Genetically modified foods could well be the solution to a number of problems, from pesticide toxicity to world hunger. But neither the technology nor the issues surrounding it is as simple as planting a seed in the ground.
Bud Ryan is excited, really excited, about his new potato—even though it is almost an afterthought.
Ryan, a fellow with the Institute of Biological Chemistry at Washington State University, is best known for his work with tomato plants and their defense systems. In the early 1980s, he discovered that a tomato plant’s defensive molecules, protease inhibitors, are activated by an insect chewing on its leaf. Protease inhibitors, when eaten by an insect, effectively deactivate the enzymes the insect needs to digest the plant proteins. The insect gets a very lethal stomachache.
Nearly two decades later Ryan and his technician, Greg Pearce, discovered the essence of the signal that activates the defense system, the first polypeptide hormone to be discovered in plants. Then he discovered the gene that keeps the response on all the time. It’s a beautiful system. A wounded plant is a dangerous plant, on full alert all the time.
This is profound work. Plants are complex puzzles. They do not reveal their secrets without much work and ingenuity. “Profound” does not, however, necessarily mean “commercial.” Turns out the engineering required for these Rambo tomatoes is too complicated to use in the field. And besides, says Ryan, insects are not really as big a deal in tomatoes as are pathogens.
Still, his work’s a very big deal. It represents a tremendous amount of basic plant science, waiting to be applied. But important as the basic science is, it would be nice to see it applied.
And then it occurred to Ryan:
Let’s see what happens if we turn this gene on in potatoes.
Tomatoes and potatoes, you see, are closely related. In fact, Ryan began his work in potatoes, but switched to tomatoes, because of the tubers, which messed up the way he did his analysis.
“So we said,” he says, “let’s try a potato.”
So they did. And sure enough, it turned on the defense genes in the leaves. What it also did, however, was double the soluble protein in small tubers grown in a greenhouse.
“We should have done this 10 years ago,” says Ryan. “Sometimes thing are so bloody obvious, and you’re so focused on what you’re doing. . .”
The beauty of this potato is that the protein doubling occurs because of one gene. Things usually aren’t that simple. And it’s not even a gene you’d worry about eating; because it’s so powerful, it occurs in a very low concentration. Potato protein is just about the best protein you can eat.
“If they ever accept GM [genetically modified] foods,” says Ryan, “this could be a wonderful food.”
Let’s get real
It’s these “they” who frustrate Jim Cook to no end.
Cook recently wound down a long, illustrious career with the USDA here at WSU focused on research to help control root diseases of wheat varieties with no genes for disease resistance. Now he occupies the Cook Endowed Chair in Wheat Research in the departments of Plant Pathology and Crops and Soils and has built a new career as a defender and promoter of plant biotechnology, which he says is needed as part of more efficient and resource-conserving cropping systems.
Today he is frustrated about fat. Or at least the reason we worry about it. The only place in the world you have to drink 1 percent milk, he exclaims, is the United States. And it’s all for naught!
But what does fat have to do with GMOs (genetically modified organisms)?
Neither our obsession with fat nor our fear of GMOs, says Cook, is based on science.
Soon after World War II, people mysteriously started having heart attacks in epidemic proportions. Why was this? Well, could it be that it was a complicated manifestation of our higher standard of living? Could be. Could it be that we were living longer, so that diseases of old age started occurring with greater frequency? Could be.
However, being the simple-minded Puritans we tend to be, we looked for something simple and demonic to blame. Fat!
But there’s nothing to it, says Cook, citing an article last year in Science. (March 30, 2001. It’s a wonderful article for those of us who understand that fat gives food flavor, that fat satiates, and that bacon and real ice cream are gifts from the gods, as is the walk after dinner to keep the flab down.)
Heart attacks stem from a complicated mix of culture, genes, age, and diet. But a similarly complicated mix of semi-solid science, well-intentioned, but misguided government commissions, a medical establishment eager to find THE CAUSE, and an equally eager media and public unable to understand anything more complicated than apparent single-cause/bad-effect, gave us blue milk and fat-free yogurt.
Just think how morally confused we could be by yogurt genetically engineered to be fat free!
Speaking of which, what about our fear of Frankenfoods, as the more excitable among us call genetically modified, or GM, foods? Nonsense, says Cook. That fear is based on ignorance of science, inadequately understood research, fear-mongering by activist groups interested primarily in self-perpetuation, and guys like Jeremy Rifkin trying to sell books to people’s fears.
Let’s take the case of the Monarch butterfly. Nature published a paper reporting that Monarch caterpillars die when fed pollen in the laboratory from Bt corn.
Bt crops contain a gene from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt produces a protein that is toxic to certain insects. Plants that contain the Bt gene thus have a custom-built defense system. The fear raised by the Monarch study was that the larvae would feed on toxic Bt corn pollen that drifted onto the milkweed that is actually their preferred plant. The pollen that the larvae were fed in the study was from an early, rather crude version of Bt corn that expressed the toxin throughout its whole system, including its pollen. The current version of Bt corn expresses the toxin only through its tissues, not its pollen.
“The public only heard that Bt corn kills Monarch butterflies,” says Cook. “They never heard anything about the six papers that were published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences . . . that laid that whole thing completely to rest, that it’s a non-issue, that the management used to grow corn affects Monarch butterflies, not Bt corn, not just corn with that gene in it.
“We’ve had a whole series . . . of mistakes in science, of premature publication, inadequate science, that hit the media big time. Then all the follow-up that disproves it never gets aired.”
Case closed? Well, sure, says Cook, if we could all just base our thinking on science. Genetic engineering is a powerful tool. Genetic engineering can produce crops that are more nutritious, more productive, more drought tolerant—the possibilities are endless. Its promise is hampered largely by our fear of change.
Perception is reality
Unfortunately, however, though science might be reality, it is not necessarily the standard for public perception.
Jill McCluskey, an agricultural economist at WSU, worries about Washington wheat. McCluskey worries that if Washington wheat growers were to start growing genetically modified wheat, they could move from a low market to no market. Ninety percent of Washington wheat is sent to Asia. McCluskey has conducted research about consumer perception about GMOs in Japan. Although Japan accepts genetically modified grain, it instituted a new system of mandatory labeling GM food in 2001. In contrast to practice in the U.S., not only can non-GM food be labeled, but f
ood that has not been segregated as non-GM must be labeled.
Such a policy, says McCluskey, reflects growing consumer concern in Japan about food safety, a concern that carries over to genetically engineered food.
Partly responsible for this perception, says McCluskey, is the lingering question, “what’s in it for the consumer?” Genetic engineering as currently applied to agriculture benefits only the developer and the producer. Unless there are price reductions, the consumer sees no immediate benefit whatsoever—only an unknown threat.
Currently, no Washington wheat is genetically modified by use of the new tools of biotechnology. This could change, however.
GM crops in the United States are predominantly of two types, the previously mentioned Bt crops and Roundup Ready. Roundup Ready plants contain a gene that makes them resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, or Roundup, which is produced by Monsanto. A farmer can spray Roundup on his Roundup Ready corn or beans and kill all the competing weeds without harming the crop.
By 2001, an estimated 69 percent of the cotton, 26 percent of the corn, and 68 percent of the soybeans grown in the U.S. were genetically engineered. The bulk of the corn and soybeans was raised for livestock feed.
Compared to most herbicides, Roundup is relatively benign. It kills plants by interrupting a biochemical pathway peculiar to plants, and it breaks down rapidly in the soil. Since the enzyme targeted by Roundup is specific to plants, Roundup is harmless to animals and people.
Kim Kidwell is the spring wheat breeder at WSU. Her job is to develop new spring wheat varieties for Washington State.
“I am not anti- or pro-GMO,” says Kidwell. “But I am pro-farmer.”
With that in mind, she and her lab started developing a Roundup Ready wheat.
“My philosophy was that we couldn’t catch up if we never started. If all of a sudden GMOs were welcomed on the marketplace, and people were like, ‘Oh, we want this GMO thing tomorrow,’ it would’ve taken us years to catch up.”
Developing the Roundup Ready wheat represents only a small fraction, about 5 percent, of Kidwell’s work. Even so, she was very hesitant to do it. “It took me a year and a half to create a situation with Monsanto that I felt was acceptable, where we weren’t penalizing the traditional breeding program by taking this on, where they weren’t allowed open access to all my germplasm.”
And herein lies one of the thornier problems with GMOs, that of ownership. Although the patenting of genetic material offers protection and reward to the developer of new varieties, it also raises a number of ethical and economic questions.
Kidwell’s hesitancy is shared by many Washington farmers. They understand how brutal markets can be and how real consumer perception is when it comes to economics. So what if Roundup is vastly better environmentally than 2, 4-D? Tell that to your average Japanese shopper. It’s the vague, undefined threats of genetic modification that hover ominously at the top of their worry chart.
“What I hear is if one farmer grows it [Roundup Ready wheat], it’s going to ruin the whole system,” says Kidwell. “I’ve never seen growers more passionately vocal about anything.”
What’s yours is mine
Steve Jones, WSU’s winter wheat breeder, refuses to breed Roundup Ready wheat in the first place, not out of opposition to the technology itself, but out of concerns over ownership.
It was only in the mid-1980s that the first gene was patented. Previously, genetic material was in the public domain. No one had the right to claim a life form, or any part of that life form, as their own.
The world changed dramatically when that gene was patented. The transgene technology had opened a brave new world to the molecular biologist. Problem was, there wasn’t any money in it. Develop a new transgenic rice, and what happens? Farmers will buy it once, then save their own seed. Where’s the profit in that?
Well, good point. However, says Jones, that line of thought, pragmatic as it is, has taken university research and plant biotechnology well down a path fraught with conflict of interest and work more motivated by profit than a desire for knowledge or the public good.
Jones believes fervently that corporate money translates into corporate interest and that the wheat genes that WSU breeders have been working with over the last century belong to the people of Washington and should not be contaminated by corporate support.
As an example, he cites the “Clearfield” system developed by the BASF Corporation. The system relies on a wheat developed not through transgenic methods, but through mutation, to resist an herbicide developed by BASF called “Beyond.” As with Monsanto’s system, the BASF wheat is planted, and the Beyond herbicide kills all plants except the wheat. Farmers who plant the wheat must sign a “stewardship agreement,” that they will not save seed to replant, but rather buy seed from BASF every year.
One of the wheats that BASF used, says Jones, is Madsen, a WSU-developed variety. “They’re doing what we said all along, take our wheat, stick a gene in it, and sell it back to the farmers.”
“I don’t understand how universities can be involved with this,” says Jones, referring to academic-corporate collaboration in plant biotechnology. “If I help produce this wheat, and I go to one of the growers we work with and have worked with for 40 or 50 years, worked with their fathers even—what, we’re going to sue them?”
Jones is referring to the method used by such companies to protect their genes. Monsanto recently sued an organic farmer in Saskatchewan when investigators found Roundup Ready genes in his canola. The farmer claims the genes got there through genetic contamination from a neighbor’s Monsanto-developed canola.
In spite of this kind of ugliness, however, Jim Cook dismisses corporate ownership as a concern. “I’m not worried about that one,” he says. “American agriculture is what it is because of a combination of private and public investments.”
But others are worried.
In his 2001 book, The Green Phoenix: A History of Genetically Modified Plants, Paul Lurquin, a plant geneticist at WSU, raises a number of concerns over transgenic plants. Lurquin, who has been involved in plant transgenesis from the beginning and whose lab developed a transgenic pea resistant to viral infection, is obviously not opposed to the technology itself. Rather, he writes, his concerns “call for a hard evaluation of the use of applied, corporate biological science in human affairs. After all, nobody has ever questioned the importance of ethics in the genetic manipulation of human beings. Why should there be lower (or no) standards in the case of our most basic needs: crop plants?”
These concerns focus on the central problem of ownership.
And here, the debate shifts a little. Although it is difficult to sift through the extensive hype generated by biotech companies over biotech’s ability to “feed the world,” the developing world does appear to hold the most need for biotech. Indeed, much has been made of a coming “doubly green” revolution that will take up where the first green revolution left off. However, Lurquin points out a very basic difference between the revolution fomented by Norman Borlaug with the help of dwarfing wheat varieties developed by WSU breeder Orville Vogel, and the anticipated revolution. Whereas the genetic material used to develop the green revolution’s high-producing crops that bolstered world food supplies was not owned by anyone and thus was available to anyone, the plants of the new green revolution will come stamped with patents claimed by corporations and universities.
Ownership is a subtle and profound problem, says Peter Wyeth, an agricultural economist with International Programs. In spite of using the need of the developing world in their public relations
, corporations have little motivation to develop varieties appropriate to Mali or Burkino Faso.
“The fact of the matter is, the big money in GMOs is not going to be in helping third world countries,” says Wyeth. “They don’t have the money to buy seed every year.”
Thus, he says, if the marvelous promise of biotechnology is ever directed toward the problems of the developing world, the impetus must come from public research. However, public researchers may be left with nothing to work with if all the genetic material has been claimed as intellectual property.
Attack (or splat) of the killer tomatoes?
Besides, the much heralded doubly green revolution may never happen if we’re not careful, says Tom Lumpkin. Lumpkin, the chair of Crops and Soils at WSU, thinks genetic modification holds enormous potential, but worries that we’re headed for problems.
“I’m very much for transgenics,” he says, “but I don’t want it to be dirty. I want it to be very precise. I want to prove it 10 times over.” Take canola, he says. Canola is the crop that blooms vibrant yellow across Eastern Washington fields in late spring. “That whole Brassica family of cabbage and cauliflower and broccoli and rapeseed and mustard, it’s very promiscuous,” he says.
Promiscuity in plants is a potentially environmental rather than a moral problem. Canola was one of the first field crops to be genetically engineered, with both Roundup Ready and the Bt gene. Because Brassicas can crossbreed with a number of wild plants, those transgenes can move into wild populations.
“It’ll move just about anything you put into one of those crops. It’ll move it to wild species. So you end up killing unintended targets. Insects that are attacking mustard out in the middle of nowhere in Saskatchewan are going to die because that Bt moved.”
Just for the sake of argument, though, let’s allow that maybe a few insects dying out in the middle of nowhere is just one of those things that goes along with progress. These things happen, right?
So maybe humanity can live with the deaths of a few insects, or a few billion, whatever. As long as you don’t think about the subtle intricacies of ecological interactions, no big deal. We’ve already changed so much anyway, right?
But there’s another kind of transgenic that is on Lumpkin’s mind.
“We’ve got scientists . . . putting non-food products into food crops, where those food crops will be grown for pharmaceutical or industrial uses, not for human consumption. . . . If we start contracting with growers to produce some powerful cancer drug or some special pharmaceutical in wheat or barley or peas, some farmer is just going to mix it up sometime. Some truck driver’s going to get the wrong instructions, somebody will put the wrong stuff in the planter, and it’s going to end up in the food chain, in our beer, in our bread, there’s going to be accidents.”
And that’s what really worries Lumpkin. One accident, and the public’s going to turn against the technology.
“We’ll lose one of the most powerful tools we’ve ever had to do good because we didn’t set up policies for careful use of it,” he says.
To an extent, the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) agrees with Lumpkin’s concerns. It released a report this spring that advocated tighter regulation of transgenic crops. The government, says the report, should not only more carefully review the environmental impact of genetically engineered plants before approving them, but also monitor the crops once they are grown commercially to check for unforeseen effects.
Although he is one of three NAS members at WSU, Jim Cook has concerns about some parts of the report.
“I hate to say this about academy studies,” he says, “we’re subject to politicization, just like every other institution.” A few years ago, Congress decided that since the NAS works for the government, committees that do the studies need to be selected through FACA (Federal Advisory Committee Act), which determines political persuasions and what political leanings might be. In order to avoid such a process, the NAS agreed to make its committee appointments more public. That resulted in pressure from environmental and other groups, says Cook, which resulted in a lopsided report.
It’s all about “process versus product,” says Cook. Much current and desired regulation concerns the process of accomplishing an end plant product. What we should focus on, says Cook, is the product.
“You can get a product by conventional breeding, by mutation breeding, by genetic engineering, and you might get same product in the end, which is a plant resistant to European corn borer, by a certain gene and a certain protein.
“The process approach says if you get a resistant plant using genetic engineering it needs to be regulated. If you get it by traditional breeding, it doesn’t need to be.
“The call for more regulations is largely political,” Cook argues. For one thing, “Big companies like all this regulation. It acts like a filter to keep the small guys out of the competition. These are expensive things to go through.”
Cook also understands that regulations have made it possible to move genetically modified crops from the laboratory to the field. “As a scientist, I have come to understand that most, if not all, policy on science and technology comes down to a combination of science and politics,” he says. “This is the job of the policy maker, but as a scientist, it is my job to put the best science on the table.”
Jim Carrington, formerly with the Institute of Biological Chemistry at WSU, is one of the authors of a similar report released by the NAS in 2000, a report also criticized by Cook. Carrington agrees with Cook “100 percent” that GM crops are almost certainly safer than conventionally bred crops, “because we can reduce usage of hazardous pesticides and chemicals.”
However, he defends the position of the committee that produced the first NAS report. In an e-mail interview, Carrington writes, “Most of the members on the 2000 committee were cognizant of the fact that if a mishap occurred involving a GM product, it would have a devastating effect on eventual integration of this beneficial technology.
“So the committee came in with a relatively conservative approach that said 1) let’s make regulatory decisions based on science and reasonable, rational judgments, but let’s not scrap the whole regulatory system, and 2) let’s get MORE DATA that support safety or that enable us to predict and measure hazards more accurately.”
By this point, you’re probably wishing I’d just get to the point. Is this stuff safe to eat, or isn’t it? As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, however, scientists don’t exactly agree on these issues. Their sense of risk involved generally varies according to what kind of scientist they are. For example, in general, ecologists with an evolutionary bent tend to worry more about environmental risks than do molecular biologists. The ecologists would say that molecular biologists do not understand the big picture. Molecular biologists would say that ecologists just don’t understand molecular biology.
However, here’s a major truth that unites the scientists. Scientists are very uncomfortable claiming absolute certainty about anything. This is not moral relativism. This is just the nature of science. Whereas activists, journalists, politicians, and fundamentalists of any persuasion love moral absolutes, scientists prefer to evaluate effects in terms of risk.
No free lunch—but maybe a better one
Not to diminish the accomplishments, says Mike Kahn, but Bt and Roundup Ready were relatively easy manipulations, mere single-gene transfers. Now comes the hard—and interesting—part. Kahn, a microbiologist at WSU, is searching for what might be the holy grail of plant biotechnology, the coupling
of nitrogen fixation to non-leguminous plants.
All living things require nitrogen for building many important biological molecules, including DNA, RNA, and proteins. Animals get their nitrogen through other animals and, ultimately, through plants. However, even though the atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen, the nitrogen is in a form that is too stable for plants to use. It must be “fixed.” The most efficient way for plants to get nitrogen is through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria called rhizobia. The rhizobia convert the atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia, which is more chemically reactive and thus usable to plants.
Partly because it is so soluble, nitrogen must be continuously replaced in the soil. Plants that have not established a nitrogen-fixing symbiotic relationship depend on nitrogen that has built up in the soil by legumes, or a few other plants, through other less dependable processes, or through nitrogen fertilizer. If non-leguminous plants, such as rice or corn, could be convinced to harbor rhizobia, crop production could be greatly enhanced, saving the expense of buying and transporting nitrogen fertilizer.
Other research focuses on increasing not just the capability, but the nutritional content. Maurice Ku is trying to introduce key genes from maize into rice that would prompt the rice to mimic the efficient C4 plant (see Summer 2002 WSM).
Other efforts focus on plants that will be more useful. Barley, for example, a widely adaptable grain grown in Eastern Washington, cannot be fed to chickens. Chickens cannot fully digest a certain protein in barley. They can be fed an enzyme supplement to aid digestion, but this is expensive. Otherwise, Washington chicken farmers must feed corn and other grains shipped in from the Midwest.
Dieter von Wettstein, of Crops and Soils, has developed a barley, currently undergoing field trials, that produces this enzyme on its own. It is so effective, in fact, that a small amount of the modified barley can be mixed with regular barley to make it digestible. If it proves viable, Washington chicken growers could feed their birds Washington-grown barley, rather than the more expensive Midwestern corn.
Finally, it is important to understand that “biotechnology” and “genetic modification” are not synonymous. Much of the very impressive work going on in biotech does not involve the artificial transfer of genetic material from one plant or animal to another, but rather uses newly developed biotechnological analyses and techniques to enhance traditional breeding practices. Wheat breeder Kidwell, for example, is coupling cutting-edge techniques with traditional breeding to develop wheat lines with enhanced nitrogen-use ability and protein production.
In his recent Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global Controversy over GM Crops, Per Pinstrup-Andersen, an authority on world food production who spoke at this year’s commencement, notes that 820 million people have too little to eat every day. He cites an estimate generated from Food and Agriculture Organization figures and predicted population and calorie requirements in 2025, figuring that 70 percent of the food requirement can be generated by traditional plant breeding, increased use of fertilizer, and improved irrigation. The other 30 percent of production increase is going to have to come from biotechnology.
“Even such a conservative goal as securing 30 percent of the growth in food supply over a twenty-five-year period through biotechnology may well prove difficult to attain. The private companies that are the major players in this field have not geared their research toward yield increase in developing countries but toward solving the problems of farmers in the wealthy countries.” (Pinstrup-Andersen 92). In other words, the dynamic thinking and leadership required to direct the technology must come from land-grant research universities.
Given the disagreement among faculty researchers, Pinstrup-Andersen’s observation might seem paradoxical.
Not at all, says Kidwell. Such debate shows the strength of academic freedom. Because there is no predetermined agenda—and no corporate requirement to pass the shareholders a profit—academia is where such debate must take place. Cook agrees, as presumably do most researchers who perceive the technology as more than merely a means toward personal gain.
Meanwhile, on a sunny morning in early June, Bud Ryan watches eagerly as workers plant his new potato in a carefully prepared plot. As soon as tubers start forming on the new plants, he will test them. Will that protein-doubling hold up in the field? Will there be any unanticipated developments in the plant?
Not only is he excited by its potential, Ryan knows exactly what he wants it used for. Maybe, he hopes, it can help provide protein to undernourished people. WSU will patent it, of course. However, “I have an agreement with the University,” he says, “that if underdeveloped countries want this they can get it.”
High Tech Harvest:
Understanding Genetically Modified Food Plants
By Paul Lurquin
Westview Press, 2002
Paul Lurquin, professor of genetics in Washington State University’s School of Molecular Biosciences, believes the public has the right to know and understand the food it eats. Unfortunately, he also observes that no one cared enough about public understanding to explain the science behind the genetically engineered food on their grocery shelves. So Lurquin set himself to that task in this new book. Beside explaining the history and science of plant genetic engineering, Lurquin is refreshingly candid and skeptical about aspects such as corporate motives and the actual need for certain products. Lurquin’s involvement in plant biotechnology from its beginnings make this an authoritative and thoughtful work. Read it, and you’ll know what you’re eating.