Changing the discussion on genetic modification

A GM researcher who is married to an organic farmer tries to bridge the gap between science and consumers. | File photo

The evolution of genetic modification will continue with more diverse options, giving scientists more flexibility to better breed crops for farmers and human nutrition.

However, farmers and researchers will continue to have to explain the technology to consumers focused on the genetic level, said Pamela Ronald.

Ronald, a GM researcher at the University of California, Davis, is part of a group at her university created to help provide clear answers on crop breeding.

She was the guest lecturer at the Kenneth Farrell Lecture put on by the University of Guelph’s department of food, agriculture and resource economics.

She also wrote a book, Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food, with her husband, Raoul Adamchak, who runs the organic farm at UC Davis.

That gives Ronald an interesting perspective and puts her in a unique place in the usual grand chasm between genetic modification and organics.

She regards the work she does on genetically modifying rice as a way to effectively and economically solve problems for farmers.

She and her colleagues have been responsible for isolating genes that are resistant to disease and flooding for rice farmers, especially those in developing countries.

“For 10,000 years we have altered the genetic makeup of crops. Everything we eat has been genetically altered based on some kind of genetic technique,” she said.

The first examples of genetic modification date to the 1970s when insulin was bioengineered.

“Now we have nearly five billion acres of (GM) crops planted around the world,” she said.

Among those acres are those planted in rice that she and her colleagues have genetically modified for greater disease resistance, creating solutions for farmers that would not have been possible without genetic modification.

Scientists discovered 50 years ago that oryza longistaminata, a perennial grass from the same genus as cultivated rice, was resistant to many of the diseases that infected rice. Ronald’s lab was able to isolate the XA21 resistance gene and insert it into conventional rice.

SUB1, another isolated gene, is from a rice variety able to handle two weeks of flooding. It couldn’t be bred into conventional varieties, but it could be transferred in, which resulted in significant flooding resistance for conventional rice varieties. It also helped to reduce the 40 million tonnes of rice lost each year because of flooding.

With the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, four to five million farmers are now using varieties with the gene and increasing their yields.

“A single gene can have a huge positive impact on food security,” she said.

Ronald said consumers continue to question genetic modification, despite all of this value to farmers and eventually to them, because the value isn’t obvious to them. They don’t grow the food and they don’t see children malnourished because of a lack of food.

They’ve heard certain story lines involving evil corporations and the dominance of corn and soybeans and the health problems associated with them.

Ronald tries to change the conversation away from those story lines to the ones in which she is active, including rice and developing world farming.

The issue also gets more complicated when you throw in organic farming and its traditional antipathy to genetic modification.

Genetic modification is a biological process, and Ronald said it was included in the standards when her husband was involved with the California organic standards-setting organization.

However, 250,000 letters of protest later, and genetic modification was removed from the standard.

Our knowledge of the genome is also relatively new. It was only in 2000 that the Arabidopsis genome was sequenced at a cost of $70 million, involving 500 people and taking seven years. Such sequencing now takes two minutes and costs $99.

Still, Ronald laments that the discussion with consumers is so often focused on the gene rather than the effect, the outcome or the problem being solved.

That’s one of the reasons that the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy has been formed at UC Davis. Ronald is the genome centre director.

The institute aims to give students in science, especially graduate students, the tools to have discussions with people around them. The discussions are deliberately steered toward larger agriculture issues and industry complexity, rather than focusing on genetic modification specifically.

Telling stories is important be-cause science has not been able to gain support for genetic modification by using acronymed scientific organizations around the world to promote the safety of the process. Colourful, attractive people who have another, simpler story to tell — that GMOs are bad — have attracted more attention and followers.

The institute is trying to meet consumers where they live by creating programs such as Science Really Said, an Ask a Scientist program at the UC Davis farmers market and a Farm to Table Academy where consumers meet with scientists and farmers.

“Scientists who engage with people beyond their peers can have an effect,” she said.

However, despite their attempts to broaden the conversation on food, 80 to 90 percent of the questions they receive are about genes in food.

As the world of genetic manipulation becomes more complex, there will be even more work to do.

Gene editing, through the CRISPR technique, has spread around the world with great speed, running into regulatory regimes un-prepared for the technology.

CRISPR allows genes to be turned on and off. Genes are not inserted cross-species, so the United States has indicated that it won’t require the same regulatory rigour that is applied to traditional genetic modification. However, organic groups have voiced opposition.

Ronald said other tools are needed in genetic modification, including the ability to manage and analyze the vast amounts of data being created.

This will allow for greater understanding of genetic pathways and gene interactions.

Ronald also believes one of the next frontiers in farming is better understanding the microbiome of soil. Her husband spends a lot of his time encouraging a healthy microbiome, but we still know little about it. Genetic tools may help in this area, too.

“We don’t think about the silicon wafer and how much data we can put on it; we talk about how we use the information,” she said.

“I’m fascinated by the concern about genes in food. There have always been genes in our food.”

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