Ag Research

Ag Research and Development (2014)

Basic Research lays the foundation for advancements in knowledge that lead to applied gains later on. Agricultural research is conducted at the government and state levels, by corporations (both private and public) and at various universities. Many times these entities collaborate with each other. Genetic engineering (GE), nanotechnology, and transgenic procedures (combining different species) are newer technologies dating from the late 20th century. [ a), etc., relate to the consensus questions.]

a) Basic research–The term “genetic engineering” (GE) is sometimes used carelessly and too broadly. A full discussion of genetic engineering starts on Page 5 of this Focus.

b) Risk assessment–Government and private industry cooperate with some universities in developing new products. Due to the money involved, critics voice concern that academic departments risk being converted to pseudo-science laboratories for large corporations with commercial goals, thereby distorting pure science.

c) New technologies–Research to assess the impact of new technologies on human health and the environment would require expensive long-term research. Who would pay for it? Would such a requirement prevent the introduction of new products?

d) Diversified and sustainable agriculture–There is no reason to believe that agricultural research will not continue, perhaps at an even faster pace due to the new technologies. It is not widely known that farmers are among the earliest adapters of technology. How this research will be funded is not yet determined. Pure research, such as that performed at national agencies, can be very expensive and frequently does not result in a final, usable product. Very large corporations can invest in large research projects, but critics object that this can unbalance the market place, harming smaller farms, and, when large grants are given to universities to research specific projects, it bends the mission of academia to remain neutral.

e) Seed banking is done to preserve genetic diversity; pre-GE seeds are reserved (banked) to ensure earlier traits are not lost to the future. Stacked seeds employ multiple genetically engineered genes. Stacked seeds can provide resistance to multiple insects while at the same time tolerating various formulations of herbicide.

f) Transparency and intellectual property rights–Maintaining both transparency of research studies and criteria used for approval of new products and respect for intellectual property rights of private enterprises is a balancing act. Although various assessment processes are used by FDA, USDA, EPA, they all aim to eliminate or minimize potential harmful consequences. For example, before a transgenic crop can be grown outside a laboratory, it must receive Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) approval. However property rights involve patents, and some companies have used these patents to maintain a monopoly on some products. For example, Monsanto has patented some of its seeds that can only be purchased annually from Monsanto and cannot be reserved for planting the next crop. This has stirred strong controversy in the agriculture industry and may well result in changed patent law in the future. Anti-trust issues could be involved here, too.

g) Long-term effects–Perhaps the biggest obvious flaw in today’s system of protecting the user from harmful effects of new crops or animals is the lack of information on what long-term effect these pesticides–and genetically engineered plants and animals–may have on humans and the environment. The pressure to bring new products and crops to market precludes any long-term study.

Follow-up studies over time have on occasion revealed harmful effects: some beneficial bugs have been killed by pesticides, and sometimes the pests have over time themselves mutated and become immune to the pesticides. These are called superbugs and cannot be destroyed by traditional means. When something like this goes wrong, it can take a long time before the problem is discovered and a solution worked out.

h) Conservation–It is in the self interest of farmers and ranchers to protect and conserve their properties–after all, their long-term survival depends of it. But because today’s advances are so scientifically sophisticated and require so much research, it is unrealistic to assume individual farmers, or even modest-sized farms, can pursue new methods without receiving financing and expertise from either the government or private sources or both.

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