[permaculture] Biotechnology 'No Sure Fix' for World's Nitrogen Problem

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Sat Dec 19 10:47:05 EST 2009


Biotechnology 'No Sure Fix' for World's Nitrogen Problem
Summary posted by Meridian on 12/17/2009
Source: UCS
Author: n/a
Genetic modification has yet to produce any 
commercial crops that reduce nitrogen fertilizer 
pollution, but traditional breeding and other 
methods have already done so, says a new report 
from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a 
non-profit group in the U.S. Non-GM methods have 
improved the nitrogen use efficiency of wheat, 
rice, and corn by about 20 percent to 40 percent, 
according to the report, which is entitled "No 
Sure Fix: Prospects for Reducing Nitrogen 
Fertilizer Pollution through Genetic 
Engineering." The biotechnology industry has 
identified genes that have the potential to 
reduce nitrogen pollution and have tested them in 
laboratories and field trials, but none have been 
made commercially available. The UCS report 
argues that the prospects for their commercial 
use are uncertain due to the complexity of 
nitrogen metabolism and genetics in crops. 
Margaret Mellon, director of UCS's food and 
environment program, argues that although "we 
need to pursue all reasonable approaches to solve 
the nitrogen overload problem . . . We should 
focus first on making the necessary public 
investment in traditional crop breeding, cover 
crops, precision farming, and other proven 
approaches to boost nitrogen efficiency." 
"Nitrogen pollution is among the world's worst 
environmental problems," says Doug 
Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist in UCS's food 
and environment program and author of the report. 
The problem, which occurs when crop plants absorb 
only some of the nitrogen fertilizer that is 
applied, should get worse as global demand for 
food increases, Mellon says. The press release 
can be viewed online at the link below.
The original article may still be available at 
greenbio.checkbiotech.org/news/biotechnology_no_sure_fix_worlds_nitroge...

Biotechnology 'No Sure Fix' for World's Nitrogen 
Fertilizer Pollution Problem, New Report Finds
Friday, December 11, 2009

WASHINGTON - After more than a decade of effort, 
the biotechnology industry has yet to produce any 
commercial crops engineered to reduce nitrogen 
fertilizer pollution, while traditional breeding 
and other methods have improved the nitrogen use 
efficiency of wheat, rice, and corn by about 20 
percent to 40 percent, according to a report 
released today by the Union of Concerned 
Scientists (UCS).

"Nitrogen pollution is among the world's worst 
environmental problems," said Doug 
Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist in UCS's Food 
and Environment program and author of the report. 
"A number of very promising solutions have begun 
addressing the problem, but so far genetic 
engineering has yet to make a contribution."

Plants, including commodity farm crops, need 
large amounts of nitrogen to thrive and grow. 
Soils often do not contain enough nitrogen for 
plants to attain optimal productivity, but many 
farmers apply far more synthetic nitrogen 
fertilizer to their soils than what the plants 
can use. More than half of the nitrogen 
fertilizer applied on U.S. farms, for instance, 
is not absorbed by crops, and much of it becomes 
a pollutant.

Nitrogen pollution causes harm in multiple ways. 
Chemical fertilizers from farms, for example, are 
the largest contributor to the Gulf of Mexico's 
"dead zone"-an area the size of Connecticut and 
Delaware combined where excess nutrients 
indirectly rob the region of oxygen, making it 
uninhabitable for commercially valuable fish and 
other marine life for much of the year. In 
addition, nitrogen in the form of nitrate can 
seep into drinking water and become a health 
risk, especially to pregnant women and children. 
Nitrogen entering the air as ammonia, meanwhile, 
contributes to smog, respiratory diseases and 
acid rain, which damages forests and other 
habitats.

Nitrogen overuse in agriculture also is the 
largest domestic, human-caused source of nitrous 
oxide, a global warming gas that is nearly 300 
times more potent than carbon dioxide. According 
to the Environmental Protection Agency, 
agricultural soil management accounts for 
two-thirds of the nation's human-induced nitrous 
oxide emissions.

One solution to the nitrogen overload problem is 
to develop crops that use nitrogen more 
efficiently, which would reduce the amount of 
nitrogen fertilizer farmers apply to their 
fields. Traditional breeding methods have already 
proven successful at doing this. Meanwhile, the 
biotechnology industry has identified genes that 
have the potential to reduce nitrogen pollution 
and have tested them in laboratories and field 
trials, but none are commercially available. The 
UCS report, "No Sure Fix: Prospects for Reducing 
Nitrogen Fertilizer Pollution through Genetic 
Engineering," evaluated the new genes and 
concluded that the prospects for their commercial 
use are uncertain due to the complexity of 
nitrogen metabolism and genetics in crops.

The report documents a number of practices that 
can complement nitrogen-efficient crops in 
reducing nitrogen fertilizer pollution. Precision 
farming, for instance, times fertilizer 
applications to match crop growth, which reduces 
the amount of nitrogen applied to fields. Farmers 
also can grow cover crops-plants grown between 
cash crop growing seasons-to protect the soil, 
add organic nitrogen and other nutrients, and 
remove excess nitrogen. Even if genetically 
engineered crops were commercially viable, they 
would not be able to reduce the large amount of 
nitrogen pollution that occurs when farmers are 
not growing cash crops.

"We need to pursue all reasonable approaches to 
solve the nitrogen overload problem," said 
Margaret Mellon, director of UCS's Food and 
Environment Program. "We should focus first on 
making the necessary public investment in 
traditional crop breeding, cover crops, precision 
farming, and other proven approaches to boost 
nitrogen efficiency. Our nitrogen pollution 
problem will only worsen as global food demand 
increases, which makes it all the more critical 
that we invest in technologies and methods we 
know work."

Copyright ©2009 Union of Concerned Scientists


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