Tuesday, July 21, 2015

GMOs: the answer to safer, more efficient farming or poster child for an unhealthy food supply?

GMOs: Are They Safe? What Are the Pros and Cons?

“I stood on a farm in Bangladesh and saw how the gene we discovered allowed farmers to triple their yields from flooded fields.”

By Barry Estabrook, "Good Seed, Bad Seed," July/August 2015
Eating Well

For 50 years, plant breeders grappled with a vexing difficulty whose solution was tantalizingly evident, but out of reach. Rice loves to sink its roots into water-saturated soil, but most rice varieties die if the plants are totally submerged for more than a few days. In impoverished eastern India and Bangladesh alone, farmers lose an estimated 4 million tons of rice each year—enough to feed 30 million people—when floodwaters inundate their crops, something that is all too common in the low-lying, monsoon-wracked area, and bound to become even more common as sea levels rise because of climate change. But agricultural experts knew of one ancient, almost forgotten, variety of rice that could survive being submerged for as long as two weeks. Unfortunately, its yields were too skimpy to make it a practical source of food. Decades of trying to cross it with high-yielding rice strains resulted in a series of frustrating failures. It seemed like the genetic traits that gave the rice its ability to survive submersion were intractably linked to those that made it produce low quantities of grain.

In the mid-1990s, Pamela Ronald, Ph.D., a geneticist at the University of California, Davis, and her two associates David Mackill and Kenong Xu, brought their expertise to the problem and used genetic-engineering techniques and advanced computer programs to discover—out of the 42,000 genes in rice—a single gene that carried the submergence-tolerance trait. They spliced that gene into a high-yielding rice variety that would normally have died in a flood and transplanted the genetically modified seedlings along with unmodified seedlings into a Davis greenhouse plot that they intentionally flooded. Two weeks later, they returned. They noticed that most of the rice plants were weak, spindly, pale and dying, but encountered a few rows of vigorous, bright green plants. Bending over for a closer look, they determined that the survivors were the ones into which they had inserted the flood-resistant gene. Ronald was elated, but her happiest moment came several years later. “I stood on a farm in Bangladesh and saw how the gene we discovered (which Mackill had introduced into a new rice variety) allowed farmers to triple their yields from flooded fields,” she said when I visited her office earlier this year.

Ronald is a trim, fit woman. She rides her bicycle five miles to and from work each day and the diet she and her husband and two teenage children eat is healthy and rarely includes red meat. She is also an evangelist for what she calls “plant genetic improvement.” Listening to her relate the story of her “scuba” rice and how it is helping feed some of the world’s poorest people, I found myself thinking, this is a no-brainer. What’s not to like? How is it that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) became one of the hot-button food issues of our day, sparking furious debate?

(Continued here.)

3 Comments:

Blogger Minnesota Central said...

Did you see yesterday's roll call vote for H.R. 1599 "Deny Americans the Right to Know Act" ~ DARK Act ~ aka Don't You Dare Demand GMO Labels ?
Here is the NPR story
It passed 275 - 150 with YES votes from Walz, Kline, Paulsen, McCollum, Emmer, and Peterson with NO votes from Ellison and Nolan.
BTW, the supporters of the bill call it the "Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015"

7:41 AM  
Blogger Minnesota Central said...

FYI : the Austin Daily Herald has a story on the bill and vote.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Leigh Pomeroy said...

Minnesota Central meant this story — "U.S. House bans state GMO food labeling laws" — in the comment above.

10:00 AM  

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