason to do that is to make the seed supply more scarce and have less biodiversity. So all these poor farmers that you're talking about that you want to help with bigger crop yield - I'm worried about what the actual impact is on them when a truck falls over, contaminates their entire crop, and they get sued by Monsanto and have to give over their entire crop two months in. So it doesn't sound like they're really interested in the cause of the local farmer. They're more interested in putting a hammer on everybody's ability to - they're even making seeds that don't - that are sterile on purpose so that everybody, every single farmer has to buy more seeds...

FLATOW: All right, Well, let me...

Unidentified Woman #3: ...they can't even save their own seeds.

FLATOW: That's a good point. Let's talk about the sterile. This seems to be - is this an urban legend that you're making seeds, David, that are sterile?

Dr. FISCHHOFF: Well, you know, often when we hear comments like that, people are referring to the so-called terminator gene, which literally never existed. It was an idea from a USDA scientist - a little bit of research was done - but that technology never actually existed in practice. And we, many, many years ago, said we wouldn't use technologies like that.

But I think, you know, intellectual property protection is important in order for companies to be able to commercialize products, but at the same time, we've been able to donate technology, for example, as Dick said, for some of the cassava projects. And ongoing right now, we have this water-efficient maize in Africa program, where a local African foundation is the project manager with CIMMYT, the corn-breeding institute that Norman Borlaug headed in Mexico with multiple national agricultural programs. And we've been happy to donate our drought tolerance technology as well as our expertise in plant breeding to enable that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well - and we've just about ran out of time. I want to thank you all. This is a good beginning to talk about this. This is a topic we talk about all the time. I want to thank - David Fischhoff who is the lead technology strategy and development at the Monsanto, thank you for being here with us. Doug Gurian-Sherman is a senior scientist for the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. Richard Sayre is director of the BioCassava Plus program at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center here in St. Louis. And Glenn Stone is professor of anthropology and environmental sciences - environmental studies at Washington University. Thank you all for being here with us today.

Dr. FISCHHOFF: Thank you.

Dr. SAYRE: Thank you.

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