Genetically modified rice in Kansas

I have no major problems with genetically modified organisms. There are, however, very legitimate concerns about their widespread use. Genes for herbicide resistance could spread to weeds related to crop species, making it even harder to control weeds. Genes interact with each other, sometimes in unpredictable ways, and the rapid pace of genetic engineering – as compared with traditional breeding techniques – means it's more likely that dangerous interactions would be more likely to slip past.

On the other hand, there's a compelling argument, advanced by Nobel winner Norman Borlaug among others, that genetic engineering is the best path towards a new Green Revolution that would reduce poverty and improve lives throughout the developing world. As Borlaug and others have argued, kneejerk opposition to genetically modified organisms has the potential to prolong human suffering in many areas. These two poles in the debate tend to attract a lot of attention, perhaps to the detriment of actual discussion about how we ought to move forward, instead of just arguing over the foregone conclusion of whether to move forward.

Incidents like rice recalls over gene contamination help clarify the dangers:

The Agriculture Department last night took the unusual step of insisting that U.S. farmers refrain from planting a popular variety of long-grain rice because preliminary tests showed that its seed stock may be contaminated with a variety of gene-altered rice not approved for marketing in the United States.

The announcement marks the third time in six months that U.S. rice has been found to be inexplicably contaminated with engineered traits, and it comes just weeks before the spring planting season.

The rice strain was popular this year because it replaces an earlier strain which got contaminated and recalled.

This comes on the heels of Ventria Bioscience announcing their plans to plant 3,000 acres of genetically modified rice on plots in Kansas. The rice has been modified to express human proteins – lactoferrin, serum albumin and lysozyme – which are then extracted at a factory and packaged into nutritional supplements for use abroad. The rice itself is then discarded.

This particular case embodies the problems of the entire debate. A cheap, renewable source of anti-diarrheal medicines for the developing world could save many, many lives. On the other hand, if the genes transfer to rice produced for human consumption, there are real dangers that the rice could cause dangerous reactions, for instance if the genes mutate to a form that causes an immune response.

i-09beee85098766af752ed950ddb65156-riceyield.jpgThe Union of Concerned Scientists is asking for comments about this planting and other outdoor growths of biopharmaceuticals. They've documented lax oversight of similar plantings by Ventria in North Carolina. Seeds or pollen from modified rice could be transferred to fields in Missouri, Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana by migrating birds.

In Ventria's defense, there's no rice grown in the area around Junction City right now, and they've moved their pharmacrops further and further from existing rice plantings. Nonetheless, it would be nice to see a fuller examination of the potential range of effects these crops could have before they are planted outside.

Ventria treats their rice as a "medical food," rather than as a drug, lessening regulatory thresholds when they sell the product. And the oversight process for the plants is less stringent, and less carefully scrutinized. Even a small error could lead to contamination of our rice crop, which could in turn jeopardize international sales of various agricultural products. This is a low-probability risk, but with larger area planted, and with more time, that risk gets greater and greater. The precautionary principle argues for great scrutiny of this.

That scrutiny has to come from the USDA, and you can tell them what you expect of them by signing the UCS's petition.

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The Green Revolution was one of the biggest mistakes we ever made, IMO. Most of the famine that we have had in the last couple of decades can be traced back the the green revolution. The problem is that the green revolutionaries did not appreciate population biology and human behavior.

Limited access to food stabilized the population levels in many parts of the world. Then suddenly they are no longer limited by food and and nearly all children survive. And since no one bothered to educate the women about family planning, they have eight, ten, fifteen children, and there are now in a single generation six times or more as many people to educate, find work, govern, feed, etc. The result is more famine not less. And that is not mentioning that agriculture, especially in marginal habitats, can be unstable, which exacerbates famine issues. Tiffany once told me that physical anthropologists only find famine in cultures that had agriculture.

Don't get me wrong, I like agriculture and the idea of ending famine, but it is entirely wrong to think that all we need to do is produce more food to end famine.

Another not insignificant problem with GM crops is from the patents and how GM plants once in the wild are difficult if not impossible to contain. A corporation can go after an innocent farmer who inadvertantly ends up growing a patented GM crop. A good example of this can be found in this article;

This is IMHO a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

By Eric Juve (not verified) on 15 Mar 2007 #permalink

I can see the value of engineering plants to produce various proteins and other useful materials - but why are food crops being modified in ways that make the crop potentially inedible? It seems to me to make much more sense to arrange to have the plants produce the proteins in ways that, if that particular approach proves problematic, we can simply ignore the misbegotten plants. Such as arranging for the proteins to be produced in the leaves that we do not consume anyway, that way we can manage to not eat the parts of the plant that we do not eat anyway....

By Christopher Gwyn (not verified) on 15 Mar 2007 #permalink

Darn, I part company a bit with you here. I just don't buy the 'we're in it to feed the world' arguments. I think they are in it to line their pockets with billions of green backs. Also, I think the whole 'self lethalizing gene' idea is rather hideous. I know at least one farmer who thinks that is horrible, as throughout history, farmers have been able to re-sew sets of seed from crops that have done well. Now, farmers will *have* to buy new seed each year.

Perhaps the anti-diarrheal effects of this rice will help to enhance the impact of the high levels of arsenic found in southern rice. If you have constipation, I'm sure the arsenic will get to you and your young that muck quicker. Note that the southern rice is planted on old cotton fields KNOWN to have been doused with arsenic based insecticides. I'm sure related corporations grow both kinds of rice knowingly without care for their potential customers.

Gene, I'm not sure that seed companies are in it for the altruistic reasons, and Reed's point above is legitimate making more food available won't solve poverty on its own. The Green Revolution did save lives, and helped lay a groundwork for the economic boom that India has experienced. Of course, those seeds weren't patent-encumbered and bred true, so farmers could set aside their seed corn for subsequent years, and wouldn't get sued for it.

In a fair world, there wouldn't be hardly any rice grown in the USA. In a sane world, ditto.
We subsidize rice, the huge amounts of water, just to undercut some poor country based on rice. Double dumb and bad citizenship.

By Richard W. Crews (not verified) on 15 Mar 2007 #permalink