Vital Signs

Prometheus in Overalls

When my fellow Iowan Norman Borlaug started what came to be called the Green Revolution, he had only the best of intentions for farmers. Using chemicals, farmers could be converted into superhuman producers able to supply society with cheap and abundant food. In 1970 Borlaug won the Nobel Prize—a kind of trumpet sounding for the decade when chemical farming truly showed its stuff. But by the 1980's we realized that the Green Revolution was a monster, an Eden severely contaminated with agrichemicals, eroded and barren of wildlife. Massive production also spawned a farm policy that was enormously expensive and infinitely insane.

Now comes the biotechnical revolution in farming, which many feel will deliver us from the sins of the agrichemical age. Bioengineering already has or will soon: provide us with inexpensive food indefinitely, lower our dependency on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, limit erosion by shrinking the amount of land needed for farming, and provide foods that are convenient, nutritious, and infinitely varied.

Sounds too good to be true? There is a fair chance that it is. But first, a little more on the positive potential of agricultural biotechnology. Today, using many techniques borrowed from medical biotechnology, ag researchers are cloning, splicing, enhancing, and creating entire new species. The majority of the work is a variation on traditional breeding programs, borrowing traits from...

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