"'Roundup-ready' crops are resistant to a herbicide called Roundup. Roundup is a relatively old herbicide. It's been around for decades. [It's been a] very effective herbicide because no plants were known that were resistant to it, including our crop plants. Well, Monsanto, the company that developed Roundup resistance went looking for Roundup resistance in nature. And guess where they found it? They went to bacteria that were in the waste water treatment facility of their, one of their Roundup manufacturing plants. These are microbes that make a living of degrading Roundup and using it as an energy source. So, one of their scientists had the idea that if we go to nature and look for organisms that have resistance to Roundup, that's where the gene is going to be that we're going to be able to introduce into our crop plants. And lo and behold, they were right. So, they found a microbe that could resist Roundup. They isolated all the DNA from that microbe, found the gene that was responsible for resistance, and then they had to transfer that gene to plant cells. The first plant they did this with was tobacco. Not much of a crop in Nebraska, but it was a crop that lent itself to this genetic engineering. And they could get that bacterial gene to go into a living plant cell and then somehow find its way into the DNA that was already there, into a chromosome. And today, scientists don't understand how that happens. If you put DNA into a cell, it will find the DNA that's already there and combine with it. And that's what happened."
"The two biggest success stories would be the Bt traits. And Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis. Guess what? It's another bacterium. This bacteria is a soil bacteria, but what it naturally likes to do is kill insects and decompose them. And it has genes that encode proteins that are specialized toxins for certain types of insects. We knew what organisms had the ability to make these insecticidal proteins. And they discovered the genes that encoded these proteins and introduced them into corn and cotton using these methods. As a result, the plants are resistant to certain kinds of insects, and the farmer doesn't have to apply a pesticide when those insects are causing problems."
[Question:] "And that's because the plant itself is producing its own pesticide."
[Question:] "Is that pesticide chemically better than the artificial pesticides?"
"It's better in a couple of ways. You always have to be careful when you say, 'better.' Better in that it's expressed in all parts of the plant, and it's expressed at levels that are toxic to the insect. So, rather than putting another kind of pesticide in an airplane, flying over your corn field and trying to get that pesticide evenly distributed, hoping there's not too much wind, it's already there in the plant. Also 'better' in that it's a pesticide that nature developed. It's toxic only to a narrow range of organisms. It's not toxic to people, not toxic to other animals that you wouldn't to have hurt by a pesticide application."
[Question:] "Like birds."
"Like birds, right. Or certain kinds of insects that are beneficial insects. So, better in that regard. I think So better in terms of the insect resistance they provide the plant (that's good for the farmer), better for the farmer in terms of not having to work with a fairly toxic insecticide at high concentrations "
[Question:] "That could hurt the farmer."
"That could hurt the farmer or his family. And better for the neighbors in that these pesticides are going to be broken down rather quickly and not end up further down in our food chain to the degree that other kinds of pesticides have been demonstrated to cause problems because they persist. They stay around."
[Question:] "The technology is not without its critics. I mean, there are people who are concerned that that naturally occurring pesticide is in the plant now and is going to harm the people who eat it later on."
"That's right. So and that's a valid consideration. There would be the possibility of introducing protein using the same methods we've talked about that could not be broken down fairly quickly. Proteins that have those characteristics tend to be the proteins that people develop allergies for. So, yeah, you could introduce the wrong protein into a plant that you think is a safe food plant, and you've made it an unsafe food plant. So, that's why our regulatory agencies have to play an aggressive role in making sure that these products have been tested for safety. And some critics will say that that testing isn't rigorous enough, not thorough enough."
[Question:] "What do you say?"
"I say it's a risk vs. reward balance. I think there's always more tests you can do. But at some point, the value of having this food product in the marketplace outweighs the unknown risk that might still not have been tested."
[Question:] "So, Bt corn, you're okay with?"
"I'm okay with it. Yeah. One of the reasons I'm okay with it is because Bt, these Bt proteins have this long history of use as an insecticidal treatment that was a biological insecticide. The most rigorous test you're ever going to have on a product is once it's widely used in the commercial world. If it's been widely used and no problems have been documented, there's no experiment scientists can do that will rival that. To me, that's why these Bt's because they've been through that kind of historical testing were a fairly safe product to develop."