CBI Expert Dr. Pamela Ronald, Professor of Plant Pathology at UC-Davis and author of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food, provided CBI, in the lead-up to our BIO 2010 panel about public perception and agricultural biotechnology, her expert opinion on this important topic. Thanks, Pam!
Council for Biotechnology Information: What do you believe is the public’s perception of agricultural biotechnology and do you believe this is a fair portrayal of the science?
Dr. Ronald: There is no doubt that GE [genetically engineered] crops have an image problem in Europe and in some parts of the US. Part of the problem is that many see the process of GE as a tool that only benefits large corporations and large farmers in the US and other countries. But it’s also a tool for breeding, it’s a tool for biologists, it’s a tool for farmers. Much of the plant genetic work is carried out at publicly funded institutions and many of us are working on traits that would benefit poor farmers and small farmers.
In addition to Sub1 rice, there have been really fantastic varieties [of other GE crops] coming out from publicly funded research. For example, Dennis Gonsalves, a local Hawaiian, was very concerned about the papaya ringspot virus, which was devastating production on the island of Oahu. He and his group were able to develop papayas resistant to the virus. That virtually saved the papaya industry. The research behind that was all publicly funded.
Many people are also concerned that the process of GE presents risk to their food and the environment. With genetic engineering, you can take a gene from any species and put it into a crop plant; that’s not true with conventional breeding. This is one of the key issues that concerns some in the general public. With conventional breeding, you need two fairly closely related species. Still, both approaches have some risk. Every breeding process presents some risk. The National Academy of Sciences has looked at different processes of conventional breeding and different processes of genetic engineering and concluded that each process has some unpredictable consequences. But, interestingly, genetic engineering poses similar risks of unintended consequences as that of many of the types of conventional breeding. And certain types of conventional breeding such as random mutagenesis, where you introduce random mutations throughout the genome, is predicted to have higher levels of unintended consequences than most types of genetic engineering. One of the benefits of GE is that it is very precise: you can bring in a single gene.
Council for Biotechnology Information: What can scientists do to correct misperceptions and better explain the benefits of the science to the general public?
Dr. Ronald: We need to better explain the clear benefits of some GE crops so that those benefits can be weighed together with the risk. Also, we need to use examples that are relevant to a particular person’s own life. For instance, whether or not rice growers in Asia have a successful year is not critically important to most Americans, but they are concerned with overuse of insecticides. So it is important to talk about GE cotton and the massive reduction in insecticide use in the US and elsewhere- this is a clear benefit. The BT crops that have come out have clear benefits to the health of farmers and to the environment. There’s great data available from around the world on the reductions of insecticide.
Council for Biotechnology Information: What can those in media and politics do to more accurately explain ag biotech to consumers who are wary of GM foods?
Dr. Ronald: We need to continue strong public funding and support for this kind of research. We cannot rely on private corporations to feed the world, that is not their goal. So it doesn’t make sense to rely on private corporations to feed the world. I think that it’s something that public sector science really needs to do.