Pamela Ronald is a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. She is co-author of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food.
The community of Davis, California, where I teach, is renowned for its devotion to the idea of local, organic, sustainable foods. As a plant geneticist, I spend my weekdays doing research, surrounded mostly by scientists (some who admit being baffled by continued fears about GM food). As the wife of an organic farmer, I spend my weekends gardening and cooking the produce that my husband, Raoul, brings in from the farm. My lab focuses on genetically engineering rice to give it resistance to diseases and flooding, both of which are serious problems of rice crops in Africa and Asia. My family focuses, at least in the summertime, on eating lots of pesto, which we make by grinding up organic basil from Raoul’s farm with the organic walnuts our neighbor gives us. In short, my world is a case study in contrasts, and it’s given me an insider’s view of perspectives from both communities.
My overwhelming sense is that public skepticism about GM crops, and the foods derived from them, is not about the science—it is about US corporations. Some consumers have not forgotten that Monsanto was a producer of Agent Orange for the US military during the Vietnam War. Others worry that corporations will control the global seed supply.
Still, consumers—whether in Davis or Düsseldorf—need to distinguish between a scientific process (genetic engineering) and corporations. The misdirected protests are an unfortunate diversion from the obvious: We need to feed more people on less land with less water and do it in a way that reduces environmentally harmful inputs. This is a critical environmental issue of our time.
Just consider the case of China: Beginning in 1997, an important change swept over cotton farms in the northern part of the country. By adopting new farming techniques, growers found they could spray far less insecticide over their fields. Within four years they had reduced their annual use of the poisonous chemicals by 156 million pounds—almost as much as is used in the entire state of California each year. Cotton yields in the region climbed, and production costs fell. Strikingly, the number of insecticide-related illnesses among farmers in the region dropped to a quarter of their previous level.
This story, which has been repeated around the world, is precisely the kind of triumph over chemicals that organic-farming advocates wish for. But the hero in this story isn’t organic farming. It is genetic engineering.
The most important change embraced by the Chinese farmers was to use a variety of cotton genetically engineered to protect itself against insects. The plants carry a protein called Bt, a favorite insecticide of organic farmers because it kills pests but is nontoxic to mammals, birds, fish, and humans. By 2001, Bt cotton accounted for nearly half the cotton produced in China.
For anyone worried about the future of global agriculture, the story is instructive. With 300,000 people dying each year globally from pesticide poisoning and a predicted 9.2 billion people to feed by 2050, you would think Europeans would be hungering for safe strategies to transform our agriculture into productive, biologically-based systems.
That they are not suggests that they have forgotten the broader goals of a sustainable agriculture: to maximize the health of the environment, the farmer, and the consumer. Legislating against a benign genetic process will not create the transformative changes we need on our farms.
Originally published on http://seedmagazine.com.