Genetically modified food that has nothing to do with Monsanto

Amy Harmon is one of the best long-form, investigative reporters working today. (You might remember her recent stories about adults with autism navigating independent lives and finding love.)

Harmon has a new story up at The New York Times that delves into the nuance behind the often very un-nuanced public debate about genetically modified foods. It's a story about orange growers in a race against time to find something that can save America's orange crop (and orange juice supply) from a deadly bacteria. It's also a story about the debates those growers have amongst themselves as they decide to try funding GMO research that might solve their problem — and might not. All while creating new PR problems that they aren't entirely prepared to handle.

I think this is a particularly great lens to examine the science and risk/reward perspective on GMO foods, because it takes us beyond some of the particularly volatile points in the debate — points that often have nothing to do with the actual safety or benefits of GMOs. Monsanto is not involved in the development of these GMO oranges. And what the growers and scientists are trying to do has nothing to do with increasing pesticide use. In fact, if they succeed, they'll be able to reduce the amount of pesticides used on oranges. It's a long read, but a worthwhile one.

Image: Orange Shine, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from zlakfoto's photostream

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  1. What strikes me as curious is the difference from banana crops, which are propagated asexually from a few individuals. When genetic diversity is so minimal you can expect disease subsceptibilty to be a major problem. There are a lot of varieties of oranges, though, which came from hybrids between several different species, and yet the article states there is no immunity to be found among cultivated citrus as a whole. How often to diseases threaten a whole genus?

  2. In computer programming, we all know that every time you write code, you introduce new bugs. As a non-biologist, my mental image of genetic modification (of the newfangled variety, not the old style where cross-breeding and selective breeding were involved) is that it has the potential to add new bugs into the code that we won't understand until we "run" the code -- ie have it in a living organism inside the context of the biosphere -- and that the problem with that is that if we create a bug in the code that has detrimental aspects in so far as our interests are concerned along with useful aspects so far as the survival of the new piece of code is concerned, we can end up with some serious problems down the line.

    When we write software, we test it inside of a sandbox before we push it up closer to the real-world scenario it was meant for. In some cases there are many levels of bug testing between the developer's sandbox and the end user's machine, and yet still, we get bugs in live code. If that live code then went around breeding, spreading those bugs before the developer had a chance to fix the error, that would be a serious problem. Unintentional malware, so to speak.

    The Cheshire cats of Windup Girl by Paolo Baccigalupi are a great fictional example of what I mean. Cute idea, but the Cheshires were better adapted than ordinary housecats, and they out compete ordinary housecats into extinction in the fictional world of the novel. That sort of thing happens in real life when we bring a plant or animal species from one geographic area into another area that was previously protected from that species. In some cases the "invasive species" takes over and the "native species" dies out very rapidly.

    That is what makes me nervous about GMO anything.

  3. skr1 says:

    Don't need proof of the safety of sexual reproduction? Why not? Potatoes have been conventionally bred for pest resistance that had dangerous levels of alkaloids. You are just as capable of making a dangerous plant with conventional breeding as you are with genetic modification. You will just find out about it a lot later in the process.

  4. Ygret says:

    One of the reasons gene splicing is more dangerous is that genes are spliced in individually, which is not the way nature designed the process to work. We simply have no paradigm to even begin to understand the knock-on effects of gene splicing.

    I never said breeding using hybridization techniques and sexual reproduction can never produce a failed result, that is ridiculous. What I said is that it is a time proven technique, and we have ways to identify and limit the bad results that can occur. The problem with gene splicing is not a problem with the technique itself. The problem is that we launch these plants into the environment without knowing enough about the potential consequences. All technologies can have positive and negative uses. Pushing a new organism into the environment and then seeing how it behaves is simply not responsible. And if you trust Monsanto or any other profit-driven group to put safety before profits you are sorely misguided.

  5. Ygret says:

    My real opposition to GMOs has more to do with the baggage surrounding its use: specifically the patenting of plants, the inability of farmers to use seeds from plants they grow, cross contamination of organic or other seed stocks, the encouraging of the use of pesticides by certain GM products (Monsanto's roundup ready specifically) and the resulting/parallel attempted monopoly on food production of companies like Monsanto.

    If GM plants and seeds were as open to use as non-GM plants and seeds (or if there was a shorter patent time limit, say 5 or 7 years), if we disallowed certain negative GM practices like making plants pesticide resistant rather than strengthening plants to avoid the need for pesticides, and if the main proponents weren't huge transnational predatory conglomerates, I would feel much better about their use. As the industry exists now does anyone really think that if Monsanto or another huge conglomerate created a dangerous GM plant that was highly profitable that they would forego the profits to protect the environment or the health of the populace?

    Its not necessarily the technology itself, but some of its practitioners and their practices, that scare a lot of people.

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