What Is the Ecological Issue?

For thousands of years, humans have relied upon science and technology to improve their lives. Some advances have been relatively harmless to the environment, while others bear the potential for long-term environmental problems. More often than not, human inventions, such as biotechnology, lie somewhere in between these two possibilities. Humans are responsible for ensuring that these tools do not meet their potential for harm or even destruction.

In this issue, we explore the topic of plant biotechnology. With a rapidly growing population, policymakers and scientists are asking: How will humans produce enough food to feed our growing numbers? Biotechnology is viewed by many scientists and the public as a solution to a potential food supply crisis in the coming decades. Plant biotechnology involves the manipulation of living organisms, particularly their genetic material. The beneficial qualities of a plant are retained and positive traits from other plants may be added, while undesirable qualities are negated or removed. Currently, important crops, such as corn and soybeans, are grown using genetically engineered seeds. These crops are often designed to withstand insect and weed infestation (in some cases by engineering higher tolerance to chemical pesticides and herbicides), thrive despite poor growing conditions, or possess enhanced nutritional value. In general, the main purpose of genetically engineered seeds is to produce larger crop yields more efficiently at lower direct financial and indirect environmental costs.

Human manipulation of living organisms is not new. Since the beginning of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution about 8000-12,000 years ago, farmers collected seeds from the plants that yielded the best crops. They selected and planted seeds from "better" plants in the following years to grow better crops. During the early 1700’s, Thomas Fairchild created Europe’s first hybrid plant (a cross between genetically different parents), but it was not until 1982 that the first “biotech” plant was produced (see definition of biotechnology in http://filebox.vt.edu/cals/cses/chagedor/glossary.html). A tobacco plant was made resistant to an antibiotic by transferring antibiotic resistance genetically. This event paved the way for beneficial traits to be transferred to plants. In 1995-1996, biotech soybeans and corn were approved for sale in the United States. We are now capable of modifying plants by transferring specific genes from a distantly related species.

Debates about the use of genetically engineered crops are now growing in intensity. As of 2003, there are no laws in the United States requiring appropriate labeling of genetically modified organisms. However, some consumers contend they have the right to know if the food they eat is genetically engineered because the safety of this food has been called into question.

Another debate concerns the effectiveness of biotech plants. The popularity of biotech plants rests on the idea that they will produce higher and more stable yields than non-biotech plants, but long-term evidence has not been gathered.

Aside from political, economic, and scientific arguments, an ethical question emerges: Is it appropriate to modify the genes of an organism? Some believe it is acceptable, particularly if it helps people. Others believe that biotechnology will permanently change organisms and ecosystems after millions of years of evolution and raise questions about our right to make such a drastic impact on the earth.