A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Pamela Ronald speak. She is a plant researcher at UC Davis who was on the team that developed submergent tolerant rice through a technique called marker assisted breeding which provides a more reliable food supply in areas such as Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Egypt, India, Laos, and Malaysia. She reported that in four years of field studies in India and Bangladesh, there were 3-5 fold increases in rice production using the new flood-tolerant rice seeds. The seed was developed using public funding with the intent to distribute the seed at low or no cost to farmers in developing nations to improve their food security. She embraces organic farming, but thinks that it could become much more sustainable if biotechnology were used to introduce drought and flood tolerance, pest resistance, nitrogen assimilation and other characterizations into plants to address some of the world’s biggest problems.
Together with her husband, Raoul Adamchak, who has farmed organically for 20 years and now is the Market Garden Coordinator at the certified organic farm on the UC Davis campus, they have written the 2008 book, "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food." The book combines their belief that organic farming methods can become more sustainable through the use of genetic modification of plants.
Earlier this year, the NYT's did a very good write-up on this book and the hot topic which it addresses which I highly recommend reading: Can We Feed the World Without Damaging It? The article quotes Stewart Brand, who says, "I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we've been wrong about. We've starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our practitioners a crucial tool." And, it includes this quote from Ronald, "It's a rare person that will get out and farm. So, if that's true, and we don't have a massive return to farms," then centralized, highly productive farms will remain, she said. "But how do you retain that productivity without the negative impact?"
"God does not play dice with the universe."---Albert Einstein
Because of the negative feelings globally towards Monsanto and industrialized agriculture, the view that this couple and more and more others are promoting faces an immense uphill battle. The issue is complex and requires at minimum, smart governmental regulation and oversight that so far has been lacking. Yet, technology cannot be stopped anymore than Einstein was able to conceal his physics discoveries from uses unapproved by himself. I predict a changed future in agriculture coming at us due to plant genetic manipulation, irregardless of what the public's approval level is. Since none of us knows the future, my guess is that like all in life, both good and bad will result from the advancement of this technology.
[photo of Pam Ronald taken by Kalpa at the Boulder County Sustainable Agriculture Forum held on November 6, 2010 Longmont, Colorado]