Monday, September 14, 2009

Goodbye, Mr. Borlaug

Agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug, one of my personal heroes, died over the weekend at age 95. He is most famous for developing high-yield semi-dwarf strains of wheat that resist decimation from disease; this work increased crop yields in the developing world dramatically and likely saved hundreds of millions of South Asians from starvation. His life is a testament to the power of science to help people and save lives.

Borlaug was sort of a pioneer of biotechnology, in some respects. His breeding experiments were done the old-fashioned way - via cross-pollination rather than by genetic engineering. However, the difference between the two methods is one of efficiency, not result - genetic engineering of crops is essentially a way to cross-breed varieties of plants with desired characteristics more reliably. Borlaug wanted to breed certain characteristics into his plants - genetic engineers merely find those characteristics in the DNA and splice them into a new seed.

So I'm going to commit an act of environmentalist heresy here and say that I don't see the problem with genetically modified organisms, at least when it comes to plants. And it's bizarre that this is a heresy among environmentalists, because from an enviromental perspective GMOs are an undoubtedly good thing. Scientists are designing strains of crops that are disease- and pest-resistant and that produce more on less land. What's the problem with that? The hardier a crop is, the less chemical pesticides have to be used. That's a good thing, right? If more food gets produced on the same plot of land, that's less forest that has to be torn down to plant crops. That's good too, right? And the more food that gets produced, the less people starve. Also good, right?

What's baffling about the debate over GMOs is that the opposition to GMO food makes little to no sense to me. One one hand, you get fanatics complaining about "Frankenfood," as if genetic engineering would produce wheat crops that will get up out of the ground and eat your babies or something. What these critics don't realize is that they're already eating GMO food. Researchers have tested modern GMO food and found that it poses no health risk, but they miss the point - people have been eating GMOs for thousands of years. Take corn, for example. You know those little baby corn cobs that come in your Chinese takeout? Did you know that used to be about the size of all corn crops, and that the only way corn became the corn-on-the-cob you're familiar with nowadays is through human-influenced breeding (which, as I mentioned earlier, is genetic engineering by far less efficient means)? That's right, your "organic" corn is actually genetically modified. Same with your "organic" navel oranges. And all those tomatoes. And... you get the picture. Crops have always been bred for certain characteristics - genetic engineering just makes the breeding process more efficient and reliable. The end result is the same.

On the other hand, more thoughtful critics cite the use of farming methods that encourage monoculture and benefit agribusiness at the economic expense of small farmers, and that use unsustainable high-input practices. These critics have merit, but one might notice that none of these criticisms are of GMOs per se. The two criticisms are linked - high-input farming methods require capital that only large businesses possess. Fair enough, but that's a good reason to expand biotechnology research into developing high-yield crops that don't require high-input farming, and to develop high-yield cover crops that can be used in an efficient, sustainable crop rotation. Science is the way out of this, people. And finally, an agribusiness oligarchy and high-input farming methods, while not ideal, are certainly preferable to the starvation and land degradation wrought by low-yield crops.

Look, I like buying local, organic food as much as the next guy. I like my beef grass-fed, my apples wax-free, and my tomatoes... well, I don't like tomatoes, but you get my point. It's nice to live in a relatively less-densely populated country where such things are possible. But organic, "natural" farming methods where Farmer Tom down the street can sell you veggies that were in the ground an hour ago so you can have them for supper are a luxury that many densely-populated poor countries can't afford. They rely on the high-yield methods pioneered by Borlaug simply to survive. Organic, low-yield methods just wouldn't cut it in India - you'd have to plow under the whole country or let people starve to adopt such methods.

Borlaug referred to critics of GMOs as elitists who don't understand hunger. I don't think the E-word is fair - elitism implies a disdain for those suffering from hunger, and I don't believe the average environmentalist looks down on the average starving African. But I think the second half of that statement is right: environmentalists simply don't understand the gravity of the hunger situation. While we Americans have the luxury to choose between "organic" and "conventional" methods (as the labels at Whole Foods proudly proclaim), poor countries don't have that option. They need the high-yield of genetically engineered crops and high-input farming practices to simply produce enough food to exist. We can disdain GMOs all we want - for the average Indian or Pakistani, "Frankenfood" is literally a lifesaver.

Update: Here's a fascinating (if long and kinda wonky) read - Borlaug's 2000 lecture to the Nobel Prize people where he describes many of the problems facing food production and the possible way out of them. His discussion of the need to conserve water by designing more water-efficient ways to use land is especially interesting. He also discusses rather frankly a lot of the problems that have arisen in the wake of the Green Revolution and what he thinks can be done about them.

A side note: I think a lot of people have a distorted view of scientists - that is, they think scientists believe that their work is perfect and will cure all evils. Thus, by pointing out a problem that the scientist didn't solve or that arose as a result of the scientist's last solution, the critic believes he is "discrediting" the scientist and their research. Scientists, of course, realize that research is never complete, and that constantly dealing with new questions and confronting new problems is what science is all about.

Update 2: Penn and Teller skewer the anti-GMO crowd. It's a bit harsh on the protestors even for me, but worth a watch. Also fixed a few goofy issues with the main post.


Jacob Grier said...

Great post, Jeff. An additional point about plant-breeding is that if GMOs are scary, many conventional crops produced by irradiation should be even scarier. With genetic engineering we basically know what we're doing. With irradiation we're just blasting a seed with radiation to see what random mutations show up. Yet hardly anyone knows about irradiation and everyone freaks out about GM.

Jeff said...

As I understand it, irradiation is done generally on meat that has already been killed, as well as on herbs and spices that have already been picked. The goal is to kill bacteria and other pathogens that would normally require pasteurization or cooking. Which means the panic over irradiated food would be even sillier than a panic over GMOs in my opinion - it doesn't make the food radioactive, which it what could really harm the consumer, and the dead meat/plant cells aren't gonna mutate, being dead and all.

Jacob Grier said...

There's that, but it's also used to induce mutations and create new strains of crops. See here for example:

Jacob Grier said...

And to be clear, I don't think creating new strains by either method is something we should be afraid of. Just that if people freak out about tampering with nature, irradiation is a much more random, imprecise way of doing it.

Jeff said...

Wow, I had never heard of that before. Seems like it's been going on for a while, too - even longer than precision genetic engineering. Fascinating stuff, there.

It's a lot safer than it sounds, too. The irradiation occurs in the breeding stage of strain development, but the crops are then bred and planted the old-fashioned way, so the stuff that actually ends up on your plate probably has never seen a gamma ray... but yeah, I'm definitely surprised this hasn't led to a radioactive food panic in the West.

Mike said...

You know, I have started to emit this strange green glow...