Mark Bittman, also known as “the minimalist”, is one of my favorite chefs. I have three of his biggest cookbooks (How to Cook Everything, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and The Best recipes in the World) and a couple of his smaller cookbooks. When I need a recipe for some dish I’ve never made before, he is the first person I turn to.
Normally, I love his New York Times columns, which are full of quick and tasty dishes. This week, however, he decided to stray from the cooking side of food, and into the political and pseudoscientific fray of food policy. I wish he had stuck with the cooking side – it would have preserved my admiration for him as an all around awesome human being. Said illusion has since been shattered. A couple days ago he wrote a long and meandering opinion piece on “GMOs” in which he professed to knowing nothing about the technology, yet still felt it necessary to write an undoubtedly influential article (I’m not the only foodie who likes Bittman) spreading the usual misinformation and lies surrounding “Genetically Modified Organisms”.
The debate on transgenics (I hate the slang “GMO”) is a passionate interest of mine, so I decided to a write a response to his article. I’m not posting the link to his original article because I don’t think it’s well written or particularly worth reading (there are no new ideas in it). And since this is MY blog, I see no reason to up Bittman’s google cred by linking to a bad article. But, without further ado, here is my response (also posted on nytimes, comment #56) to his bad article:
You [Mark Bittman] write in your blog “Few people outside of scientists working in the field — self included — understand much of anything about gene altering.” Herein lies one of the major problems underlying the so-called “GMO” controversy. There is true ignorance among the general public about what the technology is and how it differs from “conventional agriculture”. I am a PhD student in the field of plant breeding and genetics, and understanding the debate surrounding “GMOs” is one of my passions. Perhaps I can shed light on a few of the issues you raised in your article.
To start, you say that “GMOs” are arguably different from crops produced via “conventional breeding”. I would argue the difference is hairline-fine. A “genetically modified organism” as it has come to be understood, is really a transgenic organism, meaning a gene has been taken from one organism and introduced directly into another using molecular biology methods. The gene is put under the control of a promoter – a regulatory DNA sequence that contains instructions for where and when the gene should be turned on and is highly specific. A GMO does not contain random bits of other plants or organisms. Rather, it contains one highly specific segment of DNA, coding for highly specific protein products. So we’re really talking about a difference of a few molecules in an organism that has thousands of different compounds.
In fact, far greater genetic changes are frequently achieved using “conventional breeding”. The whole idea behind breeding is to change the genetic makeup of the plants to obtain desirable traits like high yield and the reality is that a lot of “conventional breeding” takes place in a lab. Molecular biology is frequently used to identify regions of DNA that code for desirable traits in plants, and then those regions (containing, gasp, genes!) are introduced into commercial lines by crossing, so the difference between such a conventional line and a transgenic one, here, is how the gene is introduced – is it crossed in, or is it dropped in using some fancier molecular biology?
A common problem with any breeding project is finding the plant that has a trait you like. To solve this problem conventional breeders will cross with wild relatives, which can be quite genetically different, or they may turn to mutation breeding – the practice of bombarding seeds with radiation or mutating chemicals in order to induce genetic mutations.
So what is it that makes transgenics so different from conventional breeding? The biggest difference is that a wider array of genetic variation can be exploited using transgenics. With transgenics, we aren’t limited to what mutations occur when seeds are exposed to x-rays, or by what variation exists in wild relatives. Access to greater variation opens to the door to a treasure trove of possible solutions to age-old problems. Yes, the resulting lines should be tested carefully… but so should conventionally bred lines.
You say that G.E. products may grow faster, require fewer pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides, and reduce stress on land, water and other resources”. There is ample scientific data to back up such claims for specific crops, and importantly, we are heading into a very food- unstable time, globally. In the New York Times this week alone, we can read about rising food prices, wheat shortage in China, hunger in India, and an unstable climate that is only going to make farming more difficult. We simply cannot afford to turn our back on a technology that has the potential to “reduce stress on land, water, and other resources”.
Similarly, you claim “conventional agriculture is more affordable for poor farmers”. This is quite the assumption! One of the reasons so many of the world’s farmers are poor is that conventional agriculture is, in fact, quite expensive. Fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, water/irrigation equipment, mechanization… all these inputs cost money and are not necessarily available to poor farmers, and as a result, they struggle. In fact, you contradict the assumption that conventional farming is affordable when you say that GMOs can raise profits. The reason an insect-resistant GM crop can raise profits is because the farmer does not have to buy the pesticides needed for “conventional agriculture” (and also because of higher yields). Increased farmer profits result in a reduction in farmer poverty. Perhaps one of the most important ways transgenic crops can alleviate poverty and hunger is by raising the profits of farmers.
Every new technology, when it is not understood, makes people “leery”. We fear what we do not understand. Without education, labeling will likely result only in greater fear, rather than greater understanding. All crops are genetically modified in the general sense of the words because that is what breeding, by definition, is. Breeding modifies plant genomes.
After I wrote this response, I was clicking around the NY times to see what else had been written recently on the topic, and I found a truly fantastic op-ed piece. I really wish I wrote this one – I’ve been think a lot about the ideas in it, and its very well written. It’s all about how demonization of transgenics technology by us in the west is inhibiting the ability of scientists (particularly public sector scientists) to use the technology for the benefit of the poor, and furthermore, how the regulations and restrictions that have resulted from people’s fear has driven the research on transgenics firmly into the hands of private agribusiness – as they are the ones that can afford to navigate legal hoops. (And then those same people who delivered the science into the hands of the private sector scream and whine about the private sector’s control of the technology! Can we say vicious cycle?
Here is the link, please read and enjoy!
“Genetically Engineered Distortions” by Pamela C. Ronald and James E. McWilliams. The New York Times, published May 14 2010.
Another column I really like: “The Green Monster“
My own comment to Bittman, by the way, is currently recommended by seven people. If you like it too, please recommend it, that way more people will see it!