It turns out that carefully engineering new plant strains to take advantage of specific genetic traits isn’t a modern idea after all. Yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, a Japanese research team published evidence that early humans were practicing “artificial selection” of plant genes as early as 10,000 years ago. It’s going to be decidedly more difficult from now on for opponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to position themselves as vanguards of biological purity. (There’s a word for people whose views of technology pre-date cavemen: Neanderthals.)
Of course, cross-breeding and laboratory GMO techniques aren’t exactly the same thing, but the main difference between the two isn’t fundamental; it’s just a matter of accuracy. In a nutshell, scientists today can pluck a single gene out of one plant and transfer it to another, which allows for far more precision than nature’s model of mixing 50% of one genetic profile with 50% of another. For example, the rice genome contains 390 million different base pairs of genes, which makes traditional cross-breeding little more than a roll of the dice compared to what a single lab-coated genius can accomplish.
To (grossly) oversimplify, it’s helpful to think of plant genomes like two companies that are about to join together. Consider what happened in February when AOL bought The Huffington Post. For its $315 million, AOL acquired all of the online media outlet: some parts it liked, and others it probably wasn’t too excited about.
We don’t know exactly what those undesirable traits might be. (The San Francisco Chronicle has taken a stab at identifying them.) But what if AOL had been able to acquire “HuffPo” selectively—annexing only the parts that made sense for its business, and leaving the rest to wither on the vine?
Now strike AOL, and insert rice (or potatoes, or beets, or soybeans, or corn). More and more of the world is coming around to the idea that GMOs are a blessing and not a curse because they allow us to pick and choose which characteristics are helpful—drought-tolerance or disease resistance, for example—and which ones are downright counterproductive. And it’s not lost on smart observers that of the most desirable plant traits can boost yields, producing vastly more food for an increasingly hungry (and growing) world.
Even Bolivian socialist strongman president Evo Morales joined the twenty-first century this week.
As recently as last year, Morales was promising that a five-year “transition period” would rid his South American country of GMOs. He even told a climate-change conference last year that eating GMOs caused baldness and homosexuality. (We’re not making that up.)
But yesterday Morales’s government announced that it will permit cultivation of bio-engineered crops in order to increase food production. We only wish Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Organic Consumers Association, the misnamed “Center for Food Safety,” and other food-scare groups would do a similarly decent thing.