Plant Biotechnology, black boxes, and the Complex World.

The Quiet Branches is joining the SciLogs network. I’m excited to be a part of it! I’ll continue to crosspost here too. I look forward to continuing to share the world of plant science and the picture of the plant world revealed by plant science there. This first post will discuss some thoughts on communicating science and particularly when it takes on things that are controversial (at least outside the scientific community) using Genetically Modified plants as an example. I also like to dive back into history in my posts.

A little bit about me: I’m currently a postdoc at Dartmouth College looking to transition into writing or editing. I own a cat. I’m an introvert. I love pub trivia though don’t have a team currently. I’m a podcast junkie, especially ones that tell stories or highlight something new to me.

And to be transparent about funding sources, etc. I pay for the domain of this blog myself. I don’t have ads, sponsors, or a Patreon account currently.

I know several scientists that work in industry, including Monsanto (I did my Ph.D. at Washington U. in St. Louis & several people I went to grad school with now work there and I’ve run across a few others over the years at conferences they in part sponsor, specifically the American Society of Plant Biologists Annual Meeting.

 I am more pro-biotech than not, though I consider each implementation of biotech on a case-by-base basis. There is a market for better and improved plants, both selectively bred and GM. Biotech & farming can and should benefit the people and societies that use them. i’m an optimist. I think there can be a resilient and green future where we feed the world’s population. I believe it will take a lot of the tools in our toolbox, including biotechnology.

So you can get a sense of my posts from the last year, I’ve linked to several of them in this post (as well as links to outside Quiet Branches sources).

OK, with all that out of the way, let’s dive in.

I’ll assert some things that I think near everyone agrees on:

  1. Plants (taken broadly as photosynthetic organisms) are essential to life on Earth, especially other animals and many fungi. They are critical for human civilization. Agriculture is the backbone of an economy. Food security drives economic diversification.
  2. There is some implementation of biotechnology that any individual person could support, even if it is just one implementation of it (e.g. bringing back the American Chestnut tree).
  3. Transparency matters and should be implemented as much as possible.
  4. Regulation of what is in and how food is grown/processed is important
  5. Science should inform policy and regulation.

 

The Long History of Genetic Modification

Life has been diversifying on Earth for at least 3 billion years. For around 2 billion of that, oxygenic photosynthesis has been going on. Plants colonized land around 450 million years ago. In that time, there’s been a lot of gene and DNA shuffling. Bacteria ate each other and animals ended up with our cellular energy factories known as mitochondria. An ancient mitochondria-containing ancestor of modern plants engulfed a photosynthetic green bacteria that ended up as a chloroplast. Both mitochondria and chloroplasts have their own genomes. In modern organisms, however, much of this DNA has been transferred to the host’s genome. Many horizontal gene transfers (across species gene transfer), genome duplications, natural selection, and many extinctions have lead to us and the contemporary world. Nature was the first genetic engineer and we’re a part of it.

For the last few centuries, people have been intensively studying the world trying to understand nature beyond direct human perception. Many individuals steadily working to build ever better narratives and models about how nature works. Modern civilization is built on science (as well as those that think about science, apply science, and think about philosophy of science). That includes plants.

For the last few centuries, people have been intensively studying the world trying to understand nature beyond direct human perception. Many individuals steadily working to build ever better narratives and models about how nature works. Modern civilization is built on science (as well as those that think about science, apply science, and think about the philosophy of science). That includes plants. There is good evidence for humans modifying plants for at least 10,000 years, through agriculture.

The broad types of modification by humans are crossing/hybridization (the oldest method), grafting, mutagenesis (chemical or radiation), and the most recent, inserting desired genes or taking them away in a targeted way using molecular biological approaches. All of these are to confer traits to a plant for research or applied purposes (to understand plants better or to find a better plant for food, medicine, shelter, fuel, or other purpose).

 

Making Sense of Genetics

Like many technologies today, genetics and biotechnology is somewhat of a black box to many that don’t study the field intensely. Even for those that do know about plant modification, it does not follow that they’ll be supportive of it in every case. Deficit models are often not sufficient to convince anyone whose identity or community values aren’t in favor of technology or science. People can believe what they like, though when opposing views meet in policy, education, or business arenas, fights can get nasty. People bring their previous life experiences and knowledge to new things they become aware of. Science is one of the best tools people have come up with to help overcome our many cognitive biases and it’s not perfect.

With health tonics like Coca-cola and the invention of cereals for health at JH Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, and lots of snake oil

In some ways, 2015 resembles the world of the late 19th century with new wonders and application of technology sprouting up everywhere & people moving around the world more (& yes, I know history is a lot longer and more complex than cutting it off at one time period). With health tonics like Coca-cola and the invention of cereals for health at JH Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, and lots of snake oil (used broadly here to mean medicines that don’t work). The wonders of chemistry were apparent and probably seemed magical and opaque as to what was behind them. For instance, Bayer trademarked and marketed both aspirin and heroin (yes that heroin) as pain relievers. Both do work, but both can have risks associated with their use (as far as I know, only aspirin is still used as medicine to this day). It was an active time where there was a lot to see, experience, and invent. And plants were used to enrich economies. It was not all safe or regulated; that would start to come in more as the 20th century moved on. Regulation, ethics and oversight are by no means perfect, but arguably in many places it’s the best it’s ever been.

The internet didn’t exist 150 years ago to help people find information about what might be real or a best practice in the 19th century (& it may not have helped). As the United States and other parts of the world industrialized (& globalized), damage was done to the environment and the healthiest . Some of it obvious, some, like climate change wouldn’t become readily apparent until years later.

 

Looking Ahead

The world of 2015 is more complex, much more populated (7,000,000,000 and counting), and there are new wonders being brought out all the time that we’re more able to hear about if we’re so inclined. Thinking critically and being open to changing your mind are as important as ever (i.e. no chemophobia).

 

However, it is also true that no one person can see everything or think critically about all of it. That means a lot of black boxes.

This world is exciting. However, it is also true that no one person can see everything or think critically about all of it. That means a lot of black boxes. I cannot build a computer from raw materials. I don’t know what’s behind every product I use, every user agreement I sign. There are entire fields of inquiry I’m ignorant of. Saying “I don’t know” and being curious is  One I am familiar with is plant biotechnology.

Because of the black boxes, trust and transparency may be more important than ever (within reason, being transparent to everyone at all times could be a full time job, distracting us from doing our actual jobs).

There are reasons to be skeptical of big companies because some have done despicable things in the past whether it’s abusing workers, caring only about profits and shareholders and not customers, or sometimes releasing bad/dangerous/toxic products or unleashing contamination to the environment, sometimes without knowingly doing so as a part of advancing technology. There are examples of all of the above, but there are also examples of good things companies have done too.

Whenever a profit motive exists, skepticism and regulation are warranted. Sometimes science aligns with industry products (scientific consensus on current GM products). Sometimes it is in opposition (climate change is pretty squarely in opposition to the fossil fuel industry who have been trying to sow doubt about climate science for decades). And as Nathanael Johnson points out, even without GM products, large biotech companies will still exist to sell farming systems, conventional seeds (with high-tech selective breeding) , and data to farmers. Monsanto is as much technology company as biotechnology company.

The scientific consensus on our current food system, at least in the West (including current biotechnology products) is that it is largely safe. Not that it couldn’t be improved in some measurable ways and that there are no instances of things like food poisoning– but generally safe and a lot of us can make choices about what we eat). That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a problematic plant product released, but hopefully the company itself, regulators, or customers will catch it before wide release (in case of the plant biotech industry, their customers are farmers). And right now, under current regulatory frameworks, it is largely the big companies that can even afford to bring a biotech plant to market. There are smaller, public and privately funded plant products that have a lot harder time going through the process, this actually incentivizes partnering with larger companies. The Obama administration has ordered a review and updating of biotechnology regulations, which I do think is a good idea to at least try and bring the regulations up to date with current technologies. In the US, that’s the USDA, FDA, and EPA’s jurisdiction largely (DOE if it’s a biofuel crop plant…it gets complicated quickly).

Feeding 9 Billion, Transparently

There are a lot of tools that can improve agriculture. Many can be applied regardless of whether a farmer is growing a GM crop or not. One is the push-pull strategy of pest management. Whatever we do, we need to provide food (not to mention the strictly luxury items of coffee, chocolate, beer, and wine) for 9,000,000,000 people by 2050. Well done science from academics, industry, and governments will be needed. Discussions about new developments will have to be had, not just with direct customers of biotech, but the public as well. A good regulatory framework that’s as open as possible will also be needed. 

If labels are insisted upon in the new framework, one idea I kick around in my head is that all food sold should be put into a database (GM or not) accessible by the web, QR code, or other means that would contain all the information about that product any consumer could want. The genetics of the plants, where they were grown, nutrition information, how it was shipped, and anything else deemed necessary to know. This way any consumer that cares can seek out exactly what is in the food they are buying whether it’s GM or not, whether it was from a small farm or not. A label needs to inform, not sow fear.

 

It is important to keep in mind that in the US, most of us do have enough to eat and can be a bit picky.

It is important to keep in mind that in the US, most of us do have enough to eat and can be a bit picky. If GM plants can help a food insecure place become more so (where conventional crops aren’t working as well), then that is a good solution to feeding someone that would otherwise starve and that is a good thing in the world.

Humans are a part of nature. Horizontal gene transfers have happened for a long time. Humans just happen to have learned how to do it in a targeted and controlled way. There’s a lot our ingenuity can do to help us manage/conserve the environment and feed the world’s growing population. As I’ve written before, we’ve defied Thomas Malthus’ prediction of population growth causing food shortages. With big challenges ahead, we can’t limit our tool box to innovate our way to a thriving future.

 

 


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