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Food Matters

Food Matters

Giving science a seat at the table

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.

 

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

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