Scientist warns against completely abandoning genetic modification

Farmers and scientists may be tempted to throw transgenic crops in the trash.

The technology, which has provided benefits to farmers, has been a public relations nightmare and provoked endless discussions about the safety of modern agriculture.

However, before they throw the baby out with the bathwater, people in the agricultural industry need to remember the story of the papaya, says a Penn State biologist.

Related story: Transgenic crops: end of an era

The ringspot virus nearly destroyed Hawaii’s papaya industry as production dropped 50 percent between 1993 and 2006. That changed when Cornell University scientists designed a genetically modified papaya, using a transgene, which protected the fruit from the virus. Now, GM papaya represents 90 percent of Hawaii’s crop, says the International Food Information Council.

Protecting crops from disease is just one reason why the ag industry should stop and ponder the true value of transgenic crops.

“After you start looking at the whole realm of plant science and what we want it to do on this Earth, to sustain us, transgenics are not a tool you want to throw out,” said Sally Mackenzie, Huck Chair of Functional Genomics and a plant science professor at Penn State University.

“I really worry that people are so eager to get transgenics off the table … without thinking carefully (about it).”

Transgenic, or genetically modified crops, have been around for more than 25 years, but the public remains skeptical. Polls show that only 35 to 40 percent of Canadians think GM foods are safe to eat.

That’s much, much lower than the scientific consensus.

“By contrast, 88 percent of AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) scientists say GM foods are generally safe,” says the Pew Research Centre.

One of the fundamental problems with transgenic crops is they were mostly designed for farmers, not consumers. Young mothers care about the nutrition and health of food rather than herbicide tolerance, Mackenzie said.

“I think Monsanto made some vital mistakes in their communication, early on,” she said.

“That (has) cost the entire scientific community dearly, in being able to justify these breeding tools.”

Because of public sentiment and stringent regulations on GM crops, plant scientists and investors have shifted to other technologies. Mackenzie, for instance, has founded a company that’s using epigenetics to increase crop yields.

“I’ve been part of launching a start-up company, so I have an appreciation for how the market can drive this, wisely or unwisely, in a certain direction,” she said.

Investors may be excited about the new technologies, and there’s a great deal of hype around gene editing, but there’s no such thing as a silver bullet, Mackenzie added.

Gene editing is useful to achieve certain traits, but maybe not powerful enough for something complex like drought-tolerant crops.

There are cases where farmers and society need transgenics. One example is trees.

Diseases are killing ash and chestnut trees across North America. Initially, charitable foundations asked scientists to solve the problem using conventional breeding.

That hasn’t worked, Mackenzie said. Researchers are now looking at transgenics, which is highly useful for combating viral diseases in plants.

“When you’re trying to target a certain disease … transgenics have that ability to be very targeted … and to be a single-generation solution,” she said.

“You can stand around and hope you can select for resistance, but when you’re talking about tree crops, you just run out of time.”

Mackenzie said this is not an either/or dilemma.

It’s not a case where transgenics are bad and the new technologies are good.

Climate change, future pandemics and unknown factors could create situations where all plant science tools are needed.

Discarding one because it’s unpopular doesn’t make sense.

“I still see transgenics as having real value,” she said.

“We should have a lot of gratitude for what transgenics have done, when they’ve been applied successfully. Certainly, for virus resistance, that was huge.”

Plus, there’s no guarantee that the public will accept the technologies that replace transgenics.

The lords and trolls of Twitter may ravage gene edited crops, just like they brought down GM crops.

“Social media has amazed me … with how powerful it can be to persuade people to ideas that are really unfounded.”

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