In a remarkably insightful piece titled, “It’s a Long Way to GM Agriculture,” Professor Marc Van Montagu, who heads the Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries at Belgium’s Ghent University and is considered one of the pioneers of gene transfer technology, asks a compelling question:

“I am impressed, but also frustrated by the difficulties of applying gene engineering technologyto improve crops and develop a sustainable and improved high-yielding agriculture,” he writes in the current Annual Review of Plant Biology. “More than 30 years [since its inception], I had hoped that thousands of teams, all over the world, would work on improving our major food crops, help domesticate new ones and succeed in doubling or tripling yields. Why has this not happened yet; what did we do wrong?”

The short answer is: nothing.

Science hasn’t gone wrong. The proverbial “thousands of research teams” working to address the challenges Van Montagu summarizes have instead been waylaid by socio-political forces that have sharply—and tragically, given the hundreds of millions of people suffering from food shortages worldwide—curtailed the progress they could have and should have made by now.

There are three primary reasons that biotechnology has—so far—failed to deliver on the unfortunately exaggerated promises early proponents claimed for what is still an emerging discipline:

  • The politicization of the scientific process. Classically, science is objective, cold-blooded, apolitical, its conclusions removedfrom the spin cycle through which information is “processed” in contemporary society. In reality, nothing is further from the truth. Whether it’s complex, multi-faceted issues such as climate change or relatively simplistic, well-researched conclusions such as the ubiquitous, resilient and highly adaptable nature of food-borne pathogens, a cadre of deniers, detractors and disbelievers—on both the right and left—either bastardize or willfully ignore the weight of objective scientific data, with predictably unfortunate consequences.
  • The demonization of technology. From so-called exposes of the “horrors” of Frankenfoods to the fallacious fears surrounding the human health risk of mad cow disease to the regular recurrence of media-generated scare stories such as the threat of brain cancer from using cell phones, too many powerful interests are all too willing to exaggerate and exploit any tentative and cautionary research findings for their own narrowly drawn benefit.
  • The denigration of scientists themselves. It’s a truism that scientists are generally not political creatures. In fact, those few who speak out on issues unrelated to their research are often scolded for exceeding their areas of expertise—as if politicians and business executives who possess zero expertise on critical issues are somehow better equipped to formulate opinions and set policy than PhDs who have dedicated their careers to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

For these reasons (among others), genetic engineeringhas been slowed to a crawl, when we should have been whipping it up to warp speed. At the same time consumers not only accept but demand an unbroken tide of technological advancements in such fields as communications and computing, they pivot radically on issues related to both plant and animal genetics, insisting that the same science that allows us to instantly exchange visual and audio contact with virtually anyone in the world equipped with what’s now considered basic communication devices is somehow geared to nefarious ends when applied to biotech. Instead of the eagerness with which we embrace advancements elsewhere, we cower behind notions such as the precautionary principles that imagine a horror show of unintended consequences will inevitably result from the same deliberateresearch that producesthe smart phones we consider as essential—and commonplace—as credit cards.

So what is the prognosis for the decades ahead? Can biotechnology ever reach its potential to impact food production and alter agriculture such that we avoid a global nutritional crisis this century? Or will the same forces that have so far deterred the progress on harnessing genetic engineering’s full potential continue to stymie the science we need to fashion solutions to our enormous energy- and environmental-based challenges?

Near the end of his review, Van Montagu offers a measured dose of optimism that in the end, scientific progress will prevail.

“I maintain, however, that in the near future, as the technology matures further and the full impact of the postgenomics era is felt, we will be able to tackle some of the most intractable problems in plant productivity.”

Let’s hope he’s right.

››To review Prof. Van Montagu’s article, log onto www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-arplant-042110-103906

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator