Pamela Ronald: Humans have modified crops for thousands of years

Pamela Ronald runs the Lab for Crop Genetics Innovation at the University of California, Davis. Her team won an award for its decade-long work to isolate the gene that makes rice tolerant to floods.

Pamela Ronald runs the Lab for Crop Genetics Innovation at the University of California, Davis. Her team won an award for its decade-long work to isolate the gene that makes rice tolerant to floods.

“Everything we eat has been genetically improved or modified in some manner: 8,000 to 10,000 years ago our ancestors took corn mutants and crossed these to develop different types of corn varieties so they could harvest them better.” The ancient Greeks wrote about grafting – attaching the stem of one plant to the roots of another. The specific skills of modern genetic engineering were developed in California 40 years ago. “That allows genes from any species to be moved into other types of organisms. For example, insulin was the first genetically-engineered medicine, and it’s been very useful because insulin used to have to be harvested from animals, but now human insulin can be produced in microbes and used by diabetics.

“Eggplant is a very important crop in Bangladesh, and there is an insect that can devastate the crop. Farmers spray insecticides two to three times a week, sometimes twice a day, [often] using insecticides that are banned in the United States.” This is where BT comes in – a gene from a soil bacterium which produces a protein that is deadly to pests: “Scientists cut the gene for BT out of the bacteria and inserted it directly into the eggplant genome. It’s been very successful.
“Last season, eggplant farmers reported they were able to reduce their chemical sprays by a huge amount, often down to zero.”

“After 40 years of commercial use in medicine, cheeses, wine and plants – and after over 20 years of careful study and rigorous peer review by thousands of independent scientists not funded by major corporations – every major scientific organisation in the world has concluded that the genetically-engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat. “Discussion about plant genetics is a complete distraction from the goals of sustainable agriculture. We need to stay focused on how farmers and rural communities can thrive, we must be sure everyone can afford the food, and we must minimise environmental degradation.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘irrational’ [to describe opposition to GM], I would say it’s ‘non-science based’.”

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