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Oversold Biotech Hurts Plant Breeders

“Breeding has been hijacked by biotech’s bio-bulls–t.”

– BRIAN ROSSNAGEL

Misplaced hype over biotechnology is making it harder to garner research dollars for good, old-fashioned plant breeding, a plant breeder with the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre says.

“Breeding has been hijacked by biotech’s bio-bulls–t,” Brian Rossnagel told the Prairie Grain Development Committee’s annual meeting here Feb. 25. “This is really a major and a significant factor that we need to be worried about in my opinion.”

In an interview, Rossnagel stressed he’s not opposed to genetic engineering, which allows scientists to transfer genes between life forms that normally wouldn’t occur in nature. It’s a great tool for plant breeders, he said, but no more than that.

Contrary to what some gene jockeys claim, genetic engineering will not replace plant breeding. “Without (plant-breeding) biotech will not have an effect because there is no base upon which biotech can work,” Rossnagel said.

The emphasis on biotech is also a factor in the drop in new plant breeders entering the field, he said. “We have huge difficulty in trying to find graduate students who are interested in doing anything these days,” he said.

That’s because graduate students follow the funding.

Earlier in the meeting Don Smith, chair of McGill University’s plant science department, said no university in the United Kingdom offers plant-breeding training programs anymore.

Rossnagel identified three factors behind the biotech hype:

Fewer of the people who allocate research spending are scientists;

They are influenced by exaggerated biotech benefits reported in the popular press;

Biotech promoters stretch the truth or even lie about what they can accomplish.

“Where are the results to date? All the results that mean anything are in about a dozen single gene, plant breeding dumbed-down-as-low-as-you-can-get-it results that happen to work really well.”

Rossnagel said an Australian state premier was “brainwashed” into believing drought-tolerant, GM wheat could have prevented the recent crop failures, even though many of the drought-affected areas received no rain at all.

“This is just complete absurdity,” Rossnagel said.

Besides siphoning off resources, biotechnology often increases the cost of research, he said. If traditional plant breeders during the last 20 years had received half the human and capital resources invested in biotechnology, much more might have been accomplished.

Rossnagel criticized Agriculture Canada’s emphasis on “big science,” which he claims has only resulted in big administration costs.

In the past, the department’s managers were former scientists. Now they are apt to be career administrators with no background in science. “They are very susceptible to the bio-bulls–t artists of the world who are out there, be they public or private.”

The Canadian Prairies, second to only Siberia, is the toughest place in the world to grow crops, he said, noting that needs to be top of mind when conducting research for farmers here. “It does not allow us to do some things at the farm level that our colleagues in Iowa… might be able to do,” he said. “There is only so much biological time.”

Biotechnology is a valuable tool to plant breeders, but so was the invention of the small plot combine and computer, Rossnagel said.

One of the biggest achievements for plant breeding in the last 35 years was the development of canola. Using tradi tional plant-breeding techniques scientists removed the erucic acids and glucosinolates in rapeseed, making the oil and meal suitable for human and livestock consumption, respectively.

“Plant breeders took something that was basically almost a weed and turned it into an incredibly important economic driver in Western Canada… without any of the biotech tools,” Rossnagel said.

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About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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