James, of the Giant Corn, asks an interesting question:
Do most people who work in the agricultural biodiversity field not like genetic engineering (and even plant breeders)?
This is prompted by his reading of Gary Nabhan’s Where our food comes from, which is about Vavilov and crop diversity and much else besides. James, who is studying for a PhD in plant biology at UC Berkeley, seems to think that the world — or at least Gary Nabhan — has it in for plant breeders and even more so for genetic engineers. I think it is salutary that a plant scientist, someone who has worked on teosinte and it’s more selected form, maize, had barely heard of Vavilov in all his training, and I’m really glad that he has now discovered Nabhan’s book (no matter what he thinks of it) and, more importantly, Vavilov. Here’s part of how I answered his question, in haste:
[T]he greater one’s awareness of agricultural biodiversity, the stronger is the impression that single “breeding” solutions, especially in relation to pest and disease resistance, are inevitably overtaken by the much more rapid evolutionary turnover of pests and diseases. Genetic engineering is even more simple minded than classical plant breeding, transferring just one or a few genes, and is thus even more prone to being overtaken by evolution on the part of the pest or disease. And for nutritional changes, dietary diversity delivers so many additional benefits compared to biofortified staples, that we find it odd that so much money and effort goes into the former and so little into the latter.
In his reply, James talked about stacking resistance genes and high vitA corn (maize) and conceded that both were a lot more work than genetic engineering, especially without molecular markers. My own view, for what it is worth, is that genetic engineering only seems faster. To truly have an impact, the constructs really ought to be put into a wide range of varieties that will thrive in a wide range of conditions. That takes time. So does clearing the regulatory hurdles. And in the end, at least so far, the bottom-line yield gains have hardly been worth sharpening a pencil to write home about.
I am definitely not against plant breeding, nor am I against genetic engineering per se. I do think that genetic engineering has been appallingly managed, has yet to deliver anything of interest to the people who actually have to eat its products (apart from the first ever cleared product, GE tomato paste), and has sucked vast gobs of cash and a few good minds from more interesting and more (intellectually) rewarding science. Other than that, I personally have nothing against it.
In other news: The Scientist Gardener reports that Monsanto’s patent on its first generation herbicide resistant Roundup Ready soybean is about to expire! and suggests that “[w]e’d be even better off (more competition, more disruptive technologies) if we loosened up genetic engineering regulation and let the small guys play”.
Now there’s a thought.