For readers not from Benton County, Oregon, the hot debate around here at the moment is focused on Ballot Measure 2-89, which would effectively ban all genetically modified organisms within the county.
I know some of the people who wrote the measure and have been campaigning hard for it. As an organic farmer myself, I want to support them and would have voted for it (despite some misgivings) had they kept the language of an earlier draft limiting the ban to genetically modified food crops. The measure was intended to strike a blow against corporate agriculture, but as written it would put a stopper on all kinds of unrelated research at Oregon State University and local startup companies. Furthermore, in my view genetic modification is not really the main problem with industrial agriculture.
I understand genetic engineering better than most, having done it myself for five years as a graduate student. My goal was to create blue-green algae that could convert sunlight to hydrogen, ultimately allowing us to obtain more of our energy needs from renewable sources. After a few successes and more than a few disappointments, I came to understand what genetic engineering could and could not do, and I also let go of the mostly-irrational fear of genetic engineering that is so prevalent on the left side of the political spectrum these days.
Genetic engineering is any intentional change to a DNA sequence – insertion, deletion, or modification. In practice it usually entails inserting a gene from another organism or inactivating a gene already present. It is a technology and a tool, and like all technologies it can be used to enact positive change or to profit at the expense of natural systems and those less fortunate. The risks of genetic engineering have everything to do with the genes being changed and nothing to do with the simple act of moving DNA. A harmless protein in potatoes will not become harmful if it is expressed in corn. Deleting the gene that causes apples to turn brown (as in the soon-to-be-released Arctic Apples) will not in any way make those apples toxic or less nutritious. Adding genes that allow rice to produce vitamin A (as in Golden Rice) will not make that rice dangerous, unless so much vitamin A is produced that it becomes toxic. On the other hand, it is entirely possible to deliberately engineer a more deadly, more virulent flu virus, or to move the genes that produce botulism toxin from bacteria to any desired food crop. The real risks of genetic engineering arise not from the remote possibility of unexpected negative effects, but rather from its potential exploitation by malicious minds.
Over the course of three billion years, evolution has explored nearly every possible combination of DNA. Bacteria take up DNA sequences from the environment and try them out, adding them to their own if they prove useful. Genes and whole genomes duplicate and diversify, taking on new roles. The idea that we, in our comparatively miniscule tinkerings, could upset the entire system by accident is unfounded. Genetic engineering is useful for doing things that evolution has had no reason to do, such as designing bacteria that make human insulin, making plants resistant to a synthetic chemical, or creating apples that don’t brown when cut. When we try to use genetic engineering to improve upon something that evolution has been optimizing for eons, like the efficiency of photosynthesis, we inevitably meet with very limited success and discover that the evolved system is very close to hard physical limits.
One of the first applications of genetic engineering, dating back to 1978, was to produce insulin for diabetics. The human insulin gene was spliced into none other than E. coli, and after some trial and error the bacteria managed to produce this biomolecule on an industrial scale. Prior to this time, insulin was tediously extracted from the pancreas of cattle and sheep, and the bacterial route greatly decreased the cost. Only when genetic engineering was applied to food crops did the concept enter the public eye, and for a certain subset of the population genetic engineering has since come to symbolize all that is wrong with agriculture.
In my view, the major problems with modern industrial agriculture are:
- Widespread use of toxic chemicals, resulting in loss of pollinator habitats, damage to soil ecosystems, and chronic health problems in humans likely associated with damage to gut microbiota
- Loss of diversity, both within varieties and in terms of numbers of varieties
- Failure to close nutrient loops, resulting in runoff (eutrophication, ocean dead zones) and depletion of mined minerals
- Fossil-fuel dependence on the order of 7 calories input to produce each calorie of food energy, and
- Corporate control of seeds through utility patents and other means
The problem with banning GMOs as an attack on industrial agriculture is that doing so does nothing to address any of the five factors above and, conversely, it would be entirely possible to practice sustainable agriculture using open-source genetically modified crops. Genetic engineering to increase nutrition (as in Golden Rice) is one such possibility, as is using genetic modification to overcome a devastating plant disease, as has already occurred with papaya in Hawaii.
The reason that Monsanto and other big-ag companies rolled out GM crops first is simply that they had the most money to invest in an emerging, initially-very-expensive technology. Not surprisingly, they made genetic changes that improved their profit margins, namely by creating crops resistant to the herbicides they sell. I don’t like that. Not one bit. But that historical fact does not alone make all GMOs bad, nor does it mean that banning GMOs in Benton County will do much to change the way that industrial agriculture works here.
I should note that I’m all for labeling genetically engineered foods – not just as GM but as exactly what they were modified for, e.g. “this product contains corn genetically modified for glyphosate herbicide resistance,” “this product contains wheat genetically modified for drought tolerance,” or “this product contains rice genetically modified to produce vitamin A.” Such a scheme would help consumers discriminate between beneficial and harmful applications of genetic engineering, while a simple GMO labeling scheme would tend to reinforce vague fears.
I would also stand behind local legislation to reduce pesticide spraying on food crops, to reduce fossil fuel use in agriculture, to increase the proportion of land devoted to food crops (vs. grass seed and Christmas trees), or to generally tip the balance of economics and power away from industrial agriculture and toward small farmers with sustainable practices. As for Measure 2-89, I can’t vote for it. I won’t vote against it either, as doing so would be a statement against my values. To the authors, I say: I stand with your vision of a local food system. I stand with your ideals of a world where natural systems have rights. I wish to work with you going forward to create a more sustainable world, but I can’t support the letter of this law as you wrote it.