A Plant Scientist’s Perspective on Genetic Engineering

UPDATE: This is part of a series on GMOs. Links for all of the posts for this series are indexed on my highlights page. Check out all of them.

In my last few posts, I’ve written about GMOs in our food system- numbers, science and potential. There have also been a few of recent news articles related to GMO crops floating around the mainstream media. These always spark debate and reactionary articles from the other side of the argument. I’ve tried to link many of them in my previous posts, but check out some of the links at the bottom of this post for a sampling of them. Each article brings out strong emotions from the different sides of the debate.

It was always my intention for this series of posts on GMOs to provide ‘the facts’ about how GM crops are produced, how they fit into agribusiness models (or in some cases philanthropic efforts), how they affect our food system, and how they are regulated. My goal is to elevate the discourse surrounding this topic. My strategy is similar to the one I use in the lab as a biochemist- breaking it down to its smallest components, analyzing them and trying to synthesize a complete picture of the way things do work vs. the way things can/should work.

Before moving on to the issues that fall outside of the science, I’d just like to pause and offer some additional perspective on genetic engineering from my vantage point as a plant scientist. I don’t claim to speak for everyone, but I don’t think my view is very different from the average plant scientist. So, if you will allow me, this is my agenda* as a plant scientist.

First and foremost, I am in awe of plants for their photosynthetic lifestyle and their biochemical talents. While they already provide us with so many useful things- food, fuel, fiber, and pharmaceuticals, humans continue to look to plant species to provide more. I feel it is my role as a plant scientist to continue to study these fascinating organisms so that we can better understand how to get the most out of our relationship with plants. A fundamental premise of this relationship is that humans are willing to alter the genetics of plant species to suit their needs.** This has been done for millennia without genetic engineering using techniques such as selective breeding, hybridization and induced mutations. Much effort has gone into understanding how plants and their genetics work from Mendel and his peas until the present day. Amazing discoveries have been made. The Holy Grail is the identification of candidate genes for desirable traits that can be used either as markers for traditional breeding techniques or targets for specific genetic engineering.

Yes, I think that transgenic technology offers a powerful new tool for optimizing plants for the traits we desire of them. I also think that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Genetic engineering is something that should be done carefully and with transparency. This is true of many things spawned of scientific discovery. However, other factors impose stricter timelines. Things like malnutrition and global food security (now and in the future) are problems demanding answers now. New plant diseases and pests do not always offer us the luxury of time needed for other alternatives. Again these are complex problems that deserve multifaceted solutions. I’m not suggesting that genetic engineering is the sole answer, but I’m arguing that it should play a role.

As part of an implicit social contract, scientists have been entrusted with the task of researching plants to benefit society in some way- either some tangible new product or a new understanding of the way plants work. (This is the premise under which I am working because it surely isn’t for fortune or glory. In fact I count it a great privilege to be employed doing something I find intellectually stimulating that may also change our lives for the better.) The body of scientific work surrounding the central dogma of biology, fundamental genetics and plant science, which has been unraveled by scores of scientists, has led us to the point where we have the ability to genetically engineer plants. So, yes, I have to admit it, from my perspective, it stings just a little when all of this effort is outright rejected, cast aside as offensive and rebuked as hubris.

So here are some honest (non-rhetorical) questions that I would like to inject into our debate as to how to gain societal acceptance of genetically engineered food plants. At this point I’m talking only from a scientific point of view. There may be other reasons to be anti-GMO some of the currently cultivated varieties. These are good questions to consider for yourself before I get into the reality of how safety, regulation etc. actually works in our current system. You can compare your internal idealized standards to those currently used, then decide if it is necessary to advocate for change.

What should be done to ensure genetically engineered food plants are safe (for consumption and the environment)?

What kind of transparency is needed in the development of new transgenic crop plants?

What kind of transparency is needed at the consumer level when it comes to GMOs (i.e. labeling)?

Do you think these standards should be applied to all new crop varieties with altered genetics (and potentially novel proteins and biochemistry) like new hybrids or the results of other selective breeding practices?

One final thought: All new endeavors, discoveries and inventions spawned by science must balance risk with potential reward. In the context of the GMO food debate, people seem extremely intolerable of minimal risk for the rewards offered by GM crops. Think about how this risk-reward balance compares to other aspects of modern life. For humans, traveling at speeds of 60+ miles per hour in steel cages powered by highly flammable and toxic chemicals is completely unnatural. For both travelers and the broader ecosystem, this mode of transportation carries a much greater risk than that posed by growing and eating GMO food plants. However, we all daily accept this as an ordinary modern convenience. Many people do not feel the need to know the exact inner workings of our automobiles. Many of us accept the industry standards for safety and are willing to continually revise them. What is the difference between the two examples (GMOs vs. automobiles)? Is it because cars are obviously unnatural and you know what you are getting as a consumer?


* Inasmuch as I have an agenda- normally my agenda consists of a continually growing to do list of personal and professional items that must be done each day, but I actually only accomplish a small percentage of them. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of some groups insists that scientists must have an agenda.

** This is why scientists view genetic engineering as only the next step in the evolution of agricultural practices.  As far as just the science is concerned: if people are OK with genetic variation and alteration performed in a more random or haphazard way, why isn’t genetic engineering acceptable? It may be a difference in perspective. Many people seem to regard genetic engineering as a new line that we are crossing that maybe we shouldn’t be. On the other hand, scientists view the previous forms of genetic modification as a line we have crossed a long time ago.

Further reading, GMO news links:













3 thoughts on “A Plant Scientist’s Perspective on Genetic Engineering

  1. madeleinelove

    However much virtue one would like to attach to possible uses of GM for the good of the people or the planet, we have been living with an opposing reality.
    According to industry sources (ISAAA 2010) at least 99.93% of planted GM crops were herbicide tolerant, insecticide producing, or a mixture of both.
    However much GM is promoted for ‘saving the world’ we are living with an opposing reality where all of the interesting useful crops have been developed by non-GM techniques, though often claimed by promoters as GM
    Can you tell me why Golden Rice has been endlessly, relentlessly promoted, yet the pesticide crops of Monsanto etal have been snuck through without a sound in the media?
    We don’t like being deceived, and I discovered I’d been eating GM foods against my will and better judgment, while pregnant, breastfeeding, and to my tiny new children, when I actually thought I’d been avoiding it. I will never get over that feeling of outrage.
    You are a little cog in the wheel of phenomenally powerful interests in pursuit of controlling the world’s food, happy to deceive sovereign nations, knowingly working against the known wishes of population.. Read the wikileaks cables. Search on keywords like ‘genetic*’, ‘biotech*’.
    GM techniques can be helpful to verify roles of genes, go ahead, get your grants, use your licensed techniques. But don’t forget whose game you’re playing in if you go out promoting GM food.

    1. johnnaroose Post author

      Thanks for commenting. You are correct about the current state of cultivated GM crops, which I have mentioned in some of my previous posts. My two cents about the opposing PR-strategies for Golden Rice and RoundUp Ready/Bt crops… Developers of Golden Rice are trying to undo the mess that the other crops have created by their lack of transparency. The Big Ag developers have done the public a huge disservice in their implementation of these crops. They chose easy targets to allow them to double dip in profits and increase their bottom lines. They took advantage of the fact that most modern eaters are so far removed from their food sources (or that we place too much blind trust in systemic regulations) so that the majority wouldn’t notice until their GMO crops dominated the market. You are right. This loss of public trust may be something that no amount of goodwill or philanthropic intentions can overcome for the sake of GMO’s with other (more complicated to unravel) traits. If that’s the case, then any GMO seeds must be confined to the lab until the situation changes and research efforts must focus on other methods. If that’s the case, then there is no possible future where GMO seeds are available as varieties developed by regional USDA Ag Extension Offices along with other new hybrids and breeds. If that’s the case, then a lot of people must start eating something else to remove the demand within the market and shift it toward non-GMO options.

  2. Pingback: GMO Poll Results | New Under The Sun Blog

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