Can humans survive without genome technology?
Pamela Ronald// WTF FOOD
Each year enough rice to feed 30 million people is lost to flooding. Pam Ronald and her lab have been working to change that, using genome-editing technology and tools such as CRISPR to create strains of rice that are heartier and have better yields.
As populations expand and the effects of climate change grow in severity, nothing short of our ability to feed the world’s people is at stake. Ronald’s book, “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food,” co-authored with Raoul W. Adamchak, her husband and an organic farmer, seeks to bridge a divide between her community of scientists and his of organic farmers. Each group must work together to create a more sustainable landscape for farming. When Ronald thinks What the Future, she’s wondering if people realize what’s at stake and understand the benefitss of genome-editing technologies such as CRISPR.
GenPop: Your questions dealt with what we should be doing with genome-editing technology. Why is that important to ask?
Pam Ronald: Everything we eat has been domesticated or genetically altered in some manner. Farmers at least in the United States generally buy their seed for improved characteristics. Farmers need to buy seed that’s reliable to produce traits that consumers want and grows well on the farm. And farmers don’t just rely on seed alone, and they also have agronomic practices that are really important for fostering soil fertility and trying to control pests and disease, and using land and water efficiently.
GenPop: Right, we’ve been manipulating breeding forever.
Ronald: Ten thousand years ago farmers did what’s called primitive domestication where they just collected seed and replanted and selected for traits that they wanted. And over time that’s changed, obviously, quite a bit. Now, another technique is genome editing, and that allows the farmer to plant seeds that have been genetically altered in some way. These techniques are very important because we need to have plants that can survive under diverse conditions and are productive and taste good, and that are resistant to pests and disease.
Most see a range of positive impacts for genome editing.
For each of the following, please indicate the impact you believe plant genome editing will have on agriculture in the future.
U.S. positive impact (net) Canada positive impact (net)
58% / 59%
Safety and nutrition of food
58% / 62%
The livelihood of farmers
52% / 56%
The impact on human health
74% / 73%
The ability to grow enough food for the world’s population
58% / 61%
The environmental impact of food production
(Source: Ipsos survey conducted between Oct. 5 and 10, 2018 among 2,010 adults in the U.S. and between Oct. 26 and 29, 2018 among 1,004 adults in Canada.)
GenPop: Your book talks about the dichotomy between genetic engineering and organic farming, and how the two points of view could exist side by side. But why do some people see these two groups as being in conflict in the first place?
Ronald: If you talk to an organic farmer or a conventional farmer, they essentially have the same goals: How do you produce food that’s tasty, [and] minimize harm to their farm, and foster soil fertility. What we are advocating for in the book is sustainable agriculture. That’s different than organic farming, for example, because the concept of sustainable agriculture takes into account the effect on the environment and economy, and the social impact.
GenPop: Given climate change and expanding populations — especially in areas that aren’t necessarily the greatest for farming — can we as a race survive without these technologies?
Ronald: I think we need an “all of the above” strategy, and we really need to focus on that goal. The discussion of genetics is really a distraction from these really important goals of sustainable agriculture: How do we produce enough nutritious food that people can afford; how can we farm so we reduce toxic compounds in the environment; how can we conserve land and water; how can we be sure that farmers and rural economies can survive.
GenPop: What does a hopeful vision of the future of our food supply look like and how can we achieve that goal?
Ronald: Well, I think we can get out and vote for politicians that are going to advance science-based policies. That’s what will allow farmers to grow food in ways that not only protect the environment but [also] help feed the world. We really need to stay focused on that if we can reach for the big goals and advance human ingenuity to achieve those goals. As a scientist and agricultural scientist, I’m very hopeful. But there are some other small details that are a little more difficult to predict in terms of government policies and leadership.
GenPop: That’s my next question: What are the barriers to that vision?
Ronald: I think there’s a big issue with misinformation. Most consumers live in cities and don’t have access to talking with farmers to understand the struggles of farmers, and are therefore losing sight of the need to advance sustainable agricultural practices. How can we get science-based information out to consumers so they can make choices when they’re shopping that actually advance sustainable agriculture? I think that there’s a lot of vulnerability
to marketing practices that can be harmful to the environment [and] can be harmful to human health.
GenPop: Are there pros and cons to the idea that a company can own a gene or a seed?
Ronald: Yes, certainly. I don’t think anybody wants a single seed company to monopolize the production of seed because the structure in a capitalist system is, hopefully, to minimize monopolies. I think most breeders recognize that if you make a discovery and you’re in the seed-breeding business, you want to be able to bring in income. But most breeders like more open access patents that somebody can develop something and then somebody else can build on it and develop something new on top of that. So this open innovation idea, which is the Plant Variety Protection Act, most breeders think it works pretty well.
GenPop: We do a lot of research on polarization and how we all fit into our little tribes. In a previous issue we wrote about autonomous cars and some of the political rifts possible in that space. Is there a risk like that here, too?
Ronald: It’s a good comparison. It’s innovative. It’s new. What’s going to work, what’s not going to work? How is it going to reduce traffic jams and fuel usage? What are the risks of accidents? It’s not a yes or no answer. There are important questions that we all need to wrestle with, and you need to have a cool, focused mind to have a civil discussion sometimes.
Nutrition and disease resistance are key priorities.
Please rank how important you and each of the following uses of plant genome editing
- 1. Plants with higher nutritional value
- 2. Disease resistant plants
- 3. Crops with greater yields/output
- 4. Crops that need less fertilizer
- 5. Non-allergenic or less allergenic plants
- 6. Plants with “designer” characteristics (e.g. indigo roses)
(Source: Ipsos survey conducted between Oct. 5 and 10, 2018 among 2,010 adults in the U.S.)