GMOs Could be a Key to Sustainable Farming

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The history of agriculture is all about human intervention, taking plants and breeding them to produce a better yield or tastier fruit. Ronald sped up this process by using molecular tools to identify the genes that allowed a low-yield rice to withstand floods. Colleagues at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines then bred the submergence-tolerant variety with popular high-yielding varieties. They used genetic markers to screen the resulting offspring when they were seedlings, keeping only those with the right genes.

Plants are the staff of life. With help from scientists, they could also help cool a warming planet. A few examples at various stages of development:

1. The Land Institute is starting to commercialize a perennial wheat that doesn’t require soil tilling, a process that releases carbon into the atmosphere.

2. Researchers at the Salk Institute want to encourage crop plants to grow roots that are rich in suberin, a substance that gloms onto carbon, and reach deeper into soil where the carbon can be stored.

3. Researchers at various universities are trying to figure out how to make cereals produce their own nitrogen, meaning no need for fertilizers and their emissions.

This creation, Sub1 rice, is not considered a GMO by many definitions, because no genes from other species were inserted into the plants. But Ronald encourages genetically engineering crops if it can do anything to mitigate climate change or help low-income farmers. “You want all the options on the table for climate,” she says. She points to a transgenic form of eggplant that is also a hit in Bangladesh. It contains a gene from a bacteria that allows the plant to repel a particularly destructive moth larvae, which is thriving in a hotter world. Farmers who plant this GMO eggplant variety are able to cease sometimes daily applications of toxic and expensive pesticides.

Affluent, environmentally conscious shoppers often shun GMOs, as any stroll down a Whole Foods aisle will attest. Organizations of organic farmers have generally fought to prevent GMOs from getting an organic label, even for traits like drought tolerance. Critiques generally fall into three camps: the often high cost of engineered seeds, concerns about herbicides sprayed on herbicide-resistant GMOs, and vague worries about safety. As far as the first criticism goes, it is true that some GMOs require farmers to pay each year for expensive seeds, but that cost does not apply to crops developed by a nonprofit (as Sub1 rice was). The second applies only to the subset of GMOs that are engineered to tolerate glyphosate herbicide. (And to confuse things even more, some of the herbicides used before were arguably worse.) As far as safety goes, decades of scientific research has shown there’s nothing especially different about genetically modified crops in terms of health or safety.

While most GMO crops are still either herbicide tolerant or pest resistant, more climate-change-ready traits are beginning to roll out. North American farmers are already planting corn engineered to be drought tolerant, though the seeds have mixed reviews. Genetically engineered drought-tolerant soybeans have been approved in the US, Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina—where they are expected to be planted later this year. Corn engineered with drought tolerance and insect resistance for smallholder African farmers, funded by charitable entities, is aiming to be in farmers’ hands by 2023.

With new, precise tools like Crispr gene editing, the potential is enormous. In addition to drought and heat tolerance, crops could be engineered to increase yields (and thus reduce agricultural footprints) and to be resistant to the pests and diseases that thrive in hotter climates.

The way Ronald sees it, we are in a crisis that demands every possible tool. Imagine that one of your loved ones had a virulent cancer, she says, and the most effective medicine was one that had been engineered in a lab. “You would never pull an option off the table because it was genetically engineered,” she says. Why would we do so for our planet?

Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak argue that genetic engineering and organic crops do not have to be at odds.
Photograph: Cody Cobb

After a short walk through the UC Davis campus, I met up with Raoul Adamchak—bearded, bespectacled, and clad in overalls and a wide-brimmed hat. Since 1996, Adamchak has overseen the Market Garden at UC Davis. He cares for seven picture-perfect organic acres with a rotating crew of undergrads. The core of organic farming, he says, it to nourish soil with composts and manures, cover crops, and creative crop rotations rather than unhealthy or environmentally damaging chemicals.

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