Ronald plants seed for joining organic farming, genetic engineering

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Pamela C. Ronald, author of Tomorrow’s Table, delivers her morning lecture at the Amphitheater on Wednesday.

The world’s population is projected to hit between 9 and 10 billion people by the year 2100, an increase equivalent to adding two more Chinas to the globe.

That population will need to eat, but agricultural resources are finite. Most arable land is already being used, and much of it is losing productivity. Over the last 40 years, soil erosion rendered 30 percent of the world’s arable land unproductive. On top of that, agriculture already uses 70 percent of the world’s freshwater. Drought and heat from global warming decrease crop yields by two percent every 10 years.

In addition, Pamela C. Ronald told the Amphitheater audience Wednesday, humankind is tasked with finding ways to grow more food — on the same amount of land, and with less water.

Ronald, a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and the Genome Center at the University of California, Davis, is looking for ways to do just that.

Her lecture was the third in this week’s morning lecture theme, “Feeding a Hungry Planet,” presented in partnership with National Geographic Society.

Ronald, who is also the director of Grass Genetics at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, has used genetic engineering to develop rice that is resistant to floods, a problem that plagues South and Southeast Asia, where 25 percent of the world’s rice is grown. Four million tons of rice are lost every year to floods, Ronald said — enough to feed 30 million people. But by sequencing the genome of an old rice variety found in eastern India that was tolerant to submergence, Ronald and her laboratory successfully introduced the flood-resistant gene into the varieties of rice preferred by local farmers.

Genetic engineering, Ronald said, can be used to solve many such problems. But she does not call herself an advocate for genetically modified organisms, even though much of her work supports the genetic engineering of crops. GMOs, as she defined them, are a modern form of breeding that introduces precise genetic changes, or genes from other species, into crop plants. The issue for her is that popular generalizations about GMOs — impassioned arguments that they are all good or all bad, or even that they are a discrete category — do not adequately address their complexity.

“We cannot generalize about GMOs,” she said. “Such discussions do not advance sustainable agriculture because every plant is different.” Beyond this, anti-GMO activists are seeing a false dichotomy; humans have been altering the crops they grow for more than 10,000 years, starting by selectively breeding for those with the most desired traits, Ronald said. Projecting a photograph of an juicy ear of farmed corn next to a scraggly, wild one sporting rock-hard kernels, Ronald remarked that farming itself is an unnatural environment for crops, and yields different organisms than would grow in the wild.

The distinction for the U.S. Department of Agriculture lies in the act of introducing foreign genes into crop plants, Ronald said. Thus, food marked “organic” by the USDA does not contain GMOs.

But genetic engineering is still wildly common worldwide, and its popularity is increasing in developing countries where farmers have less access to resources such as water. If a seed contains genetic information that makes it resistant to drought, Ronald said, GMOs are a tremendous boon to food access globally.

Additionally, diseases and pests lower crop yields, a problem that can be addressed with pesticides. But pesticides are often used unsafely, especially in developing countries, Ronald said. The World Health Organization estimates that pesticide poisoning kills 300,000 people each year.

Organic farming strategies are beneficial for this reason, she continued, but some pests, diseases and stresses are difficult to address using organic methods. Additionally, organic crops are more expensive. While some organic farming methods are useful, Ronald sees the solution to her original question — how to grow more food, on the same amount of land, with less water — as a combination of different farming approaches.

“There is no magic bullet to agriculture. We cannot rely just on seed alone to solve all of our agricultural problems,” she said. “Rather than focusing on how a seed variety was developed, we must ask what most enhances local food security, and can provide safe, abundant and nutritious food to consumers.”


Q: The first question from twitter: Won’t GMO plants out-compete native plants and upset the natural ecosystem?

A: So again, I tend not to like to use this idea of GMO plants because everything is genetically modified. We need to really look at a specific situation. For example, let’s consider corn in Iowa. There are no relatives of corn in Iowa. The corn that is grown in Iowa is grown in these large, artificial systems called farms, so there’s no native plants that can cross-pollinate with corn. One of the important aspects of using, for example, Bt corn, is you can spray less insecticides. If you’re spraying less insecticides, that allows the genetic diversity of insects to come back. Now, the situation is different in a place like Mexico — the origin of the modern day corn. So, there is a lot of different varieties of corn that are grown there by farmers in that area. But again, when you think of whether it’s genetically engineered through modern methods or older methods, any time you have corn the pollen is going to blow and it’s going to cross-hybridize with other corn varieties in the area. So again, this is not a question specific to the method of genetic engineering; it’s really specific for modern agriculture. Yes, modern agriculture is terrible for native ecosystems. What farmers do, whether you’re a conventional farmer or an organic farmer, the first thing you do is you till the entire field and you kill everything in it. So, really, the goal of agriculture is to minimize those negatives impact. Hopefully that gets at the question.

Q: We have two questions here. Why not label GMO foods; do you see any need for the labeling of GMO food products to protect consumers?

A: Now, seeds are already labeled, so when a farmer buys a seed it’s already labeled whether it’s genetically engineered or not because they need that information to know how to grow the crop. Then, when you consider if you buy something in the store, how do you label the food? For example, think about papaya. How do we label the papaya? If it’s an organic papaya, should we label that it contains large amounts of a viral pathogen? We could label that, but normally we would be taken quite aback, well I don’t want to eat that, but it’s perfectly safe. This is a plant pathogen; it’s not going to hurt you. So then if you look at a genetically engineered papaya, it just has trace amounts of the exact same pathogen, so there is no scientific reason to label that. The Federal Drug Administration already labels food for safety, because there is no issue of food safety, that is why the FDA has decided not to label the crops. I really don’t like GMO because if you label GMO then everything would have to be labeled because everything we eat is genetically altered in some manner. So what I would love to see — because of course consumers are increasingly concerned about the sustainability of agriculture and of course they’re concerned about nutrition — I really have been advocating for a bar code labeling so you can see everything. You can see whether the variety was developed from hybridization, you can see who funded the variety, you can see how much land is used, how much water is used. I have on another slide, some of the pesticides used by organic farmers are very, very toxic. Of course, they’re collected from the native ecosystem, but they’re forty fold more toxic than other types of insecticides. So, really, what the consumer needs to know is about the toxicity and the sustainability. I think this is a really important issue, and I think that we can tackle this question using some kind of barcode labeling system.

Q: How do we prevent global corporations from using genetic engineering innovations in ways that are bad for society?

A: So the goal of corporations is to make a profit — a big profit, right? This is true for all corporations whether it’s Apple, or Microsoft or Monsanto. The way they try to make a profit is to develop a product that consumers like. So we all have our Apple and our iPhone, and it’s the same with farmers. Farmers want to buy the best seed they can so they can spray fewer insecticides. So that’s why 90 percent of the farmers in the Midwest are actually buying Bt corn, because they can drop their insecticide use tenfold. Now none of us want corporations dominating the entire seed industry. There are, right now, about five major corporations that produce most of the worlds seed, but it’s not only genetically engineered seed. Monsanto is the largest producer of organic seed, and so again, I think it’s really important to break these issues apart and to consider what specifically we don’t want as consumers. I think we all want diversity of choice. We want to see new seed companies springing up, we don’t want monolithic types of corporations. This is really an issues I think for the Department of Justice. Of course, we don’t want to plant seeds or use farming practices that harm the environment, so that’s really why we need very careful evaluation by the Federal Drug Administration, the USDA and other organizations, the EPA. So that hopefully can answers your questions. I think it’s difficult to get away from corporations, I mean everything all of us are using everyday, we just hope that they produce tools that are useful and they pay their taxes to fund academic research.

Q: How will third-world farmers afford the technology to generate GMO seeds?

A: So it’s true that in the developed world the seed is purchased. Whether you’re an organic farmer or a big farmer in the Midwest, virtually all farmers buy their seed. Very few farmers actually produce the seed on the farm. That’s because they all want certified seed, they want to be able to rely that the seed they buy will produce, will grow up into the plant that they want. But it’s very different in the less developed world. The farmers have very little money. They can’t afford expensive seed. For example, the seed that was developed through the International Rights Research Institute — the flood tolerant rice that’s distributed through Bangladesh and Indian seed certification groups. They sell for a very small fee and since rice is self-pollinating the farmers actually self-pollinate the rice and they collect the seed on the farm. Now, golden rice is meant for the very, very poor. This rice has been developed through non-profit means and it is available to farmers for free so they don’t pay any money for this type of rice. There are many collaborations now with African scientific organizations, Indian scientific organizations, non-profit collaborations but also private-public partnerships to advance the development of seeds that can be used in the less developed world.

Q: If GMOs are substantially similar to natural crops, why are they patented?

A: Companies patent many different types of things. They don’t only patent genetically engineered crops. They patent the parents for hybrid lines. Companies use patenting to protect their intellectual property. There may be a lot of different discussions about whether this is a good thing for agriculture or a bad thing for agriculture, very important discussions. But again, it’s not specific to genetic engineering. The patenting of seed has been going on for a very long time before the advent of genetic engineering. So I think we’re seeing kind of a mixture of issues that come together that are not specific to genetics but are a lot of general concern about our agriculture.

Q: A cluster of questions focused on the economic and political dimensions of seed security. Another question asks, a lot of non-science people want to ban all GMOs, how does one deal with these people?

A: Of course education is important. I think the term “GMO” was developed because it rhymes with UFO. I really believe with a little more information — people like information, and I think with science-based information — they can begin to look at each crop on a case-by-case basis. Introducing me, you said I was an advocate of GMOs, but I’m not really. I’m an advocate of sustainable agriculture, and that’s really where the focus has to be. We use the most appropriate technology. So the flood-tolerant rice was developed through a technology called marker-assisted breeding, it’s not considered GMO. That’s a better technology to use for this particular situation. But for the banana, for example, it may make more sense to use genetic engineering because the banana lacks the genetic diversity for resistance. So if we can take a rice gene and put it into banana and enhance the livelihood for a hundred million farmers, then it’s a project worth doing.

Q: A number of questions on sheer definitional issues. And you may have spoken on this, how does genetic engineering differ from hybriding and marker-assisted breeding and how is the label organic regulated and how does this exclude GMOs? And should GMOs be excluded?

A: Hybridization, marker-assisted breeding, genetic engineering — so I did sort of do a lot of hand waving over that because it does take a little time to explain. Hybridization started being developed in the 1900s, and it’s mostly seed companies in the United States and other places that develop hybrids because it takes enough specialization that most farmers don’t do this on their own farms, they buy the hybrid seed. So what it is, there’s two distinct varieties that are grown up over many years and then crosses are made so there is pollination. Often, they use a male sterile variety so that they’re sure that male sterile variety is pollinated by the other variety. So the essential idea is that you’re bringing two varieties together. The seed that’s produced has what’s called hybrid vigor. The farmers love it — as I said organic farmers, other farmers — because it’s resistant to disease, it tastes good and it can be very very robust, very high productivity. The issue with hybrids is, if the farmer then replants the seed the next year, what we say is the new progeny that grow up have all kinds of different traits, they’re not uniform anymore. So the farmer doesn’t like them because they don’t produce the traits the same as the parents. So this has gotten a little bit confused with genetic engineering. This is completely different from genetic engineering. It was developed a long time ago, and farmers have to go back every year to buy their seed. I mean, they can self-pollinate their seed but it’s not something that would add to their productivity. So that’s why organic farmers and other farmers buy the hybrid seed. So there’s sort of this idea going around with genetic engineering you can’t self your seed but that’s actually not true, it’s hybridization, which is a different technique. Marker-assisted breeding is a modern genetic method; that’s what was used to develop drought resistant rice. Once you have the gene identified or region of the genome you can do a genetic fingerprint. So when you bring together two different varieties, when you just do a regular conventional cross-pollination, you mix two completely different genomes. Sometimes it’s good, for example hybridization, but many times you get a big mess. You’re bringing in traits that the farmer doesn’t want. It makes it flower too soon or flower too late or it changes the color or the taste, so marker-assisted breeding allows you to bring just a small part of the genome containing your gene of interest, using genetic markers into the variety favored by farmers. It’s very similar to genetic engineering except with genetic engineering, instead of bringing maybe 50 genes, in which is about as good a resolution as you can get with marker-assisted breeding, with genetic engineering you just bring one gene in.

Q: There are questions about the reliability of science-based knowledge and studies themselves. One concern is industry influence in genetic science. How can we trust the objectivity of the studies?

A: One thing that’s really important in science is this idea of reproducibility and scientific consensus. You should never believe me. You should never believe one scientist. You need to go with the consensus. So that’s why I showed you the scientific consensus slide. So each of those organizations — for example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Scientists — these are the reports and the consensus of thousands of scientists. You never want to go with one industry report or one report that you see on the Internet from some activist group that’s trying to sell you something. You really want to go with this broad scientific consensus. So I hope that helps. Oh, and so industry, obviously there’s many scientists in industry, obviously they have a lot of influence, a lot of money and sometimes their websites on industry pages are actually very informative but you have to take it with a grain of salt because they’re trying to sell you something. That’s why I encourage you to go to non-profit sources. This idea I’ve heard over the past few years that all academic scientists are owned by Monsanto, but I haven’t see that and I don’t believe there’s this large conspiracy for corporations to control all the scientists around the world. In fact I looked this up at UC Davis, I don’t have any industry funding, and I looked up well how many of my colleagues are funded by Monsanto? So we have a very large research budget, almost a billion dollars every year and less than one tenth of one percent of that funding came from Monsanto last year. So it’s not enough to influence scientists.

Q: Can you provide an example of unintended consequences of using GMOs?

A: There’s a couple unintended consequences. I’ll give you an example for just conventional breeding. One unintended consequence of celery breeding that the National Research Council talks about is there was a development of insect resistant celery that was very effective. So the resistance, what you’re doing is you’re bringing in different compounds because, to make resistance, you have some kind of naturally occurring compound. And there were some farmers that, when they were harvesting the celery, they got a rash on their hand. That’s an unintended consequence because the goal of that breeding experiment was to develop resistant celery varieties. And they were successful, but they also had some farmers developed a rash so they had to start harvesting with gloves. So, that’s an example of an unintended consequence. With genetic engineering — so far — there has not been negative unintended consequences to human health. There has been an unintended consequence that’s been positive, which is in Africa using Bt corn. It turns out not only does it resist insects, but farmers actually have to store their corn for a long time, and in storage insects will make some damage into the corn allowing a very dangerous fungus to infiltrate the corn and produce fumonisins which can be toxic. So they found that the Bt corn also had much much less fumonisins. So that’s another unintended consequence. So these are the kinds of unintended consequences people talk about. And of course if you think about the production aspect, there’s another type of genetically engineered variety called herbicide tolerant crops. These have become very popular because 99 percent of farmers spray herbicides except for organic farmers. So they’ve engineered different varieties to produce a resistance to a non-toxic herbicide, again it’s less toxic than table salt. It’s been very good for enhancing soil fertility and conservation tillage and it’s reduced a lot of the toxic compounds in the environment so there have been a lot of positive aspects of it. But it’s so popular that many many farmers are growing this and they’re spraying a lot of glyphosate, which is Roundup, which is considered a once-in-a-lifetime type of compound because it’s non-toxic so there’s weeds that develop resistance. So that’s a problem that has to be managed and it’s really important to manage that with integrative agricultural practices.

 —Transcribed by Emma Foehringer Merchant