An excellent article in the New York Times on a crisis facing citrus farmers has stirred the debate on the release of GMOs into the environment.
Humanity faces major issues with providing/distributing food, energy and education. On the agricultural front, we rely on a small number of plants, which have undergone substantial slow genetic engineering by our ancestors to produce the crops of the 1950s. This genetic modification then accelerated through the green revolution and now through modern molecular genetics.
The result is increased yields and sufficient food for all, if we overcame the distribution problem and a transition of many subsistence farmers into capital earning farmers. Not a bad thing – try being a subsistence farmer for five years and you will understand what hard work is (in comparison I would consider my standard 70 h week a luxury holiday).
Much of the argument over GMOs reflects the lack of trust in large multinational corporations. This lack of trust arises for a number of reasons, some of which are:
They may hide their data.
They can be driven by market dominance – in this respect, recall that Adam Smith considered a private monopoly far worse than a public sector one (shame our politicians haven’t read him).
They may be caught up (as many of us are) in their own logic from the 1980s-1990s: we have herbicide X, we have gene Y that confers resistance, lets put Y into crop plant and sell lots of seed and herbicide X.
They often avoid taxes (in the UK, Amazon, Google, Vodafone, Starbucks, etc., etc.) and so are divorcing themselves from Society.
The may have a less than glorious history, for example, Monsanto produced Agent Orange for the US military and have failed to look this in the face.
But… and it is a large but, recall where our food comes from: a small number of plants, that have been genetically modified over millennia. The result is that our food plants have an appallingly low genetic diversity. The lack of genetic variability in our food plants means that there is little adaptive capacity in the population. In the long term there can be only one consequence: extinction.
So the challenge we face is how to increase the genetic diversity of our food plants without losing the yield, nutrition and taste. One route is better breeding, using genomic information: the wheat genome project, for example, has been instrumental in driving recent 21st century wheat breeding.
So why would we need to insert a gene from another organism into a plant for agricultural purposes? To increase genetic diversity when this has been lost due to the millennia of breeding for yield, nutrition and taste. We have at least three crises at the moment on this front:
Banana, where we have a range of varieties, but problems across the board.
Personally, I love citrus, have a particular weakness for orange chocolate and at work, I run on banana fuel. So I really do not want any of these to disappear.
I have not been in favour of some of the capital-driven GMOs, because there has never been a transparent description of fact. Until MNCs become a lot more open with their data, this is unlikely to occur. Perhaps the pressure on Pharma through the #Alltrials campaign and #OpenScience will achieve this in the agriculture sector in due course.
Immigration is a good thing and is the only way to save some crops. An interesting parallel comes from engineering. Engineers use evolutionary principles for finding optimal solutions (if you don’t like evolution, you must restrict yourself to mid 20th Century technology). Engineers add immigrants (aka genetic engineering) to revitalise the genetic diversity of their genetic algorithms and avoid a local, suboptimal solution. We need to do the same with our crops. We also need to establish open access toolkits for each crop and an associated menu of likely useful genes, so we are prepared for the future.
The one thing we can be certain of is that our crops will come under continued threat from disease and in many cases, genetic engineering alongside improved agricultural practice will be the only means to save the crop. The alternative is to lose the crop. Cocao, citrus and bananas may not be staples, but they contribute to the diversity of our diet. We cannot survive on Quorn or its descendants alone.