PULLMAN, Wash. — International controversy over genetically modified
crops threatens future advancements in biotechnology, said Washington State
University plant pathologist R. James Cook.

Cook, who has been studying wheat and barley root diseases for 35 years, said
developments, such as new methods of preventing a root disease of barley,
hang in the balance. Because all varieties of wheat and barley are susceptible
to these diseases, his efforts have been directed at fighting them by accessing
their natural enemies in the soil. He said this is now possible with
biotechnology.

“We now can access genes in the natural enemies of these root-disease fungi,
which are actually other fungi, and put them into plants,” Cook said. “This
provides the plants with the same method of defense used against the
pathogen by its natural enemy.”

With this in mind, Cook, along with R.A. Nilan Distinguished Professor Dieter
VonWettstein and research assistant Yongchun Wu, are currently working on
a project to develop a barley plant with resistance to a root disease that is
deadly to all commercially grown varieties of wheat and barley. If they are
successful with barley, they plan to expand the work to include wheat. With
the project still in its early stages, the question is whether the world will accept
this kind of genetic modification by the time the work is complete, Cook said.

“The controversy has two parts: the part you read about in the press, and the
real reasons,” said Cook regarding the recent media coverage of
biotechnology, in particular the recall of Aventis StarLink corn.

The part people read in the newspapers and see on television concerns the
safety of genetically modified foods. For example, is it harmful to the health of
people, animals or the environment, Cook said.

“These are genuine concerns people have when they hear we’re doing
something to the food supply. But if that was all there is to it (the
controversy), science could correct it.”

The other part of the controversy is more problematic in that genetic
modification of crops is a new technology that will likely replace many kinds of
current technology.

“There are winners and losers with any change, and the real resistance to
biotechnology is actually a natural resistance to change,” Cook said. “This is
behind much of the objections in Europe to biotechnology.”

Chemical sales companies are an example of an industry that will be impacted
because of advances in biotechnology. As biotechnology reduces the need
for pesticides, the companies that make and market crop chemicals will need to
adjust, Cook said.

Some environmentalists say a genetically modified plant, such as StarLink
corn, is a problem because it could cause an allergic reaction in some people.
Cook points out there is no evidence linking StarLink corn with allergic
reactions in people. Opponents also say the modified gene could jump to a
native plant, upsetting the ecology. Cook said there is no substantial evidence
supporting this fear either.

Cook said he does agree that science must address these issues as well as the
issue of the gene moving into a crop intended for certification as organically
grown. The current national standards for an organically grown certification
exclude crops modified by the new tools of biotechnology.

Although it may seem like consumers are wary of biotechnology, scientifically
conducted surveys found 70-80 percent of Americans believe biotechnology is
good for the environment and the economy, Cook said. He adds that it is
mostly certain environmental groups and those fighting technology that are
opposed to biotechnology.

“These groups are well-organized and they keep the fire stoked,” Cook said.
“But agriculture must be efficient, and consumers are driving agriculture
towards ever greater efficiency.”

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