GMOs are one solution to an ancient puzzle

Illustration for article titled GMOs are one solution to an ancient puzzle

Genetically modified organisms are not the enemy. They're not even the problem. In fact, our ability to tweak the genetic code of crops and other organisms is a new approach to solving one of humanity's oldest puzzles: how do we feed ourselves? And how do we do it safely?

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For decades now, GMOs have been railed against for producing food aplenty, but at grave expense. To other crops. To the environment. To the health of you, the consumer. More recently, however, opponents of genetically modified organisms have been labeled the climate skeptics of the left, and for good reason: many of these criticisms are largely unfounded, and most miss the real issue entirely.

It's been said before, but it bears repeating that genetic modification is little more than a new tool in the perennial human endeavor to modify the biology that surrounds us – a project that exploded with the advent of agriculture and the development of crop-breeding techniques now centuries old. The real issue, then, is that genetic modification – like old-school breeding tactics – is an instrument, as equally suited for prudent application as it is dangerous implementation.

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GMOs have been roundly vilified by everyone from environmental groups to journalists to food columnists. All well-intentioned, we assume, but many of them misinformed in their conception of GMOs and under-informative in their communication of the cost/benefits inherent to their existence.

Last year, environmental journalist Keith Kloor published a piece at Slate that took GMO skeptics to task. It's a quick read, one well worth checking out in its entirety, but about half way through the piece, Kloor distilled the situation thusly:

Illustration for article titled GMOs are one solution to an ancient puzzle

The bottom line for people worried about GMO ingredients in their food is that there is no credible scientific evidence that GMOs pose a health risk.

Today at BoingBoing, Maggie Koerth-Baker has published a fantastic essay that reframes Kloor's thesis in subtler terms, with the help of an unlikely subject: a potato. We'll get to Koerth-Baker's point in a moment. For now, let's talk tubers.

The potato in question is one "Lenape" potato. "Invented," as it were, in the late 1960s, the Lenape was the spuddy offspring of a ménage à trois between the US Department of Agriculture, Penn State University, and the Wise Potato Chip Company. The goal of this peculiar union, Koerth-Baker explains, was a very starchy, but not-too-sugary potato – the ideal balance for chip-making.

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It was a (near-complete) success. Using conventional breeding techniques (the kind of cross-breeding we humans have been practicing for hundreds and hundreds of years), the trio brought forth a potato with a starch-to-sugar ratio that allowed it to yield perfectly golden crisps, with one niggling caveat: the Lenape potato overproduces an alkaloid called solanine, which, in high enough quantities, is toxic to humans. As Koerth-Baker points out, this means the Lenape's creation doubles as a noteworthy cautionary tale:

There’s this idea that GM plants are uniquely at risk of producing unexpected side effects, and that we have no way of knowing what those effects would be until average consumers start getting sick, [entomologist Fred Gould] told me. But neither of those things is really true. Conventional breeding, the simple act of crossing one existing plant with another, can produce all sorts of unexpected and dangerous results. One of the reasons Lenape potatoes are so infamous, I later found out, is that they played a big role in shaping how the USDA treats and tests new varieties of conventionally bred food plants today.

In fact, from Gould's perspective, there’s actually a lot more risk and uncertainty with conventional breeding, than there is with genetic modification. That’s because, with GM, you’re mucking about with a single gene. There are a lot more genes in play with conventional breeding, and a lot more ways that surprising genetic interactions could come back to haunt you.

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The upshot: conventional breeding and genetic modification are kernels from the same ear of corn. The former has been going on for centuries, the latter for less time, but with clear advantages over old-world breeding techniques. To quote Mark Lynas (an outspoken environmental advocate who, in January, after spearheading vitriolic anti-GMO campaigns for nearly two decades, "discovered science" and apologized publicly for his sensationalist attacks on GMOs), genetically modified crops are "an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment." But they're not the ultimate answer, either.

Koerth Baker's point – and it's one that I agree with – is that we would do well to recognize conventional breeding and genetic modification techniques for what they are: tools, each with their inherent risks and benefits. Failing to do so can lead to misinformation and confusion; and it can just as easily inspire unnecessary fear.

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DISCUSSION

michaeladobbs
Michael Ann Dobbs

Whenever someone complains about GMOs I point out that for decades one primary way of developing new mutations in breeding stock was to bombard the plants with radioactivity. Then just see what you get. How on earth could GMOs possibly be worse than that?

Yes, I absolutely have concerns about "round-up ready" and single generation seeds. But GMOs that increase resistance to drought, increased plant protein profiles (making Brazil nuts complete proteins would have saved millions of lives in South America, but they didn't because it might have hurt kids in the US with peanut allergies), and increased vitamin profiles (Hi, golden rice! You're doing a great job, saving the eyesight of millions of kids in Asia! Keep it up!) are necessary.

Right now, we produce enough food to feed every person on the planet. Our problems are distribution (often caused by local conflict, but just as often caused by people who have food not sending it to people who don't). But GMOs can help make up the difference: people can grow more nutritious, more complete foods in worse climates locally.

As soon as they figure out how to make nitrogen sucking plants have nitrogen fixing roots, the petro-chemical green revolution will be over. We'll be able to restore soil quality to places like Haiti and sub-Sahara Africa, while still producing human grade food. The "dead zones" in our rivers, lakes and oceans caused by nitrogen fertilizer run-off will disappear. We'll all live healthier, happier lives.

But we need good, publicly funded, highly tested science to make this happen. That means we can't just have knee-jerk reactions to new things. We're talking about one part of our entire (deeply manufactured, truly artificial) food system. We're already mucking about to the detriment of lots of other species. Being smarter has always worked for us as a species. Figuring out how to be smart AND careful is how we move forward.