Thursday, October 05, 2006

Good Enough To Eat: Gardeners need to dig into the issue of genetic engineering

What is genetic engineering?
Genetic engineering of plants is the insertion into a cell of a synthetic gene or a gene from an unrelated organism. Scientists attempt by such means to provide a plant with capabilities it didn't possess on its own. The ultimate result of a successful insertion is a plant with a different genetic makeup and different capabilities than the original.
Genetic engineering uses now center on insect and virus resistance, herbicide and stress tolerance, and food crop improvements including delayed ripening time, increased oil content and increased nutritional value. In the near future, we can expect pharmaceutical and forestry applications of the technology.
Who's doing it and to what plants?
The United States is the leading practitioner of genetic engineering of plants. About two-thirds of the acreage devoted to GE crops is in this country. Argentina follows with about a quarter of the acreage. Canada and China account for most of the rest.
Soybeans host the lion's share of transgenic material. Corn comes in second, followed by cotton and canola. In Hawaii, a papaya carries transgenic material to protect it from a virus disease. In Oregon, it's creeping bentgrass. And in the European Union, the sugarbeet is one of the main hosts.
What's next?
Next week I'll talk about the cheerleaders of genetic engineering -- the schemers, the dreamers and the pragmatists. We'll also consider the detractors -- farmers, environmentalists, social critics, trading partners and people who simply mistrust big business and the government agencies that are supposed to regulate them.
Chris Smith, a Master Gardener who lives in Port Orchard, is retired from the WSU Cooperative Extension. Send questions to P.O. Box 4426, South Colby, WA 98384-0426.

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