ALTERNATIVES TO GENETIC ENGINEERING
A key part of any benefits discussion involves
alternatives. Are there better ways to do what is desired?
Like benefits, discussions of alternatives can be complicated
and elusive, and much depends on the goals envisioned. 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 elegantly 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. And 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 such 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,
by contrast, is basically an input industry, developing products,
often expensive products, priced to cover the costs of research
and development. In sustainable agriculture, new products
are less important than new knowledge and new ways of manipulating