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.
But Ronald, a plant geneticist, is also an unabashed supporter of genetically modified (GM) crops. Her book on the benefits of bioengineered organic crops, Tomorrow’s Table (Oxford University Press, 2008), which she wrote with Adamchak, has started reshaping the way we look at GM foods.
While debate traditionally has been focused on genetically modified corn and other lucrative foodstuffs, Ronald has been doing pioneering work on a crop that is largely ignored: rice. In fact, while companies such as Monsanto pour billions into GM crops, rice research is almost solely the province of publicly funded academics. “The big companies aren’t working on broccoli or carrots—there’s just not enough profit in that,” she says. “And they don’t work on rice. It feeds half the world, but not the wealthy half.”
Rice could be the ideal proving ground for genetic engineering to improve the environment while preparing for a warmer world, she says.
Take flooding, for instance. No one knows for certain how much flooding will increase as the planet warms, but scientists believe it will become more frequent and last longer in places such as Southeast Asia, where it already causes around $1 billion in annual damage to rice crops.
That’s why Ronald’s lab teamed up with colleague Dave Mackill in the late 1990s to create a species of rice that could be submerged for weeks and survive. Unlike many crops, rice has a dizzying number of varieties (as many as 140,000), all with distinct genetic codes. Mackill found one variety from eastern India with an unusual ability to live underwater for long spans. Ronald’s team undertook the painstaking task of sorting through the genome until they found a single gene that seemed to act as a “master switch” for flood tolerance.
It was a neat trick, but the researchers wanted something that could be used easily by poor rice farmers. One method would have been to slice the gene out and simply slide it into a commercial crop, making it “genetically modified.” However, they finally decided to simply breed the old with the new while targeting that specific place in the gene that held the precious submergence trait. This so-called marker-assisted breeding blends genetic work with old school, dirty-fingernails farming. Because the actual genetic transfer was done in rice fields, the new strain is not considered modified and is thus under less scrutiny from government agencies than lab-modified strains are.
In a 2006 paper in Nature, the team announced a new strain of rice that could survive two weeks totally underwater. And it was easy to grow. By the end of 2010, the floodproof rice was expected to cover 125,000 acres in four countries. That’s projected to jump tenfold this year.
This is just the beginning, Ronald says. Flooding is one of climate change’s three key threats to agriculture. Drought and pest outbreaks are the other two, and Ronald believes lab-aided rice can be designed to resist them all. She is just beginning to work on drought-tolerant rice, and she believes a bug- and weed-resistant rice could slash the amount of pesticides used by rice farmers.
It’s an example of how genetic engineering has accomplished exactly what many environmentalists and organic farmers want, Ronald says. Genetically modified cotton is a prime example. Little more than a decade ago, farmers in China started using “Bt cotton,” a genetically engineered variety containing a protein that kills pests but is not toxic to mammals. (The Bt protein is a favorite insecticide among organic farmers.) Within four years, the Chinese cotton farmers reduced their annual use of poisonous insecticides by 70,000 metric tons—almost as much as is used in all of California each year.
Opponents worry that GM food carries some still-undiscovered health risks or that it’s just a tool that helps big corporations sell more pesticides. And Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists worries that expensive GM research siphons money from less-sexy techniques. He likes marker-led breeding, he says, but he wants to see more money spent on organic techniques that reduce sprawling monocultures.
The danger of pesticides far outweighs that of switching a few base pairs in the DNA, Ronald says. She frequently notes that there’s no record of anyone ever becoming sick from a GM crop.
Ronald also points out that the debate revolves around several false dichotomies. While naysayers declare genetic modification to be a new and evil practice, Ronald says the line between “genetically engineered” and “traditional” crops really exists only in the media and politics. For scientists, she says, it’s more of a continuum—with traditional breeding on one end and crops with genes borrowed from vastly different creatures on the other.
Another false tradeoff is the idea that embracing genetic engineering means doing away with other environmentally friendly agriculture practices. If we are to feed the world without destroying the planet, Ronald believes, we must incorporate not just genetic modification but also crop rotations, crop diversity, and other ideas promoted by organic farmers.
To explain what might finally tip the scales, Ronald points to the developing world. As global warming intensifies, poor subsistence farmers will be devastated by food insecurity far more than the wealthy West.
“If farmers don’t change the seed they’re planting now, in 25 years they’re going to be getting half the yield,” Ronald says. She believes altering rice and other crops—such as strains of bananas—could help prevent future famine, much in the way that Borlaug’s wheat spared millions of people from starvation. If we’re going to accomplish that, environmentalists need to think more broadly. “You don’t have to choose between productivity and sustainability,” she says. “You can have both.”
Plant geneticist Pamela Ronald blogs about agriculture and genetics issues at scienceblogs.com/tomorrowstable. Reprinted from Conservation (July-Sept. 2010), “the magazine for environmental intelligence” published by the Society for Conservation Biology. www.conservationmagazine.org
This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.