The ‘Frankenfoods’ debate is coming to your dinner table. Just last month, a mini-war developed in Europe, when the European Union’s chief scientist, renowned biologist Anne Glover, said that foods made through genetic engineering, such as soy beans—about 80 percent of US grown soybeans have been genetically engineered —are as safe as organic or conventional foods.
It’s a wholly uncontroversial comment—at least among scientists. But it set off the usual scare mongering from Friends of the Earth, and other like-minded advocacy groups that finds all genetically engineered (GE) foods and crops to be, in their words “stomach turning.”
The incident is also adding fuel to the California wildfires—no, not the ones caused by the drought—but the incendiary debate over a fall ballot initiative that would require warning labels on all foods with GE ingredients, despite the fact that all established health and science groups such as the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences and the World health Organization have rejected claims that genetically engineered crops or foods pose additional risks or have altered nutritional profiles as compared to foods derived from conventional genetic alteration.
This debate is particularly poignant because fifty years ago this September, with the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson launched the modern day environmental movement by shining a harsh light on the over use of technology—in that era it was chemicals–in farming.
Although Carson never used the term, her passion was “sustainability.” She envisioned harnessing the knowledge of diverse fields of science—entomology, pathology, genetics, physiology, biochemistry, and ecology- to shape a new science of biotic controls that would help control weeds, diseases and pests without further damaging the environment. Her dream of a science-based agricultural system may come as a surprise to those who believe that sustainability and technology are incompatible.
“A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available. Some are already in use and have achieved brilliant success. Others are in the stage of laboratory testing. Still others are little more than ideas in the minds of imaginative scientists, waiting for the opportunity to put them to the test. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on the understanding of the living organisms they seek to control and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are contributing—entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists—all pouring their knowledge and their creative inspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls.”
(Rachel Carson 1962, p. 278)
Together with colleagues, my laboratory at the University of California, Davis has genetically engineered rice that tolerates flooding and resists disease. As a scientist committed to sustainable agriculture, I have to believe that if Rachel Carson was alive today she would reject the anti-science fear mongering of anti-GE campaigners.
For 10,000 years, humans have altered the DNA makeup of our crops. Conventional approaches were often quite crude, resulting in new varieties through a combination of trial and error, and without knowledge of the precise function of the genes that were being moved around. Such methods include grafting or mixing of genes of distantly related species, as well as radiation treatments to induce random mutations in the genetic makeup of the seed. Today, virtually everything we eat is produced from seeds that have been genetically altered in one way or another.
Over the last 20 years, plant breeding has entered “the digital age of biology”. Just as software engineers tinker with computer codes to improve machine performance, scientists and breeders are altering the “DNA software system” of plants to create new genetically engineered crop varieties, often called “GMOs”, that thrive in extreme environments or can withstand attacks by pests. Like the older conventional varieties, GE crops are also genetically altered, but in a manner that is much more precise and introduces fewer genetic changes. GE crops often contain genes from non-crop species.
To understand why farmers have embraced GE crops and how they benefit the environment, take a look at genetically engineered cotton. These varieties contain a bacterial protein called Bt that kills pests, but does not harm beneficial insects and spiders. Bt itself is benign to humans, which is why organic farmers have used Bt as the primary method of pest control for 50 years. Today, 70-90% of US, Indian and Chinese farmers grow Bt cotton.
Last summer a team of scientists reported in the prestigious journal, Nature, that widespread planting of Bt cotton in China drastically reduced the spraying of synthetic chemicals, increased the abundance of beneficial organisms and decreased populations of insects that damage the crop. Planting of Bt cotton also reduced pesticide poisonings of farmers and their families. German researchers reported that farmers in India growing Bt cotton increased their yield by 24%, their profit by 50% and raised their living standards by 18%.
And consider GE papaya, engineered to withstand a devastating viral infection. First developed in 1998, it is now grown by 99% of Chinese and 90% of Hawaiian farmers. There is currently no other method-organic or conventional- that can adequately control the disease. Only the most ideologically driven would choose to let this nutritious and tasty fruit die for the sake of an ephemeral concept of genetic purity.
These stories, which have been repeated around the world, appear to be precisely the kind of triumph of biology over chemicals envisioned by Rachel Carson and by organic farmers, who have long dreamed of reducing the use of synthetic chemicals and enhancing biological diversity on farms.
Considering our long history of plant genetic manipulation and the success of modern GE cotton seeds in enhancing the sustainability of our farms, why do some consumers still express grave unease over the planting of GE crops?
Part of the skepticism may be due to the tendency of consumers to group all “GMOs” together without regard to the purpose of the engineering, the needs of the farmer or the social, environmental, economic or nutritional benefits. They may be unaware that the U.S. National Research Council and the European commission have concluded that the process of genetic engineering is no more “risky” than conventional genetic modification and that all GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat and safe for the environment.
Another reason for suspicion is that a person’s willingness to accept scientific consensus often correlates with political affiliation. Just as 81% percent of college-educated Republicans discount the broad scientific consensus that human activities contribute to global warning, many Democrats disregard the decades of scientific studies that have piled up in technical reports indicating the safety and wide-reaching benefits of GE crops and instead absorb the misinformation proliferating on the internet, which is untethered from peer-reviewed science or agriculture.
In the last few months, however, scientists and journalists have launched communication efforts that are helping make the science behind plant genetics and breeding less remote.
For example, British researchers recently published a moving YouTube clip, appealing to protestors to reconsider their planned destruction of a publicly funded GE research trial intended to reduce the use of insecticides on wheat. Plant biologists in Sweden asked opponents of GE crops to listen to the scientific community without ideological earplugs, likening the seemingly endless discussion about the purported risks of GE crops to the famous Monty Python sketch in which a customer tries to return a dead parrot to a shopkeeper, who despite all evidence insists that the bird is well, alive and pining for the fjords.
Farmers are speaking out too, explaining why they use GE seed and extending invitations to well-known television personalities, such as Oprah Winfrey, to visit and find out why they choose to grow biotech crops. Local farmers roll their tractors into town to tell us that they need modern seed varieties with built in resistant to pests and tolerance to environmental stress.
As more information is made available demystifying what farmers and breeders actually do, will the public dialog become more sophisticated? Will the campaign against modern crop genetics diminish as consumers learn of the benefits to the public good? Some journalists think so and have even speculated that the GMO debate is growing up in Europe.
A strikingly similar story of consumer skepticism played out in the 1970s in California’s Silicon Valley. As described in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, many viewed the early computers suspiciously, believing they would only benefit large corporations. As the broad usefulness of the technology became apparent, opposition faded. Today such technologies are credited with toppling decades of dictatorship and launching revolutions.
Despite the safety and benefits of the GE crops, it is clear that seed is only one component of sustainable agricultural system. Even the most productive crop varieties must be integrated with ecologically based farming practices to maximize their potential.
For example, there is ample evidence that insects can develop resistance to BT, if it is used as the sole method of pest control. Effective methods for slowing the spread of insect resistance include crop rotation, intercropping and planting refuges of non-BT cotton and non-crop species.
In the face of a rapidly growing population, the need to produce more food and fiber without further destroying the environment is one of the greatest challenges of our time. A key to building a sustainable agriculture in the 21st century is to integrate the science of agricultural ecology with modern genetic technology. Just as few today would trade in their iPad 3 for a Mac1, few farmers will give up their modern seed varieties. We can’t and shouldn’t run away from ‘digital agriculture’—let’s embrace and leverage it so all humanity can benefit.
Pamela Ronald, Professor, Department Plant Pathology and the Genome Center, University of California, Davis, is co-author, with her husband Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer, of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food.