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WSU wheat breeder avoids the GMO path

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(July 30, 2001 Ė CropChoice news) Ė Stephen Jones said "no" to developing transgenic wheat for the biotechnology industry.

"I view my job of public breeder as being public," says the Washington State University wheat breeder. "Therefore, I am opposed to the commercialization of anything a public breeder creates."

Several life science company representatives have asked Jones, a geneticist, to contract with them to engineer herbicide resistance into the varieties of winter wheat with which he works. Monsanto intends to commercialize its transgenic wheat that resists the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), sometime between 2003 and 2005. BASF markets a mutagenically derived herbicide resistant wheat called Clearfield.

Jones has declined for two reasons. One, he says that growers have already paid for research into wheat through their checkoff money (and taxes).

Two, Jones thinks that the direction of research is following a business model rather than a scientific course. The patenting of plants, to which he is opposed, is one of the results.

"The exchange of ideas and material between public researchers and research institutions has declined," he says. "Everyone is trying to make a profit from this." A better course of action would be to direct research toward what society wants. And it appears that it does not want biotech food.

"Iím not necessarily against the science used to create GMO's (genetically modified organisms)," he says "but there is potential for trainwrecks. What concern me more are the practitioners, not the practice. We shouldnít do this just because we can."

In relation to the ad campaigns of life science companies that tout a "save the world" theme, Jones has a burning question to ask: "What if curing starvation isnít profitable? It certainly is not today. Thirty-five thousand people starve each day on the planet mostly because of poverty and politics. Why arenít they fixing this today? Why wait for a sexy untested privately owned technology? I think itís ruthless to promote this with claims that they are going to decrease human misery. Their track record so far has been less than inspiring."

Rather than continuing to focus on single-gene solutions to insects and weeds, which donít work because theyíll adapt, Jones favors placing more emphasis on sustainable agriculture; his traditional wheat breeding program also runs an organic and perennial wheat project. (Check out the Land Institute website at www.landinstitute.org and others for more general information).

"The answer isnít a bigger, stronger tool necessarily," he says. "Itís to use fewer chemicals." And to those who, after reading that last quote, would tout the biotechnology industry line that transgenic crops are reducing pesticide application, studies and grower testimonials show that pesticide usage has not declined. For more information about this, see the following:

-- Report points out problems with Roundup Ready soybeans; www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=312

-- Study finds that benefits of Bt corn may not outweigh potential risks; www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=366