Genetically modified potatoes

2008-06-21

in Economics, Geek stuff, Politics, Science, The environment

Wicker spiral

As is virtually always the case when reading Michael Pollan’s work, The Botany of Desire makes me want to share virtually every page and idea with friends. While a full review will have to wait, one thing that struck me while reading tonight is the situation with genetically engineered Bt crops, as discussed in the last section of the book.

Monsanto’s spuds

Bt is short for Bacillus thuringiensis: a soil bacteria that produces a poison that slays many crop-eating insects. Because it is naturally occurring, the bacterially derived poison is even permitted in many systems of organic agriculture. Genetically modified crops like Monsanto’s NewLeaf tomatoes have had the gene for the manufacture of the poison introduced into their own genetic material.

This is done in one of two relatively crude-seeming ways. Either the gene is inserted into a pathogen that is then allowed to infect the cells of the plant to be modified or DNA is literally shot into the target plant using a .22 caliber ‘gene gun.’ In most cases, the genes don’t end up in the right part of the target plant’s genome. In no cases do we comprehensively appreciate what kind of changes we are creating.

What we do know is this: when we create an environment where pests are exposed to a monoculture of Bt-generating plants, the pests will eventually evolve resistance. According to Pollan, Monsanto expect this to happen to Bt in about thirty years.

This is shocking when you think about it. Firstly, it reveals a kind of extreme short-termism in planning – the expectation that we can keep running on the treadmill and finding new solutions. Secondly, it reveals considerable unethical selfishness. Bt is used by many people other than Monsanto and Monsanto’s customers. The Bt-modified plants threaten to ruin the substance for everybody. Thirdly, it should be remembered that it is not only the resilience of the GM crops that may be undermined. Naturally occurring organisms defending themselves with Bt toxin and similar compounds may suddenly face invulnerable pests, with unknown consequences for nature.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about this section in Pollan’s book is the convincing argument that the above is actually an improvement over conventional potato production. To take the most egregious example, potatoes are regularly sprayed with an organophosphate pesticide called Monitor in order to kill aphids. This is because aphids carry a virus that gives potatoes brown spots inside. People don’t want to eat such potatoes, so farmers respond by spraying the plants with a substance akin to the deadliest of military nerve gasses.

The bigger picture

The more I read about energy usage, climatic science, agriculture, and fisheries, the more deeply green I become. It is pretty challenging to read something as compelling as Michael Pollan’s accounts of industrial agriculture and not begin to profoundly question the kind of soft-green liberal environmentalism that claims that there are just a few environmental externalities that we need to sort out before capitalism as practiced becomes sustainable.

P.S. Names like NewLeaf remind me instantly of Margaret Atwood’s excellent novel Oryx and Crake: essential reading for those trying to make sense of biotechnology’s brave new world.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon June 21, 2008 at 6:07 pm

The more I read about energy usage, climatic science, agriculture, and fisheries, the more deeply green I become.

Unfortunately, the more ‘hard green’ you become, the more people will dismiss you as an extremist.

Tristan June 21, 2008 at 11:52 pm

“Unfortunately, the more ‘hard green’ you become, the more people will dismiss you as an extremist.”

The more people dismiss you as an extremist, the more I dislike people. Luckily, we don’t live in a democracy, and what people think in general is of little consequence.

Milan June 22, 2008 at 3:23 pm

Sometimes, it feels like middle-of-the-movie syndrome.

After spending months and months reading about climate change for six hours a day or more, talking with people who have only been exposed through media coverage can be a strange (and annoying) experience.

Of course, one can be extremely knowledgeable about climate change without embracing any sort of deep ecology. Plenty of intelligent people think we can get through it with some good economic policies.

Anon June 23, 2008 at 6:08 pm
Anon June 23, 2008 at 6:10 pm

“NewLeaf potatoes are being sacrificed in large part because they’re the
easiest genetically modified crop to remove: the vast majority of spuds
grown last year were conventional. It’s far harder for the food industry
to reject genetically modified soybeans, for example, because they
represent half of the U.S. crop and are used to make many more food
ingredients.”

. July 4, 2008 at 1:09 pm

DOES the American Dream come with fries or hash browns? In Jack Simplot’s version, it came with both. Starting out at 14 with little education and only $80 from his mother, Mr Simplot died a multi-billionaire. Much of his success he owed to the Russet Burbank that grows so well in Idaho’s light volcanic soil, and Mr Spud, as he became known, never forgot this debt, nor rejected his roots: till the day he died his favourite restaurant was McDonald’s, where he always ordered either french fries or hash browns.

. August 11, 2008 at 11:44 am

GM companies also aren’t being honest about what this technology can do—and what it can’t. In the rush to exploit the current crisis, the industry routinely promises to re-engineer crops to give massive yields—Monsanto has vowed to double grain yields by 2030—or to grow with less water or to thrive in degraded soils. But delivering on such promises will be much harder than is currently acknowledged. Whereas making corn tolerate Roundup required the manipulation of just one gene, boosting yield is vastly more complex, says Kendall Lamkey, a crop-breeding expert who chairs Iowa State University’s Department of Agronomy. Yield is the expression of a plant’s reproductive success, and reproduction takes nearly all of a plant’s survival “skills,” from its capacity to cope with temperature changes to its resistance to bugs. In other words, says Lamkey, to boost yields through genetic modification, GM companies must manipulate thousands of genes—and so far, they’ve had limited success.

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