An Agromodernist Reader | Volume Five | Biotech: A Tool for Sustainability

illustrations by Leah Zins | LZ Graphic Design

In the last volume of our Culinary Modernist Reader, we looked at farmers who are practicing sustainable industrial agriculture and showing that it does not need to be an oxymoron. Now we turn our attention to the only subject more contentious than the idea that small, local, organic agriculture may not provide the map forward that many believe – biotech crops. It’s not uncommon to come across people who are unaware that biotech in agriculture has any proponents outside of Big Ag PR departments. Hopefully this volume can go some way to dispelling that misconception.

Because this is such a contentious issue, I’ve chosen longer excerpts in the hopes that the authors intent won’t be taken out of context, but my intent is that readers follow the links and read the full pieces.


Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference, 3 January 2013

” I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

So I guess you’ll be wondering – what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist.

… My second climate book, Six Degrees, was so sciency that it even won the Royal Society science books prize, and climate scientists I had become friendly with would joke that I knew more about the subject than them. And yet, incredibly, at this time in 2008 I was still penning screeds in the Guardian attacking the science of GM – even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding. I don’t think I’d ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science even at this late stage.

Obviously this contradiction was untenable. What really threw me were some of the comments underneath my final anti-GM Guardian article. In particular one critic said to me: so you’re opposed to GM on the basis that it is marketed by big corporations. Are you also opposed to the wheel because because it is marketed by the big auto companies?

So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.

I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.

I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.

But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.

But this was still only the beginning.

An Organic Farmer and a Geneticist Walk Into a Field
The debate around genetically engineered crops and organic farming usually begins well beyond a point of no return. Heels dug in, opposing sides accuse one another of being anti-environment or anti-science, evil or ignorant. From there, what takes place is something closer to a schoolyard shouting match than adult discourse.

This is not usually a good — or very successful — place to start honest discussions looking to move conversations forward.

And it’s not the starting point for Pamela Ronald, a University of California, Davis, plant geneticist, and Raoul Adamchak, a farmer who runs the student organic farm on campus. The two are co-authors of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. They are also married — a truly odd couple in a world divided by preconceived notions and decisions before discussions.

… “We both came into our respective fields because we’re interested in ecologically based farming,” says Ronald, who has successfully genetically engineered rice to tolerate prolonged periods of flooding, a problem in many parts of the world where rice is a dietary staple. “We believe that it’s really a distraction to think about how the seed was developed. … The issue is really whether a particular seed or farming practice can advance the goals of sustainable agriculture.”

“The common ground was obvious to us,” Adamchak says. “It isn’t very difficult if you look at the overall goal of sustainable agriculture … and say, ‘What’s the best way to get there?’ It was relatively easy for us to say, ‘We should use the best technology and the best farming practices possible.’ That seems to us a perfectly reasonable way of achieving the most sustainable agriculture possible.”

Creating a Better Apple
In 1997 Carter began to tinker with apple plants. By 2001, his small team which included scientists produced the first plant cuttings that were able to inhibit PPO. Carter took his first bite of a non-browning apple of his own creation in 2004.

Okanagan was frugal. Carter says he raised money from about 45 people, including friends, family members, and people in the orchard business. Instead of buying expensive equipment, he outsourced scientific jobs like DNA sequencing. He set up field trials with friendly farmers willing to help out, and Okanagan stretched its dollars by seeking tax credits.

The company didn’t hire legal experts, instead choosing to deal directly with regulators to get the apple approved. “The regulators said sure, just call us, we’ll help you,” says Carter.

Okanagan’s homespun strategy has proved effective in parrying GMO critics. On its website, the company lets such detractors leave comments but counters them with relentlessly cheery patter. “Yesterday we used cookie cutters to make some apple fish, stick those in some blue jello!” his team blogged in April.

In February, the U.S. Deparment of Agriculture declared the Arctic apple cleared for marketing, allowing it to be commercialized. That brought Okanagan to the limits of its go-small approach. A bigger company would have better luck getting Arctic apples into stores, Carter felt. And into orchards: currently, his apples are planted on only about 50 of the 436,000 acres of apple trees in the United States. Spreading the biotech apple through nurseries, he knew, could take a decade and millions of dollars, a job for a bigger company.

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A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA
To slow the spread of the bacterium that causes the scourge, they chopped down hundreds of thousands of infected trees and sprayed an expanding array of pesticides on the winged insect that carries it. But the contagion could not be contained.

They scoured Central Florida’s half-million acres of emerald groves and sent search parties around the world to find a naturally immune tree that could serve as a new progenitor for a crop that has thrived in the state since its arrival, it is said, with Ponce de León. But such a tree did not exist.

“In all of cultivated citrus, there is no evidence of immunity,” the plant pathologist heading a National Research Council task force on the disease said.

In all of citrus, but perhaps not in all of nature. With a precipitous decline in Florida’s harvest predicted within the decade, the only chance left to save it, Mr. Kress believed, was one that his industry and others had long avoided for fear of consumer rejection. They would have to alter the orange’s DNA — with a gene from a different species.

Oranges are not the only crop that might benefit from genetically engineered resistance to diseases for which standard treatments have proven elusive. And advocates of the technology say it could also help provide food for a fast-growing population on a warming planet by endowing crops with more nutrients, or the ability to thrive in drought, or to resist pests.

We Need G.M.O. Wheat
Much of the nation’s wheat crop comes from a section of the central plains that sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, which is rapidly being depleted. The direst warnings suggest that at current rates of use, in 50 years only 30 percent of its water will remain. Farmers who have relied on the aquifer may face tougher restrictions on use or be forced to change their farming practices. The severe drought that has parched the region over the past few years has accelerated the aquifer’s depletion. Although conditions have recently improved somewhat, during the last growing season for winter wheat, much of the region was still in severe drought.

New crop varieties that grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could increase yields and lengthen the time farmland is productive. Varieties that grow with lower-quality water have also been developed. In Egypt, for example, researchers showed a decade ago that by transferring a single gene from barley to wheat, plants are able to tolerate reduced watering longer. This variety requires only one-eighth as much irrigation as conventional wheat and can be cultivated with meager rainfall alone. This is what wheat farmers need.

Volume One: Opening Salvos

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  1. A Culinary Modernist Reader | Volume One | Opening Salvos | Food and Farm Discussion Lab
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