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Greener Than Thou: Are You Really An Environmentalist?



Fungus and Food
Robert Wager

``Please sir, may I have some more,'' goes the famous line from the Dickens classic ``Oliver Twist.'' It is the very question the world's poor are now asking in the face of unprecedented rises in food prices.

Prices of food staples like rice, wheat, corn and bananas have all sky rocketed. What is causing this rise depends on who you talk to. Some people blame biofuels or the huge price jump in oil.

Others blame financial speculators and international tariffs. And still others blame changes in climate due to manmade green house gases.

It is likely a combination of all of the above. In the face of this crisis the U.N. is also calling for a doubling of world food supplies by 2030. But how?

There seem to be as many proposed answers to the present food crisis as there are causes. One action plan rarely publicized is the use of biotechnology to help reduce fungal destruction of food crops.

Most people are unaware that approximately one third of all food produced becomes rotten before it can be consumed. As science develops genetically modified (GM) crops that resist fungus, we will be able to increase food supplies without converting more of the environment to farmland.


Maize is highly susceptible to the fusarium fungus. Fusarium can produce a mycotoxin called fumonisin B. This compound is carcinogenic and has been linked to birth defects in animals and humans.

Parts of the world often lose 30-40 percent of their corn crop to mycotoxin contamination. In the mid 1990s scientists commercialized the first genetically modified maize.

This GM crop had the insecticidal gene transferred from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt (a safe, natural insecticide used in organic agriculture for over fifty years).

A healthy side effect of the genetically engineered insect resistance is greatly reduced fungal contamination of Bt maize. Just last year an Italian study found Bt maize had over 100 times less fumonisin B when grown side-by-side with nearly identical conventional maize that lacked the Bt gene.

Along with its proven protection against insect damage, huge reductions in fumonisin B contamination represent a significant advance toward healthier food.


Bananas are the fourth largest food crop in the world. In the 1950s the world permanently lost its most popular type of banana to a fungus. Panama disease wiped out the Gros Michel banana.

A different fungus threatens today's Cavendish bananas. Banana producers use a great deal of fungicide to stay one step ahead of Black Sigatoka disease. This fungus is rapidly becoming resistant to all of the fungicides presently used in banana production.

It has been stated that unless we find a solution, Black Sigatoka fungus will destroy all of today's most popular variety of banana. Because bananas are sterile and do not produce seeds, conventional
methods of developing fungal resistance have failed completely. But there is hope.

According to the European GMO Compass, ``many banana producers hope to save Cavendish bananas with the help of genetic engineering.''

A few varieties of Brazilian bananas have demonstrated fungal resistance genes. Biotechnologists have placed some of these genes into the Cavendish plants. So far the confined greenhouse trials look promising.

The development of fungal resistant transgenic bananas will greatly reduce the use of fungicide benefiting the consumer, the farm workers and the environment.

If we want to save the Cavendish banana, it is vital that this technology not be further delayed by critics of genetically modified crops.


One hundred and fifty years ago the fungus Phytophthora infestans caused the Irish potato famine. The complete destruction of the Irish potato crop caused the death of one million people through starvation.

Today the same fungus destroys about 20 percent of the world's annual potato crop. Farmers use copper compounds in organic potato production or synthetic fungicides in conventional production.

As with other fungal pests, this fungus is becoming immune to fungicides. An alternative approach involved using genetic engineering to move fungal resistance genes from wild species of potatoes to the most popular commercial potato varieties.

Even though these genetically modified potatoes only have genes from other wild potatoes, critics of GM crops ripped up the research plots in the U.K. last year. Hopefully this year's trials will not suffer
the same fate.


Twice in the last century a fungus called stem rust caused massive loss of wheat crops. Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Prize, in part, for his work developing rust resistant wheat varieties that helped the world double its food supply between the 1950s and 70s.

Decades of reduced investment in agricultural research, a prolonged drought in Australia, and the recent incentive to plant other crops for bio-fuels have all contributed to the dramatic reduction in wheat crops.

Last year saw global wheat stocks at their lowest level since 1947. It is little wonder the price of wheat has doubled in the past year.

To further stress wheat markets, a new emerging fungus, Ug99 (discovered in Uganda in 1999) threatens world stocks. It is highly resistant to commercial fungicides and is spread on the wind.

Many researchers fear this strain of fungus has the potential to decimate world wheat stocks causing further increases in food prices.

Fortunately, research into new rust resistant varieties are well underway with genes coming from barley, rice and even corn to deal with this global threat to wheat. Once again most of the resistance
genes are transferred from closely related members of the grass family.

Without support, fungal resistant wheat research may suffer the same attacks by critics that have slowed the development of other GM crops.

The world population will continue to rise in the coming decades and we must find ways to feed everyone in a more sustainable manner. We must utilize every tool in the agricultural toolbox.

From organic methods to genetically engineered crops we will need them all. Biotechnology is not a panacea but as Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), stated just prior to the 2008 World Food Summit, ``I am saying genetically modified crops are part of the solution."

In 2000 the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization stated: ``Biotechnology would provide powerful tools for the sustainable development of agriculture and food production."

Well researched and regulated genetically modified crops will become a significant part of our food security. It does not make sense to block or destroy research that can potentially save millions from starvation and reduce fungicide use.

It is time for critics of this technology to accept the role GM crops can and will play in global agriculture.

Robert Wager is a faculty member at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia, Canada. He received a master's degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of British
Columbia in Vancouver. He can be reached at wagerr@mala.bc.ca
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