Gene-Altered Attitudes

Gene Revolution Turns 25 - Gene-Altered Attitudes

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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New genetic tools enhance many crops, such as these potatoes in the labs at Calyxt. (Progressive Farmer image courtesy of Calyxt)

Roger Beachy still remembers the excitement of planting the first genetically altered food crop into United States soils. It was the summer of 1987 when he, along with a team of Monsanto scientists, transplanted tomatoes modified to resist a virus at the company's research farm, near Jerseyville, Illinois.

"I believed we were seeding hope for a hungry world. We were working toward ways to reduce dependence on chemicals," says Beachy, then a scientist at Washington University, in St. Louis, Missouri.

It would take almost a full decade before transgenic plants gained a serious foothold in U.S. soils, and they would not be those the idealistic young scientist envisioned. Instead, corn, cotton and soybeans designed to resist pests and herbicides hit pay dirt, and the seed and chemical industry became entwined, creating a tsunami of changes throughout the private and public agriculture sectors.

BITTERSWEET MEMORIES

Iowa farmer Bill Horan becomes almost giddy remembering the first days of Roundup Ready crops.

"It was incredible -- the most amazing thing that happened in my farming life," Horan says. "Before, I spent the whole summer spraying, hoeing and trying to save my crop, and Roundup eliminated that. It allowed me time to be a better manager, a better husband and father.

"Time is the most precious thing any human has, and this technology gave me more of it," Horan recalls. The technology also allowed less tillage and more soil-saving practices.

Still, consumers had little to show from these early direct-to-farmer benefits. Perceptions of science tinkering with nature, corporate secrecy, well-organized and well-funded environmental campaigns, even weed and insect resistance combined to create a public relations nightmare that haunts the technology today.

Beachy, who serves on the National Science Board, calls the rejection of the science and increased regulatory requirements that resulted "arrogance of plenty." Cutting-edge tools that could have improved quality of life for many through vitamin-enhanced food, for example, are only now starting to be realized some 30 years later, he notes.

SECOND-GEN DISCUSSIONS

Gene-editing techniques now allow plant breeders to make specific and targeted improvements to a plant's genome blueprint, and promise to provide more consumer benefits than the commercialized first-generation transgenic technologies. Will consumers be more willing to swallow low-gluten wheat that sidesteps sensitivities or sip coffee that has been saved from devastating disease?

Jim Blome, Calyxt chief executive officer, believes more information-sharing and transparency about the very definition of gene editing should help make the technology more palatable. Calyxt's heart-healthy, high oleic oil cleared regulatory hurdles in 2019 and became the first gene-edited food to reach market.

"In gene editing, we're not adding new chapters to the book. We're just editing the words in the chapters that are already there," Blome explains.

Jennifer Kuzma, professor and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University (NCSU), says history has shown how important it is to instill public confidence and lift the veil on how plants or plant products are modified.

USDA's SECURE (sustainable, ecological, consistent, uniform, responsible, efficient) rule, enacted in 2020, is expected to exempt gene-edited plants from USDA premarket field testing and data-based risk assessment if they meet specific criteria.

"Consumers want to know which products are genetically modified and which are not. I don't expect that to change for gene-edited crops," Kuzma says. "Crop developers, including companies, have signaled they want to do a better job with gene editing to improve public trust.

"If we simply say gene editing is a new breeding technique, and that we need it to revolutionize food and agriculture and that it provides benefits to the planetâ??...â??that's much the narrative formed in the early days of GMOs. We need to be informed by past communication mistakes to present a better future," she says.

In a recent Science article, Kuzma and her colleague, Khara Grieger, assistant professor at NCSU, recommended a framework for a non-profit coalition that would provide open access to information on all biotech crops in layman's language.

Sustainability and climate change will be big drivers in altering attitudes, Blome believes. "We have to do a better job of explaining these benefits and the extensive review and selection steps gene-edited products go through prior to market launch," he says.

READ MORE: HISTORY MATTERS

The early days of genetic engineering became mired in a mix of competition, politics and activism. As new foods derived from next-generation gene editing come to market, there's caution in the familiar words of philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Find a good grounding in the story of how biotech crops came to be in "Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food," by Dan Charles, a science reporter and correspondent for National Public Radio.

The copyright may be 2001, but Charles' book holds up as a record of the people and events that have shaped the technology.

"I came at the subject at a good time," says Charles of his ability to gain candid disclosure from commercial firms and pioneering scientists, both private and public. "The scientific community at that time were very open to talking about it [genetic engineering] as sort of a scientific triumph. That might not have been possible when things got bogged down later in more angry arguments."

Beyond traditional row crops, readers learn more about early failed attempts to bring genetically engineered innovations such as bacteria designed to prevent ice formation on strawberries and traits that delayed ripening in tomatoes. Belinda Martineau's book "First Fruit" digs deeper into the birth and brief, two-year life span of the slow-to-rot Flavr Savr tomato, which was the first engineered food to be commercialized in the United States.

Read more about the technology risks and benefits for developing countries in "Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global Controversy over GM Crops," by Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Ebbe Schioler.

To explore other titles and discuss views about biotechnology, food and agriculture, check out the weekly Twitter chat @AgBookClub.

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Pamela Smith

Pamela Smith
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