Genetic Engineering for Good
A researcher modifies crops to feed the hungry and cut pesticide use
Mark Todd / www.funchicken.com
In the mid-1940s, Norman Borlaug started the Green Revolution on a small farm in Mexico. His idea was simple. As the human population skyrocketed, he would grow a new kind of wheat with a thicker stem and bigger seed heads, thus increasing yield and allowing farmers to grow more wheat—and feed more people—per acre.
The results were staggering. Within two decades, Mexico’s wheat harvest had swollen sixfold, thanks to crops descended from Borlaug’s modified wheat. Borlaug then turned his talents toward rice in the Philippines, and high-yield crops spread into almost every major food staple. All told, Borlaug’s revolution helped feed millions of people in poor and developing countries—an achievement that earned him the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.
But the Green Revolution wasn’t “green” in the modern sense of the word. In fact, it exacted a huge environmental toll. Its crops require liberal use of fertilizer and pesticides that bleed into the land and sea, poisoning wildlife and creating nitrogen-rich dead zones in the oceans. Now, with climate change threatening to upend many of the world’s crops, a new generation of researchers is poised to correct some of the original revolution’s flaws.
Pam Ronald, a University of California, Davis, researcher, sees a future dominated not by Monsanto-like corporations but by small partnerships between farmers and scientists. By combining genetically modified crops with organic farming and other eco-friendly practices, Ronald believes, we can create a system that slashes pesticide use, insulates crops against floods and drought, and protects the livelihoods of poor farmers in the developing world. Using genetic engineering as a conservation tool sounds like an oxymoron to many people, but the scales may finally be tipping in Ronald’s favor.
Her ideas have become a favorite of opinion makers such as Michael Pollan and Bill Gates. What’s more, they serve as a stark reminder that genetically modified foods are here, whether we like it or not. Which means that, at a time when we need to reinvent the world’s food supply, the critical question may be: Can we get it right?
Ronald is an unlikely genetic-engineering advocate. Pulling into her driveway, I see that her yard looks like that of any eco-foodie. Her pesticide-free garden—a tangled mix of herbs and native plants—has a happy, new age feel. Her barn sports a mural that she describes as “Diego Rivera meets Cesar Chavez.” And her husband, Raoul Adamchak, is an organic farmer.
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