You’ve heard that argument. You may have even used it. It’s very popular, particularly with the folks that think people are starving because we’re not producing enough food on this planet. (A lot of people think that. It just isn’t true.)
I just watched an interesting Ted Talk by a plant geneticist defending GMOs- though she did say that the term GMO is more or less meaningless in the science community. She is very passionate about what she does and is clearly a good-hearted person, at least as much as one can tell from a short talk. However, there were a few points that I’m not totally there on.
The first is not so much a point as a theme. You’ve heard this one before, too. Any plants that have been bred have been genetically modified. One of her comparisons was the nearly inedible predecessor to corn and the yellow monstrosity grown across the Great Plains. She was making it a gradient from breeding to inserting virus DNA into mangos to make them resistant to a disease. Technically, that’s true. There’s also a gradient from cloning cells or even human tissue up to cloning a full human. In both cases, at some point between the two extremes, we really should be stopping and asking ourselves if this is actually a good idea.
The second point was about improving a plant to deal with the more extreme weather events we will have as the climate changes. Her project was to create a rice that could withstand weeks of flooding instead of days. Wonderful idea, great for that part of the world that eats a lot of rice and will be flooding. A lot. However, instead of taking the variety of rice that did so naturally and offering it as an additional option, they just pulled the pertinent gene out and stuck it in the variety everyone was already growing anyway.
As fans of evolution and heritage breeds know, life on this planet survives because of genetic diversity. Different things confer superiority under different circumstances. Right now, we have German Shepherds and Chihuahuas. At this place in history the Chihuahua has an evolutionary advantage because it fits in a purse and is cute. At some point in the near or not so distant future, things will change. German Shepherds will regain the advantage when being pocket-sized means you’re dinner, not adorable. If we have discard all of the German Shepherds because they don’t fit the current circumstances, then when little means dinner, we could potentially lose the domestic dog.
What does this mean for the rice? By picking and choosing what we think is an advantage and adding it to the one genome that works now, we are crowding out all of the other varieties that may save our bacon if things go in an unexpected direction. There’s only so much space to grow rice, and if everyone’s growing exactly the same rice, things can go badly very quickly. Just ask the Irish.
The third point is golden rice. I am not an ogre, I would not wish blindness and death on those children for anything. However, putting Beta Carotene in rice is kind of like eating McDonalds but thinking you’re healthy because you take vitamins. Being a little bit further from the edge of death is not the same as being healthy. My thoughts on this could be a post in and of themselves — maybe I should do that — but for now, let me say that a child who is so malnourished they lose their vision will need more than one nutrient. What if, instead of investing whatever it took the scientists to create golden rice, we took that money and used it to help local farmers grow carrots, sweet potatoes, and kale? How many more nutrients would those children then have to grow strong bodies and minds? Who knows, it might even spark some community businesses that will give them jobs when they grow up.
The final point is her evasion of the question of unintended consequences. She is right that any time we do anything, there is the potential for unintended consequences. What the GMO folks don’t seem to grasp is the potential scale of those consequences. If I breed the German Shepherd to the Chihuahua I might have a really ugly litter of puppies or I might have the next designer breed. Maybe both. If, on the other hand, I choose to clone dinosaurs, I may lose half my staff and the whole island to those dang raptors. Or I make a mint giving tours. Manually manipulating DNA in plants falls somewhere between those two extremes. However, when you take a plant that is wind-pollinated and you plant it where the pollen can blow to any of the many surrounding farms, the potential scale increases. We don’t know enough about DNA to know every possible outcome of our cutting and pasting, but that doesn’t seem to be slowing us down. We’ll just medicate and modify any negative consequences that come along, right?
I am not against GMOs in any kind of wholesale sense. The things they can do, and the things it has taught us, are just too cool for that. However, I think it might behoove us to consider other options before getting out the scissors and glue. Can we breed for the trait we want and maybe gain other good ones while we’re at it? Are there existing varieties that already exhibit it that we could cultivate more of in addition to our favored variety? Are there other fruits or vegetables that could be grown there that would help to round out a healthy nutritional profile?
Perhaps the long and short of this post is that while GMOs can be very useful, they should be the last resort when saving the world, not the first.