Technology can be great — sometimes

By Colleen Scherer, managing editor

The 21st Century is the most technologically advanced age man has ever seen. Our technology is astounding. Information from around the world in many languages is available at our fingertips thanks to computers and smart phones. Science has unlocked multitudes of genomes, and we routinely use technology to develop improved agricultural crops to feed a rapidly expanding global population.

Yet, one new scientific development could have significant ramifications for modern production agriculture. In mid-May, the New York Times reported that scientists in Georgia have engineered a common bacterium that will, in the lab, detect and seek out atrazine, the controversial herbicide. These modified bacteria have a gene that allows them to strip out the parts of atrazine that make the herbicide controversial and render it a harmless chemical cousin of the original herbicide.

The implications of this technology for agriculture are tremendous. Europe has already banned atrazine and regulations in the U.S. have tightened.

Pressure to ban many pesticides is rising in the U.S. For example, in May, the fertilizer and pesticide industries took a couple of public relation hits. First, the President's Cancer Panel stated that fertilizers contribute to cancer risks. Then, the journal Pediatrics issued the results of a new study saying pesticide residue is linked with causing attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. Of course, buried within the press release is this statement, "The relationship thus far has proven only an association between pesticides and ADHD, not a direct causal connection." That piece of information likely did not make it to your local or national evening news program. What is reported is vague and open to a lot of questions, but that was dismissed in favor of the headline-grabbing news.

With this kind of publicity against the tools of modern agriculture, is it any wonder that a technology like GM bacteria that converts atrazine — a very needed tool in the farmer's tool belt — to a harmless chemical would be valuable?

Agribusinesses are facing increasing scrutiny in how they conduct their operations, and activist organizations continue to fight against them.

If this type of technology were to work, it would preserve a valuable tool for farmers and improve the environment. That's priceless. However, environmentalists and die-hard activists likely will not be satisfied with even this solution until we live in a completely chemical-free world. Start building your plastic bubbles, ladies and gentlemen.

What is likely to happen is that the environmentalists will fear and question that GM bacteria belongs in the environment. They'll consider it unnatural and dangerous to the environment and may cause unintended consequences unlike any we've ever seen. They'll probably point to China's adoption of GM cotton.

In a report also released in mid-May, Chinese farmers planting GM cotton engineered to withstand the cotton bollworm have found an increase in mirid bugs, which previously were not a large problem before the use of GM cotton. The GM cotton fought off the cotton bollworm so well that farmers stopped applying pesticides to control it. As a result, the mirid bug population increased because it is not controlled by the GM cotton, and farmers will have to apply some pesticides.

Yes, activists will point to this example and possibly others of how man's tinkering with nature will backfire upon us. They'll claim there are no benefits to be gained from expanding technology in agriculture, only consequences. But if the technology to render atrazine harmless in the environment can work, shouldn't we try it? After all, if farmers' tools keep getting taken away, how will America remain the leader in agriculture?