Can a gene from rice help combat the pathogen that threatens the extinction of bananas? That was just one of the many interesting issues featured in Dr. Pamela Ronald’s lecture at the SAIS Global Issues in Agriculture series. Dr. Ronald is a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis. Many of us following the debate on GMOs might have read her book, “Tomorrow’s Table”, co-authored with her husband, Mr. R.W. Adamchak, who is an organic farmer.
Speaking to a (mostly) non-scientific audience, Dr. Ronald explained in clear terms that growers have been trying to enhance desirable traits in crops forever. The older method of simply crossing Type x with Type y and waiting to see whether the hybrid plant had the desired trait . This method focused on the outward result but modification at the genetic level did take place but was unobserved. Genetic modification today is precise, and efficient and enables quick and accurate results. In addition, it is backed by years of research data.
Why do we need genetic modification anyway? Consider, Dr. Ronald said, the case of the GM papaya. The papayas grown in Hawaii were attacked by the ringspot virus which devastated the crop, even moving the crop to another island did not help. Ultimately, the plants were “vaccinated” with a dose of the virus which enabled them to resist when the virus actually attacked. And so it is that we still have papayas in Hawaii. Perhaps a similar solution could be found for coffee rust? We will never know if we cannot try this option in the real world. Dr. Ronald spoke of her own work with rice: how a rice gene could possibly be used to battle the pathogen which threatens bananas with extinction.
One possible application of genetic modification could be in building climate resilience in crops.Dr. Ronald shared her work on building flood tolerance in rice. In many parts of the world rice is grown in flood prone areas and with increased flooding possible from climate change; the development of a strain of rice which can stand water logging for up to 17 days as compared to the current maximum of 3 days is great news. But all these wonderful possibilities would take years to negotiate the stringent regulatory process and even then be opposed due to fear mongering. In that context, I was hoping to ask Dr. Ronald for her views on labeling of GMO products. But , sadly, there was not enough time; most of the discussion was taken up by two journalists from Germany, which, given that country’s staunch opposition to GMOs was interesting….
The main point to learn from this lecture was that the seed (around which so much of the storm is swirling) is but a small part in the whole process of growing food and we need to incorporate all options, technology and good agro-ecological practices to achieve sustainable development.
While I was learning all this; with ease, I would like to add, as Dr. Ronald is great at making all this scientific information accessible to those not from a science background; I wished more people could hear her, instead of being bombarded by myths of “dangerous farming” and GMOs killing bees.