Sunday, February 27, 2011

Transgenic Papayas, Take 2

I must have been busy last year when Genomic Gastronomy tried to engage my post on transgenic papaya because I didn't really give much of an answer...

So with apologies, here's more!

The reason why my opinion of genetic engineering differs from that of many others is simply that I don't believe there's any fundamental, qualitative difference between the collection of techniques that we call "genetic engineering" and those that we call "breeding" (although I did up until halfway through my Ph.D.).* As any of my followers knows, giving examples of this is a main theme of this blog. 

All in all, it's normal for people to be wary of new technologies. When trains first crossed the British countryside, community groups rose up and accused them of causing all sorts of maladies. More recently we've had concerns over organophosphates, high-tension wires, asbestos, nanotechnology, vaccines and cell phones. It's an important role of government research and regulation to look into the safety of new technologies whenever there's either evidence or public concern over safety issues - but if hundreds of studies are racked up over many years without any evidence of fundamental dangers (as has occurred with genetic engineering), it's probably time to start re-evaluating whether our aversion is logical or just emotional. While plenty of new technologies have poisoned people, their effects are usually well beyond obvious long before the 10 year mark.

Concerns over the societal impacts of new technologies is a separate issue from physical safety and we should try not to conflate the two. I haven't paid much attention to these issues (e.g. the whole Bt brinjal story) because I have the impression that technological progress eventually floats all boats (so long as citizens retain enough sense to shatter monopolies and enforce government oversight). But I will say that there's absolutely nothing top-down about the introduction of transgenic crops. Farmers choose who they buy seed from every year and if they don't like it one year, they wont buy it the next (and the company will stop making it or go out of business).** You can always find some specialist or luddite who rants that they can't buy their favorite photographic film product anymore, but that doesn't mean there's some sort of corporate coercion - it's just the market. If you want to make sure farmers have access to elite, non-transgenic seed despite the market, it's as simple as re-funding public sector breeding operations.***

You suggest that:
"It might be possible to co-design a sustainable/resilient food system, slowly, working with farmers to transition Papaya farms towards a collection of other plants that provide Vitamin A & C, and can be consumed locally instead of shipped around the world, and allows them to remain profitable. But that is a slower implementation of a “Social Technology”."
I'm all for any efforts to work with disadvantaged people to find better ways for them to get things done, but I don't see why this should preclude the introduction of new technologies (or for that matter how offering people a new technology is any more "top-down" than convincing them to re-organize their whole food system). Though I have to say, I really hate the idea of telling people they need to give up traditional foods for philosophical reasons - particularly when our lifestyle already violates that philosophy so much more than theirs does. Regardless, the underlying truth that well-meaning groups should understand food systems before they try to "fix" them was, I believe, made pretty obvious through the hiccups of the first Green Revolution. I know that applied plant geneticists and breeders are very aware of this now, and I'm sure that organic agronomists and international agricultural development specialists are too.

I'm personally not particularly interested in straining over the social implications of every new technology that comes over the horizon - though I think it's good that there are people (including publicly-funded researchers) who are. Frankly, I think much of the hang-wringing over the social implications of modern seed is founded on overly-romantic notions of what farming is like. Most Americans learn about agriculture through Charlotte's Web and Beatrix Potter, but it doesn't seem to me that most farmers today live such fulfilling, peaceful lives. It's not a good life to be a dirt-farmer, stuck on a small patch of used-up soil. I think perhaps that the best thing we can do for much of the world's poor is to help them get good, safe jobs in the city while the relatively few that remain in the country can apply appropriate technologies to make efficient and sustainable use of the land that's left behind.****

Back to the Bt brinjal story - as I said, I never looked into all the allegations of manipulative shadiness, but I'll add my two cents to the specific concerns you listed:

- "it is not guaranteed that farmers will reduce pesticide use if the seed is sold nationally without oversight (lack of user-training)" So? Since there's no serious negative consequence of the Bt transgene, I fail to see a problem - though if your country lacks proper training for the use of pesticides, the possibility of unnecessary sprays should be the LEAST of your concerns - the reusing of pesticide containers for drinking water quickly comes to mind... 
- "the efficacy of naturally occurring BT is lowered, as some pests evolve resistance to the toxin(tragedy of the commons of ecosystem services, economic externalities)" If by "the efficacy of naturally occurring Bt is lowered," you mean that the ability of Bacillus thuringiensis to be as an effective pathogen of eggplant-eating caterpillars, I'd have to disagree - if there was a selective advantage to Bt resistant caterpillars in the wild, I'd expect it to have arisen and been maintained sometime in the first couple million years of exposure. Besides, extensive use of penicillin sure hasn't hurt Penicillium's dominance in our environment. Anyway, B. thuringiensis can go extinct for all I care if it allows millions of peasants grow good crops without spraying dangerous chemicals around their children. (And if you're referring to the use of Bt sprays as an organic pesticide, I'd point that the application of any pesticide will encourage the evolution of resistance). 
- "the commercialization of BT Brinjal would severely reduce the agricultural BioDiversity (agronomic)" The introduction of any breakthrough new crop will reduce ag biodiversity, whether it's transgenic or not. I say, let the farmers grow whatever seed puts the most food in their bellies and lobby governments and non-profits to invest heavily in genebanks. We don't need to saddle subsistence farmers with the responsibility of conserving biodiversity at their expense. 
- "it directly affects a massive ORDER of species (as opposed to transgenic Papaya which is intended to effect one virus in a GENUS). One design critique I would make is that the transgenic intervention using BT is much too wide. By not attacking a specific and eminent existential threat, a BT variety has a new relationship with many many other organisms in the agricultural ecosystem. Measuring the intended (and possibly, unintended) consequences of the Papaya means starting at the level of genus." I agree this sounds scary, but it's the natural order that most plants are resistant to most pests and pathogens (Likewise, think about how many pathogenic and parasitic microbes, animals, fungi and plants are unable to feed on you!). Besides, it only affects individuals that eat the transgenic crop - it's not like it permeates the whole environment and poisons all butterflies that get too close (like conventional synthetic and organic pesticides do). Ironically, I think it's pretty safe to say that transgenic insect + pathogen resistance traits produce the FEWEST non-target effects, while organic sprays (e.g. general biocides like copper) produce the MOST. Some synthetic pesticides hurt lots of things besides the target pest, while others are incredibly specific. 
- "India is home to ~ 1/6th of all the humans that live on the planet. The decision to approve transgenic plants is taken by the GEAC the level of the central national government, although some states have attempted to opt out, but keep in mind that many states of India have more citizens than most European countries! This decision is highly centralized and effects the food security (whether for good or bad) and is quite different in scale than approving a transgenic fruit on a small island. Caution should be prioritized in such a decision." I'm not sure I agree that potentially hurting a small community is much different than hurting a large community. Though either way, that ship has sailed: Me and about 300 million of my countrymen have been eating GM food on probably a daily basis for the better part of a decade. If it's safe for me, I'm happy to let Indians decide that it's safe for them too. 

Finally, you quote:
“Our view is that genetic modification is a potentially valuable technology whose advantages and disadvantages need to be considered rigorously on an evidential, inclusive, case-by-case basis: Genetic modification should neither be privileged nor automatically dismissed. 
We also accept the need for technology to gain greater public acceptance and trust before it can be considered as one among a set of technologies that may contribute to improved global food security.”

I agree with the first block, but not the second: The safety of new technologies should be determined by science and enforced by regulation. I don't want special interest groups and the whims of polls to decide what tools I can have access to.

* Genetic engineering = adding an isolated or synthesized DNA sequence to a genome.
   Traditional breeding = moving or modifying genome sequences by intra/inter-species cross-fertilization, chemical/radiation mutagenesis, tissue culture, protoplast fusion, etc. (These older, non-transgenic methods generally only work when all donors and recipients are pretty closely related).
** In recent years a number of seed companies have made conspicuously large investments into developing typical "transgenic" traits (like herbicide resistance) by classical "breeding" methods - especially in crops like sunflower, which are grown in fields surrounded by their wild relatives - in a clear ploy to create cutting-edge varieties without the controversy.
*** But you'd better hurry, they're almost gone!
**** I do have to give props to the organic movement for really focusing on the importance of building soil health and pushing the envelope with underutilized crops and cropping schemes. When all the dust settles, I think this (and the greater public awareness of agriculture and ag ecology) will be two very important accomplishments of the organic movement.


  1. Just a brief comment on your statement: "Farmers choose who they buy seed from every year and if they don't like it one year, they wont buy it the next (and the company will stop making it or go out of business)."

    The seed industry is becoming so consolidated that this is difficult in practice. There just aren't a lot of options out there. GM crops are a part of why this is happening (R&D on GMOs is expensive, so there's a barrier to entry by small companies, patents, etc) but not the whole story. For an interesting visual:

  2. Great post Mat, thanks!

    I'm curious what your thoughts are on this: (I know, the author is a dunce; it's what the author is quoting that has me curious.)

    Thanks. :)

  3. mo - you're absolutely right and I for one strongly support continuing investment in public sector breeding. even if there are no monopoly issues, a company can only do so many things at one time and the little markets fall through the cracks.

    Michelle - they've been working on trying to express vaccines in fruit for years if not decades. one of the ideas is that it would allow you to produce huge amounts of vaccines (that wouldn't need to be kept cold) very cheaply - especially useful for major developing world campaigns like polio eradication. Obviously, drug-expressing foods would not be treated as everyday food.

  4. At long last a voice of reason. Although GM is accepted more in the USA, there is still a stigma that we are making monsters particularly here in Europe.
    I find very little difference between breeding and genetically modifying genomes.
    It is not a process that can be done, "just like that" in any case.
    When some people were asked about their objection to GM in the UK they said they did not want to eat food with genes in them!!!
    I don't mind if people object to genetic modification but I would like them to have some credible reason for doing so.

  5. Thanks Mat.

    I seem to remember you at one point expressing concern about GMO crops being used to produce drugs,as opposed to making better foodstuffs or having resistance to disease or what have you. Do you see any risks in using crops to develop and distribute vaccines? Thanks. . .

  6. I'm pretty cavalier about genetic engineering when it comes to food products because they're fundamentally very safe and there's really no chance of spooky side effects like allergies or hormone activity. Plants that produce drugs are drugs themselves (not food) and should be treated accordingly. They'll differ in their probability of contaminating our food supply and the potential impact if contamination occurs. Government reg agencies will have to decide on a case by case basis which specific drug crops can be grown where in the country, and under what level of containment.

  7. Excellent post. It seems only shrill voices and business interests get heard in the discussion of genetically-modified foods. We need more rational voices to be heard. I tend to think environmentalists should favour genetically-modified crops, and if they understood the science better, perhaps they would.

  8. Hi Mat -

    I wrote a lengthy, and hopefully interesting response here:

    After this post, we'll have to pick a new topic or genome/ingredient to discuss. :)

  9. Thanks, I'll read your post in more detail soon. (I just found your comment in my spam folder for some reason...)



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