Changing the discussion on genetic engineering

A genetic engineering researcher who is married to an organic farmer is trying to bridge the gap between consumers and science

The evolution of genetic engineering will continue, with more diverse options, giving scientists more flexibility to breed crops better for farmers and human nutrition.

But farmers and researchers will continue to have to explain the technology to consumers focused on the genetic level, said Pamela Ronald.

Ronald, a genetic engineering researcher at the University of California, Davis, is part of a group at her university created to help provide clear answers on crop breeding. She was the guest lecturer at the Kenneth Farrell Lecture put on by the University of Guelph’s department of food, agriculture and resource economics.

She also wrote a book Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food, with her husband, Raoul Adamchak, who runs the organic farm at UC Davis.

That gives Ronald an interesting perspective and puts her in a unique place in the usual grand chasm between genetic engineering and organics. She regards the work she does genetically engineering rice, as a way to effectively and economically solve problems for farmers.

She and her colleagues have been responsible for isolating genes that are resistant to disease and flooding for farmers of rice, especially those in developing countries.

“For 10,000 years we have altered the genetic makeup of crops. Everything we eat has been genetically altered based on some kind of genetic technique,” she said.

The first examples of genetic engineering date to the 1970s when insulin was bioengineered.

“Now we have nearly five billion acres of GE crops planted around the world,” she said.

Among those acres are those planted in rice that she and her colleagues have genetically engineered for greater disease resistance, creating solutions for farmers that would not have been possible without genetic engineering.

Fifty years ago, scientists discovered that oryza longistaminata, a perennial grass from the same genus as cultivated rice, was resistant to many of the diseases that infected rice. Ronald’s lab was able to isolate the XA21 resistance gene and insert it into conventional rice.

Another isolated gene is called SUB1, from a rice variety able to handle two weeks of flooding. It couldn’t be bred into conventional varieties, but it could be transferred in, resulting in significant flooding resistance for conventional rice varieties and helping to reduce the 40 million tonnes of rice lost each year due to flooding. With the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, four million to five million farmers are now using varieties with the gene and increasing their yields.

“A single gene can have a huge positive impact on food security,” she said.

Why with all of this value to farmers and eventually to consumers, do purchasers of food continue to question genetic engineering?

The value isn’t obvious to consumers, said Ronald. They don’t grow the food and they don’t see children malnourished due to a lack of food.

They’ve heard certain storylines involving evil corporations and the dominance of corn and soybeans and health problems associated with them.

Ronald tries to change the conversation away from those storylines to the ones in which she is active, including rice and developing world farming. She also talks about species, like papaya, that have been saved in places in the world due to genetic engineering.

The issue also gets more complicated when you throw in organic farming and its traditional antipathy to genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering is a biological process and she said that at the time her husband was involved with the California organic standards-setting organization, genetic engineering was included in the standards. But 250,000 letters of protest later, genetic engineering was removed from the standard.

Our knowledge of the genome is also relatively new. It was only in 2000 that the Arabidopsis genome was sequenced at a cost of $70 million, involving 500 people and taking seven years. Such sequencing now takes two minutes and costs $99.

Still, Ronald laments that the discussion with consumers is so often focused on the gene, not on the effect, or the outcome or the problem being solved. That’s one of the reasons that the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy has been formed at UC Davis. Ronald is the genome centre director. The institute aims to give students in science, especially graduate students, the tools to have discussions with people around them. The discussions are deliberately steered towards larger agriculture issues and industry complexity, versus focusing on genetic engineering specifically.

Telling stories is important as science has not gained support for genetic engineering by trotting out acronymed scientific organizations around the world to support the safety of the process. Colourful, attractive people who have another, simpler, story to tell, that GMOs are bad, have attracted more attention and followers.

The institute is trying to meet consumers where they live by creating programs such as Science Really Said, an Ask a Scientist program at the UC Davis farmers’ market and a Farm to Table Academy where consumers meet with scientists and farmers.

“Scientists who engage with people beyond their peers can have an effect,” she said.

But, despite their attempts to broaden the conversation on food, 80 to 90 per cent of the questions they get are around genes in food.

As the world of genetic manipulation gets more complex, there will be even more work to do.

Gene editing, through the CRISPR technique, has spread around the world with great speed, running into regulatory regimes unprepared for the technology. CRISPR allows genes to be turned on and off. Genes are not inserted cross-species, so the United States has so far indicated that it won’t require the same regulatory rigour applied to traditional genetic engineering.

Organic groups, however, have voiced opposition.

There are other tools needed in genetic engineering, said Ronald, including the ability to manage and analyze the vast amounts of data being created.

This will allow for greater understanding of genetic pathways for example, and gene interactions.

Ronald also believes one of the next frontiers in farming is better understanding the microbiome of soil. Her husband, the organic farmer, spends a lot of his time encouraging a healthy microbiome, but we still know little about it. Genetic tools may help in this area too.

“We don’t think about the silicon wafer and how much data we can put on it, we talk about how we use the information. I’m fascinated by the concern about genes in food. There have always been genes in our food.”

Kenneth Farrell, for whom this lecture is named, was an Ontario Agriculture College graduate who went on to work in extension in California, led the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service in Washington, then returned to California as a vice-president of the University of California. He died in 2014.

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