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Michael Pollan and Raj Patel invite me to their class to discuss “GMOs”

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“Many worthy people objected to the production of hybrids on the ground that it was an impious interference with the laws of Nature.”

This comment by Maxwell T. Masters, president of the International Conference of Hybridization, in his 1899 article, part of a collection of articles on plant genetics recently published by Scientific American, reveal that the fear of  tinkering with plant genetics has persisted over time.

Even though it remains true to this day that hybrids are in a sense “artificial”- they are not found in native ecosystems- hybrids are now widely grown and are popular with farmers (conventional and organic) that can afford them. In fact today, everything we eat is genetically altered in one way or another because genetically improved crops carry traits (yield, flavor, nutrition, pest resistance) that farmers and consumers demand. Given that reality, it makes sense to plant those crops and employ those farming practices that advance the economic, social and environmental goals of sustainable agriculture.

This is one of the issues I addressed in my  lecture in Michael Pollan’s and Raj Patel’s class at UC Berkeley. Each crop must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The recent political focus on the genetics of seed production is a distraction from one of the most important challenges of our time: how to feed the growing population without further destroying the environment. If a particular seed variety enhances the goals of sustainable agriculture, then lets grow it and lets grow it using ecologically-based farming practices (eg. crop rotation, integrated pest management).

The USDA recently reported that the use of BT corn has resulted in a 10 fold reduction in insecticide use over the last 15 years. We have seen similar reductions in insecticide applications when farmers grow BT cotton. Bt eggplant is now in production in Bangladesh. Because farmers there typically spray eggplant many many times during the growing season, the planting of BT eggplant is expected to massively reduce the chemical toxicity in the environment. This is just one example of how scientists and farmers are using modern genetics to reduce the  harmful environmental impacts of agriculture.

We ran out of time so there was not a lot of opportunity for students to ask questions about the lecture during class. Still, many students stayed after class and we enjoyed a lively discussion. Most of the students were familiar with the scientific consensus on climate change (yes, human activities are contributing to global warming) but few were aware of the scientific consensus that the GE crops on the market are safe to eat. They said they had few opportunities to engage with scientists or farmers in their busy lives.

Thanks to the organizers for providing this forum. I hope to organize a similar forum at UC Davis where students can engage with  journalists, scientists and farmers that grow diverse crops.

For more on my visit to UC Berkeley, please see Amanda Little’s perspective about the lecture and discussion on the New Yorker ‘s website. If you would like to watch the lecture and discussion, please click here.


Pamela Ronald About the Author: Pamela Ronald is a Professor at the University of California, Davis where she studies how genes affect the plant’s response to environmental stress and disease. She is co-author of ‘Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food”. Find her on the web at Follow on Twitter @pcronald.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. greenhome123 2:33 pm 06/4/2014

    I love the thought of genetically modifying crops for resistance disease, insects, and to use less pesticide/insecticide/fungicide, as well as things like GMOs for drought tolerance, and to produce, bigger, more nutritious, tastier, efficiently growing crops. Unfortunately, the majority of GMOs currently in use are the herbicide tolerant variety, like Roundup Ready Corn, Soy, Cotton, etc. I’m not a big fan of genetically modifying crops for resistance to herbicide, be them GMO or traditionally bred, as that results in overuse of herbicide. Overuse of herbicide is a serious problem, similar to overuse of antibiotics. I prefer herbicide alternatives such as soil steaming, cover crops, hydroponics/aquaponics, and mechanical weeding.

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  2. 2. mkriley 2:44 pm 06/4/2014

    Where to begin. As a trained scientist, I see many problems with this article. It zooms from narrow issues and jumps to unrelated global ones (bt-corn to CO2 anthropogenic climate change). I am suspicious when I see such trickery. As it relates to bt, I was working in entomology (forensics) at UCB when bt was isolated. It is grossly misleading to link GMO bt-corn to efficacy of bt as an insecticide. The dynamics are radically different between the two. In the latter, bt is ingested by the end-user because the bt is produced in-vivo through genetic manipulation. In the latter, bt is applied externally. While in theory having bt incorporated into corn tissue seems logical, in practice it is much more complex, problematic. An agricultural scientist is not an epidemiologist and the two disciplines often times come into conflict. Such is the case in the instant matter. What independent studies, if any,show the toxicology of bt in mammalian systems, esp human? You wash bt toxin from non-GM corn but this is simply not an option in bt-corn. Moreover, crop yields and pesticide use are not linear over time. At some time, resistance develops and any gains by using GM-crops are often lost due to this. The reduction in pesticide use must be factored with the increased costs of using bt-corn. To use simple models like this article suggests is misleading, inaccurate and dangerously naive. Furthermore, corn is wind pollinated. This means the likelihood of contamination to non-GM corn is very high. All of these important factors are absent. You can do better than to produce a superficial article on bt-corn but this one seems to be an advertisement under “feeding the world” cover.

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  3. 3. Daddio7 11:49 am 06/9/2014

    Commercial farms have to profitable. Anything that lowers production cost allows lower selling prices and anyone not using new technology finds themselves unprofitable. Government regulations can enforce extra cost on everyone but some customers may find the products unaffordable.

    How long should new foods be tested for safety? Ten, twenty years? Just use European standards? Why then can’t I get cyclamates in the US?

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