Feature Stories Fall 2011 Issue

Searching for the Silver Bullet

By Melissa Hughes | Illustrations By Christina King 0

If you were looking for a cure for cancer, a more efficient car engine, a better way to see into outer space, you might logically start in the lab. But if you were looking for a better way to grow crops and feed an increasing global population, would you start in the Petri dish?

Some scientists claim that they have found the elusive silver bullet for agriculture. Need a plant that can withstand drought? Need to provide more omega-3s in the soybean? In just a matter of time, scientists claim they will produce plants that solve a multitude of problems, plants which increase yield, are pest and weed resistant, more nutritious, and even better for the climate. Scientists, and the companies that employ them, have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in researching genetic engineering (GE).

Working with seed breeding and hybridization is nothing new. For centuries, agriculture has used plant breeding to accentuate the characteristics needed for a certain climate or region while minimizing less attractive characteristics. Breeding using GE has the same goal, but the method is slightly—yet significantly—different. Traditional reproduction or breeding occurs only between closely related organisms; for example, cats with cats and tomatoes with tomatoes—not tomatoes with wheat or fish. GE, on the other hand, takes gene fragments from multiple unrelated organisms and places them into the DNA of a plant, which then replicates itself in the plant and the plant’s offspring. Genetic engineering takes advantage of modern technology in the laboratory to do what would not happen in nature.

There is a rising group of concerns surrounding the use of GE technology that has many questioning whether GE really represents a “silver bullet solution” to global food security, or whether we need to get out of the lab and back into the field.

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