“OK! OK! OK! We get it!” you say. “Transgenic plant breeding is not a "Soylent Green" plot. But why do we have to go down this route? Why not just grow heirloom varieties using organic agriculture practices?”
Because we want to feed everybody. Because we want to spend our money on more than just food. Because our global economy brings us more and more pest pressure on our food and fiber crops at an increasing rate.
For the past couple of generations, U.S. citizens have enjoyed a great advantage over the rest of the world. The people in the rest of the world spend 50 percent of their income on two meals a day. Americans spend 25 percent of their income on three meals a day. Having inexpensive food allows us to have the disposable income to spend on houses, cars, clothes, entertainment, health care, recreation and all the other stuff we like to do and enjoy. It is the fiscal foundation of our standard of living.
As I watch national and international news, I fear those days rapidly are coming to a close. The more we spend on food, the less we have to spend on other things.
If you are a fan of “Modern Marvels” on the History Channel, you have seen how amazing the food industry is in America. Nobody produces safer, more nutritious and a wider variety of food, and more of it, than the United States. These achievements aren’t static and don’t occur in a vacuum. The improvements are in response to market pressures for lower unit costs and improved product quality brought about by free enterprise and capitalism supporting innovation.
There was a time not long ago when we did not have coyotes and armadillos in Bryan County. The armadillos came from a private zoo that went out of business in Florida and the coyotes came across the I-10 bridges over the Mississippi River.
Rivers and oceans used to be effective barriers to isolate genetic materials. The Galapagos Islands are the classic example. As we explored the world, we brought back plants and animals that were of use and interest to us.
Back in Roman times, if something was collected, it had to survive a long journey back to Rome or Constantinople. Weak or diseased individuals, whether plant or animal, died on the return trip, reducing the opportunity for new disease introduction. Only the healthy samples survived.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, it took a couple months at sea to get back to Europe. Today, a jumbo jet can fly the contents of a Spanish galleon across an ocean in less than a day. Today, we get not only the plants but all the diseases they are incubating in a matter of hours.
One of our greatest fears is disease from imported birds infecting our poultry industry. There was a time we could take a group of 4-H students to a poultry farm with a simple phone call. Today, if you even can get permission, they need to know the names, addresses and contact information for the kids. They also need to know if the kids have pet birds, have been sick or have respiratory diseases. The kids wear protective booties, hairnets and a mouth mask – not to protect the kids from the chickens, but to protect the chickens from the kids!
It does not have to be the product itself that gets us; the enemy can be the packaging.
Less than 10 years ago, products from China arrived on wooden pallets. Here in the United States, we kiln-dry our wood to kill insects and fungi that might infest the wood. China did not do that.
A tiny ambrosia beetle hatched out after the pallets arrived in Savannah and set out looking for food. It found our native red bay and proceeded to munch on it, transmitting a fungus from the same genus of fungus that caused Dutch elm disease.
Today, our red bay (Persea borbonia) effectively is eradicated from its native range in Georgia, and the disease now is worrying the Persea americana producers in south Florida. You know P. americana as avocado. So, the price of guacamole will be going up.
In late May, James Jarrell of Ellabell discovered a strange bug on his wisteria. He recognized it from an article on kudzu bugs in the Tattnall County paper June 9 and called me the next day.
Kudzu bugs also arrived from Asia, but this one first made its appearance in the Western Hemisphere on the sides of houses in North Georgia in 2009. Jarrell’s collection of kudzu bugs was the first for Bryan County. It means kudzu bugs have made it all the way to the coast in less than two years.
If they just ate kudzu, we probably would be hailing them as insect heroes, but no, they seem to prefer soybeans. So now our farmers in north Bryan have to take kudzu bugs into their calculations of what crops to grow next.
Soybeans also are from China. In fact, the first soybeans brought to America were smuggled here by the owner of Bonaventure Plantation, now Bonaventure Cemetery, in Savannah. He did a couple years in a Chinese prison prior to bringing them here as the Chinese figured out that he was trying to smuggle silk worms.
China had a monopoly on silk and Savannah was trying to horn in on the business, and the Chinese were not too pleased about it. The silk business in Savannah folded, but soybeans have fared much better.
But if you really want to talk about plant espionage, the story of coffee is riveting. The first glass greenhouse was built at Versailles to house the first coffee plant stolen from the Spanish by the French. The truth about smuggling coffee from the Spanish is as swashbuckling a tale as Disney ever produced.
The point is that with all this trade – both legal and illegal in genetics – and the rapidity with which it occurs, the old ways of plant breeding just cannot keep up with the changes forced onto our food and fiber crops.
The world is smaller and less isolated than it was. We have to work twice as hard just to keep our place at the table.
Can we go back to the slower pace of the old days? Sure, but you will have to decide who starves and who gets food because there will not be enough to feed all the people on the planet today.
As for me, I plan to avoid that choice by supporting American agriculture so we can continue to feed the world.
Gardner is the extension agent for Bryan County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.