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Alternatives to Genetic Engineering

Evaluation of any new technology involves understanding of the alternatives. Are there other ways to do what is desired? What are the corresponding risks and benefits of each alternative? Like benefits, discussions of alternatives can be complicated and elusive, and much depends on the goals envisioned, and on the known track record of existing and proposed alternatives.

When the goals include reducing dependence on pesticides and herbicides, there are clearly alternatives to many biotechnology products. Many of these alternatives are not other products, but instead the systems and methods of sustainable agriculture.

A good example is crop rotation, which keeps pests under control by depriving them of the continuous food supply they need to build up large populations. Crop rotation has many advantages:

  • it controls a broad variety of pests rather than just one or two.
  • it does not select for resistance genes, as do chemical toxins or genetically engineered crops.
  • it does not result in ongoing pollution of air or water.

As a pest-control strategy, crop rotation is far preferable to both chemical insecticides and genetically engineered crops. Unfortunately, because it involves processes and not products, there is no industrial constituency to develop and support crop rotation as there is for the products of biotechnology.

Conversion from industrial agriculture to sustainable systems that depend less on chemicals would eliminate the need for many of the currently projected products of biotechnology. This is not to say that there is no place for genetically engineered crops in sustainable systems; there may well be. But before such crops are introduced to sustainable agriculture systems, those systems must be more fully developed than they currently are. The specific products engineered for sustainable agriculture would be different from those that are being developed to fit into industrial agricultural systems, and their development should probably await the wider adoption of sustainable systems.

Agricultural biotechnology, as it is currently developing, is not particularly fruitful in the quest for a sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture solves problems by understanding and adjusting the elements of the system to achieve its goals rather than by developing new products that must be purchased. Agricultural biotechnology, at present, is basically an input industry, developing products, often expensive, priced to cover the costs of research and development. In sustainable agriculture, new products are less important than new knowledge and new ways of managing agricultural ecosystems.

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