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GM Food, All Bad?

A test planting of GM rice engineered to require less water.

Mention genetically modified anything to most sustainable food folks, and you can be pretty sure what you’re going to get: plenty of eye rolling and perhaps a heartfelt, self-righteous diatribe. This Greenpeace link sums up the view pretty well, I think.

Looking for a way to reconcile my own whole-hearted enthusiasm for sustainable, organic food production with my interest in next-generation bioengineering, I’ve started proposing some contrarian “what ifs” to the slow-food types I encounter. What if, instead of engineering crops that thrive only in conjunction with the heavy use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides, we engineered them to better utilize the nutrients in organic compost, or to produce high yields without artificial irrigation? What if we could genetically tweak the grass that beef cattle graze on as a way to drastically reduce the amount of the greenhouse gas methane emitted through the bovine digestive process?

There’s no reason — beyond the symbiotic evil-empire oligarchy of the big seed and fertilizer producers — that genetic engineering can’t address aims we food-enlightened people actually consider virtuous. Certainly, genetic engineering of some sort has been taking place since agriculture’s very beginnings. Few things grown on a farm today much resemble anything that existed in nature, say, a thousand years ago. (“Natural” contamination of existing crops by “traditionally” modified strains has no doubt also already occurred, too.) What’s different now — and I suspect what makes people uncomfortable — is the more precise, and powerful, techniques we’ve developed, and the consolidation of know-how and IP into fewer hands. These are legitimate concerns, but is it possible that we may all benefit from moving beyond the tired, black-and-white “Frankenfoods” narrative and looking toward something new?

In this piece published in Slate earlier this year (thanks to Kitchen Counsel for bringing it to my attention), James E. Mc Williams makes a promising start in that direction, tipping his hat to Pamela Ronald, a plant pathologist and chair of the Plant Genomics Program at the University of California-Davis, whose book Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food (2008) explores this very subject.

I aim to check it out sooner than later and report back. In the meantime, feel free to fire away.

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