Genetically improved crops have appeal for both the man on the street and the agricultural community and will lead to new frontiers in use of plants, says an executive for a leading ag chemicals company.

One of the most exciting things to come out of biotechnology is the favorable reaction of the public to reduced use of insecticides, said Martin Lemon, Monsanto's environmental operations manager based at Roseville, Calif.

Lemon was a speaker in San Joaquin at the recent symposium held by the California Alfalfa Seed Production Research Board and the University of California.

An example is the reaction to the dramatic reduction of organophosphates in cotton, he said. “In research, we see that when a grower backs off on use of broad-spectrum insecticides, he doesn't kill beneficials. And beneficials apparently manage some of the secondary pests, such as scale, aphids, or mites.”

The shift away from OPs also means reduced cost to growers. “We are now at the agronomic trait level of this technology. Down the line we will see quality traits, including those in alfalfa, in which plants are considered factories.”

Lemon said his company is doing research on corn to produce a protein intended as a pharmaceutical for humans. “That means that rather than building a big factory with all the regulations and energy concerns that come with it, the pharmaceutical company can use plants as the factory.”

Growers respond to the proposition of a new crop because it has potential as another means of farm income, he said.

Although genetic engineering of corn, cotton, soybeans, and rice gets more attention, Lemon said, “a lot is going on in alfalfa too.”

Projects are under way, he said, in developing alfalfa varieties having resistance to Egyptian cotton leaf-worm, beet armyworm, leafhoppers, and alfalfa mosaic virus. Monsanto is working on Roundup Ready alfalfa.

Lemon defined biotechnology is a more selective way of transferring traits, or genes, from one organism to another. “The beauty of it is, it's a lot more straightforward and quicker.”

Conversely, in classical methods of breeding plants to acquire a specific trait, undesirable traits may appear and require more time to eliminate with a succession of backcrosses. Or a trait can be latent and require more backcrosses for it to become expressed.

But the new trait can be expressed by identifying a gene for a desired trait, isolating the gene, and inserting it into a selected variety.

“That way you can insert traits into some of the best varieties, without changing the agronomic characteristics of the parent plant,” he said.

Lemon went on to point out that 60-70 percent of U.S. cotton is genetically engineered, including more than 60 percent of the coming cotton crop in California planted to transgenic varieties.

Mistaken detractors may proclaim genetically engineered organisms are not regulated. On the contrary, Lemon explained, regulation of biotech plants ranges broadly: review of risk of a new plant concept by the National Institute of Health; exhaustive evaluation by USDA whether the new plant might become a pest; EPA review of its safety to humans, animals, and environmental safety, and even thorough studies by the Food and Drug Administration on nutritional composition of the plant, whether it is used as a food or a feedstuff.

The less-informed among the public, he said, sometimes ask if DNA is safe to eat. “The new expressed proteins in approved crops, such as Roundup Ready corn and Roundup Ready soybeans, are digested in less than 15 seconds.”

Since digestion in humans and animals is so rapid, the proteins do not appear in meat, dairy or egg products from the livestock that consume them.

E-mail: dan_bryant@intertec.com