Genetically Modified Conservation

It sounds like an oxymoron, but genetic engineering is already ushering in a new brand of agriculture that slashes pesticide use and thrives in a warmer, wetter world.

By Erik Vance

In the mid-1940s, Norman Borlaug started the Green Revolution on a small farm in southern Mexico. His idea was simple. As the human population skyrocketed, he would grow a new kind of wheat with a thicker stem and bigger seed heads, thus increasing its yield and allowing farmers to grow more wheat—and feed more people—per acre.

The results were staggering. Within two decades, Mexico’s wheat harvest had swollen six-fold, thanks to crops descended from Borlaug’s original modified wheat. Borlaug then turned his talents toward rice in the Philippines, and high-yield crops spread into almost every major food staple. In all, Borlaug’s revolution helped feed millions of people in poor and developing countries who would otherwise have starved—an achievement that earned him the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

But the Green Revolution wasn’t “green” in the modern sense of the word. In fact, it exacted a huge environmental toll. Its crops require liberal use of fertilizer and pesticides that bleed into the land and sea, poisoning wildlife and creating nitrogen-rich dead zones in the oceans.

Ronald envisions a future dominated not by Monsanto-like corporations but by small partnerships between farmers and scientists.

Now, with climate change threatening to upend many of the world’s crops, a new generation of researchers is poised to correct some of the original revolution’s flaws and rethink agriculture once again. One of its newest spokespersons is Pam Ronald, a University of California, Davis, researcher who sees a future dominated not by Monsanto-like corporations but by small partnerships between farmers and scientists.

By combining genetically modified crops with organic farming and other eco-friendly practices, Ronald believes, we can create a system that slashes pesticide use, insulates crops against floods and drought, and protects the livelihoods of poor farmers in the developing world. To many, the idea of using genetic engineering as a conservation tool is an oxymoron, but the scales may finally be tipping in Ronald’s favor.

Her ideas have drawn attention at the highest levels and become a favorite of opinion makers such as Michael Pollan and Bill Gates. What’s more, they serve as a stark reminder that genetically modified foods are here—whether we like it or not. Which means that, at a time when we need to reinvent the world’s food supply, the critical question may be: can we get it right?

Ronald is an unlikely genetic-engineering advocate
. Pulling into her driveway, I see that her yard looks like that of any eco-foodie. Her garden—a tangled mix of herbs and native plants—has a happy, New Age feel. Her barn sports a mural that is “Diego Rivera meets Cesar Chavez.” And her husband, Raoul Adamchak, is an organic farmer.

But Ronald, a plant geneticist, is also an unabashed supporter of genetically modified (GM) crops. Her recent book on the benefits of bioengineered organic crops, Tomorrow’s Table (which she co-wrote with Adamchak), has started reshaping the way we look at GM foods. (1)

While the GM debate has traditionally been focused on genetically modified corn and other lucrative foodstuffs, Ronald has been doing pioneering work on a crop that is largely ignored: rice.  In fact, while companies such as Monsanto pour billions into GM crops, rice research is almost solely the province of publicly funded academics. “The big companies aren’t working on broccoli or carrots—there’s just not enough profit in that,” she says. “And they don’t work on rice. It feeds half the world, but it doesn’t feed the wealthy half.”

Sitting in her eclectic, pesticide-free garden, she says rice could be the ideal proving ground for genetic engineering to improve the environment while preparing for a warmer world.

Take flooding, for instance. No one knows for certain how much flooding will increase as the planet warms, but scientists believe it will become more frequent and last longer in places such as Southeast Asia, where it already causes around $1 billion in annual damage to rice crops.

That’s why Ronald’s lab teamed up with colleague Dave Mackill in the late 1990s to create a species of rice that could be submerged for weeks during a flood and still survive. Unlike many crops, rice has a dizzying number of varieties (as many as 140,000), all with distinct genetic codes. Mackill had found one from eastern India with an unusual ability to live underwater for long spans. So Ronald’s team undertook the painstaking task of sorting through the genome until they found a single gene that seemed to act as a “master switch” for flood tolerance.

It was a neat trick, but the researchers wanted something that could be used easily by poor rice farmers. One method would have been to slice the gene out and simply slide it into a commercial crop, making it “genetically modified.” However, they finally decided to simply breed the old with the new while targeting that specific place in the gene that held the precious submergence trait. This so-called “marker-assisted” breeding blends genetic work with old-school, dirty-fingernails farming. Because the actual genetic transfer was done in rice fields rather than labs, the new strain is not considered modified and is thus under less scrutiny from government agencies.

In a 2006 paper in Nature, the team announced a new strain of rice that could survive two weeks totally underwater. What’s more, it was easy to grow. By the end of this year, the new, flood-proof rice will cover 125,000 acres in four countries. Next year that’s projected to jump ten-fold. (2)

And Ronald says this is just the beginning. Flooding is one of climate change’s three key threats to agriculture—drought and pest outbreaks are the other two—and Ronald believes lab-aided rice can be designed to resist them all. She is just beginning to work on drought-tolerant rice, and she believes a bug and weed resistant rice could slash the amount of pesticides rice farmers spew into the environment.

For Ronald, it’s an example of how genetic engineering has accomplished exactly what many environmentalists and organic farmers want. Genetically modified cotton is a prime example. Little more than a decade ago, farmers in China started using  “Bt cotton,” a genetically engineered variety containing a protein that kills pests but is nontoxic to mammals. (The Bt protein is a favorite insecticide among organic farmers.) Within four years, the Chinese cotton farmers reduced their annual use of poisonous insecticides by 70,000 metric tons—almost as much as is used in all of California each year.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Opponents of genetic engineering worry that GM food carries some still-undiscovered health risks or that it’s just a tool for big corporations to sell more pesticides. And Doug Gurian-Sherman, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, worries that expensive GM research siphons money from less-sexy techniques. He says he likes marker-led breeding but wants to see more money spent on organic techniques that reduce sprawling monocultures and mix together crops, more like a natural ecosystem.

For Ronald, the danger of pesticides far outweighs that of switching a few base pairs in the DNA. She frequently notes that there’s no record of anyone ever becoming sick from a GM crop. On the other hand, pesticides kill 200 to 1,000 Americans a year, according to the World Health Organization.

Ronald also points out that the debate over GM revolves around several false dichotomies. While naysayers declare genetic modification to be a new and evil practice, for example, Ronald says the line between “genetically engineered” and “traditional” crops really exists only in the media and politics. For scientists, she says, it’s more of a continuum—with traditional breeding on one end and crops with genes borrowed from vastly different creatures on the other. “It’s not the process that is good or bad, it’s the product,” she says.

Another false trade-off is the idea that embracing GM means doing away with other environmentally friendly agriculture practices. If we are to feed the world without destroying the planet, Ronald believes, we must incorporate not just GM but also many ideas promoted by organic farmers, such as crop rotations and crop diversity.

To explain what might finally tip the scales in GM’s favor, Ronald points to the situation in the developing world. As global warming grinds forward, poor subsistence farmers will be devastated by food insecurity far more than the wealthy West.  “If farmers don’t change the seed they’re planting now, in 25 years they’re going to be getting half the yield,” Ronald says. She believes altering rice and other crops—such as strains of bananas crucial to small African economies—could help prevent future famine, much in the way that Borlaug’s wheat spared millions of people from starvation. If we’re going to accomplish that, environmentalists need to think more broadly. “You don’t have to choose between productivity and sustainability,” she says, leaning back and looking around her ecclectic garden. “You can have both.” ❧

Literature Cited:

1.Ronald, P.C. and R.W. Adamchak. 2008. Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Oxford University Press, New York.

2.  Xu, K. et al. 2006. Sub1A is an ethylene-response-factor-like gene that confers submergence tolerance to rice. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature04920.

Erik Vance is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California. His writing has been featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nature, Mental Floss, and the Utne Reader.



  • Lexie Environmental August 27, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    No health risks have proved to be linked to the consumption of transgenic corn. Lexie Environmental


  • brian September 1, 2010 at 9:06 am

    This article also points to a possible trend towards acceptance of “kinds” of gmo’s. Defining terms is so important. In my mind there is a big difference between mixing types of rice on the one hand and splicing, say, fish or human genes into the plant on the other (which is what a lot of people are thinking when they talk about GMO).

    As to the argument that no demonstrated health risks have been linked to transgenic corn, I would argue that testing is not near as stringent as it should be. To many GMO corn is corn is corn. Period. So why test? And of course you run into the problem of “kinds” mentioned in my previous paragraph. Do I have to test a new rice that has the genes of a stronger verity of rice spliced into it? Or just ones with strains of viruses and animal genes?

    I think when we enter the GM debate, what kind of GM should be clarified and settled on or the discussion will be really about nothing useful.


    • Steve October 14, 2010 at 4:59 am

      What do you know about the regulatory process for GMO’s??? It is quite involved. I agree that it is an evolving process, but the bases are covered at this point.


      • Jordan October 15, 2010 at 6:24 pm

        Covered?!?! There is almost NO testing of GMOs in the United States at this point. In addition, those who are part of/have stake in corporations such as Monsanto are PART of the FDA- you know, the ones who DETERMINE the amount of testing needed.

  • brian September 1, 2010 at 9:29 am

    “The Bt protein is a favorite insecticide among organic farmers.” This is true, but is also exactly why organic farmers are so upset with it being used in GMO’s. When insects become resistent to Bt, big-corps have a whole lot more options open to them, organic farmers do not. Not only is it a favorite among organic farmers, it is one of the few choices they have.

    Also, the goal in organic farming tends towards (or should tend toward) limiting the use of insecticides such as Bt to necessary cases. Only about 10% of organic farmers use Bt in the first place. While with GMO’s it is either there or it isn’t. No one is going to say, “Hey, let’s skip Bt potatoes this year and see what happens”. I think this was not only a bad example, it is a false analogy.

    In the end, we are talking about saving crops from things like flood, heat or cold. These solutions don’t carry with it the myriad of side issues that solutions to other problems carry such as the buildup of resistance by weeds and insects.


  • hanns r herren September 30, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    The problem with the approach outlined in Erik Vance’s article is that for one, GMOs address symptoms linked to bad agronomic practices, rather than tackling the root causes of, for example pest and disease problems, low yields. We do know already today how to grow a healthy plant that tolerates some levels of pests and diseases (incl weeds). We also know that its the soil fertility that prevents most of the yield potential we already have in our landraces and improved varieties to be realized. What is needed more than genetic engineering is to understand the soil-plant-pest-environment interactions. BTW re rice research, the fact is that a very large amount of money is flowing towards genetic work in many institutions, and in particular to the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines from the Gates Foundations and other donors.

    The idea that we need more food has been debated sufficiently to now put that topic behind us, and concentrate on who, what and where we grow it. The IAASTD report series “Agriculture at a Crossroads” basically the IPCC of agriculture, has analyzed agriculture as we know it today in great details and given a set of options for action directed at policy makers and the scientific community. The basic message to the questions on how agriculture can improve hunger and poverty, reduce inequity and improve rural livelihood, improve nutrition and health, this in a manner that is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable is: business as usual is not an option.

    It further recommend to transition the present unsustainable agricultural practices, in the industrialized and developing countries, to sustainable models such as organic, agroecology, agroforestry etc. On the genetic engineering front, the report say that so far no useful outcomes have been produced to deal with the set of questions it was addressing, but that research may continue. The present GMOs have additional problems with intellectual property issues, long term dependency on a few corporations (not sure how Pam Ronald wants to escape the present ownership of transformation methods, germplasm, markets and politician by Monsanto and few others.

    We have to reinvent an agriculture that is in harmony with its environment, and that includes people (farmers and consumers). Agri culture are two words, as defined by Jules Pretty. We need more diversity within species and varieties, not less, and we need also more crops to nourish us (feeding btw is used for animals).


  • Diego October 11, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Its funny how she advocates GMOs as a possible way of changing the world to a better place but keeps her yard organic and probably would never usem them for herself..
    I am very dissapointed at Conservation Magazine for publishing such an article. Promoting GMOs is and will always be working against nature conservation and promoting the loss of agrobiodiversity. This magazine doesn’t deserve its name anymore.


    • Steve October 14, 2010 at 5:05 am

      The reason why she is probably still growing organic in her yard is because she is doing it for fun. If her crop fails she will run down to Whole Foods and probably buy more food at one time than most people eat in a month on this planet. This is the exact same reason by the way that you have no real concept of the gravity of this debate.
      I for one applaud Conservation Magazine for this article. Conservationists need to understand that technology will facilitate the goals we seek…preserving biodiversity and ecosystems. And the obtuse vision of “all organic” could very well be the detriment of their goals.


  • Steve October 14, 2010 at 7:25 am

    There is noone pon our planet more learned, well versed, or concerned about biodiversity than Proff Edward O. Wilson. His comments on GMO’s and agribiz.


  • Steven Earl Salmony October 19, 2010 at 9:53 am

    One day, I trust population dynamics experts will take direction action by discussing extant scientific evidence of human population dynamics and the human overpopulation of Earth, despite conspicuous resistance to discussions of this kind. For a moment imagine that human overpopulation of a living Earth is like a live human organism with lung cancer. Please note that although it is exceedingly difficult to talk about �the big C�, it is much more demanding to speak out about the cause of the lung cancer: smoking tobacco products. Similarly, despite the challenges we have to speaking out loudly and clearly about the skyrocketing increase of absolute global human population numbers during my lifetime, it is much more difficult say anything about what might be causing global human population growth. Of course that brings us to human population dynamics. Perhaps this is the last of the last taboos. The denial of the science of human population dynamics appears to me as one of the most colossal failures of nerve in human history. The abandonment of intellectual honesty, moral courage responsible action is unconscionable. Could what is culturally prescribed, socially correct, economically expedient and politically convenient be buttressing our propensity to make so great a mistake?

    Human population dynamics will become a topic of open discussion soon, that is certain. Global gag rules will be eschewed rather than promulgated. When that time comes, I trust it is not too late to make a difference in the lives of our children, who are probably going to be unimaginably victimized not only by the arrogance, folly and greed of their elders but also by their cowardice.

    Lester Brown reminds us now that “civilization�s foundation is eroding”. He and we pay careful attention to the distinctly human-driven symptoms of what ails us and report them everywhere; but when will we examine the possible causes of the ailment itself and report findings of what appears to be a non-recursive biological problem? If the human overpopulation of Earth is the problem, when is extant scientific evidence of human population dynamics to become the object of rigorous scrutiny, careful analysis and professional reports?

    Many too many experts possess scientific knowledge of human population dynamics and human overpopulation of the Earth, I believe. They have remained electively mute. They know and could do better; they have both the tools and the empirical evidence at their fingertips; they are abdicating their responsibility in raising awareness of the those that still do not yet see and understand the human-induced aspects of the global predicament looming before humanity.

    Many experts have had a multitude of opportunities to comment on human population dynamics and the human overpopulation of Earth in professional conferences like those sponsored every four years by the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population and in an array of speciality journals dedicated to human ecology, population biology, human demography, etc. The experts have uniformly refused. Their abject failure to respond more ably to the challenges presented to humanity in our time is woefully inadequate and inexcusable. It would be unfortunate if the silence of so many was ever construed as giving consent to this ignominous behavior.

    Let us look for a moment at the human population dynamics research by Hopfenberg and Pimentel on human population numbers as a function of food supply. The evidence in their article, Human Population Numbers as a Function of Food Supply, is correlational data. The evidence appears to indicate the presence of a non-recursive biological problem; the independent variable is the food supply and the dependent variable is human population numbers. What could this correlation mean? Well, if we stop and think about it, it would reverse the widely shared, consensually validated and culturally syntonic idea that human beings are increasing the food supply to feed a growing population. According to prevailing thought, human population numbers is the independent variable and food is the dependent variable.

    Perhaps a correct understanding of this relationship has potentially profound implications for the future of life on Earth. Whether human population numbers is the dependent or independent variable is what matters. The correlational data from Hopfenberg and Pimentel indicates the former. Human population numbers is the dependent variable. Since 2001 I have stated that this evidence from Hopfenberg/Pimentel provides us with the best available scientific evidence of human population dynamics. This evidence directly contradicts data from many sources that indicate human population numbers is the independent variable.

    Except for the human species, no other species increases the food supply for its consumption. Other species live within the carrying capacity the Earth and its environs provide them for existence. If human beings are actually driving food production, and not the other way around, then we humans are truly exceptional. And if we choose to believe we are exceptional with regard to our population dynamics, then I believe we are no longer speaking of scientific evidence but rather in logically contrived, ideologically forced and culturally biased terms.

    Will a professional in a field of study with appropriate expertise please point to the peer-reviewed, published research that supports the hypothesis that the population dynamics of human beings is essentially different from, not common to, the population dynamics of other living things? Where is the scientific evidence for such human exceptionalism in the population dynamics of the human species to be found? While much preternatural evidence has been presented as if it was acceptable evidence of human exceptionalism, I can find no adequate science that indicates human population dynamics is different from the population dynamics of other species.

    Thank you for taking the time to consider this perspective.




  • Deanna November 11, 2010 at 11:36 am

    Yes freaking yes, See it all revolves around the faulty government. Whatever they say will go in the end, and if they want GMO then that’s what it will be. Who has the upper hand here? Of course the FDA is part of it, after all it is governmentally funded. I have been telling people for the past 4 years now to stalk up on seeds use what they do in the panting season and save the rest in a dry dark corner. If you have many seeds of different things, that’s great. I have been using seeds that I have had for over 5 years, Quantity at the time was thought only of hearing about genetically modified foods to hit you stores soon. Plugging in honey bees and DMO into Google search engine will help people to see how bad these foods will be on us in the long-term affect. CANCER over a period of time is what happens. Whether you think so or not, you are born with cancer cells it is up to your life style to which cancer you will have or not have. GMO will create cancer in the abdomen in the lining of you stomach. OUCHY!!!!!
    Look into it if it does it to the honey bees who get food from the GMO and what it has in it KILLS them before they can make its way back to the hive. Studies I have looked at showed that healthy bee’s have pinkish yellow bellies and when they were mixed with the GMO’s it turned the bellys to a blackish brown and was starting to turn hard.
    Im sorry but in the long run what will that do to us what will that do to the honey bee’s and then what will happen to the plants that needed to be pollinated by these bee’s we no longer have. Will the scientists look at doing GMO’s for everything and just kill off Southeast Asia because they are doing so much GMO practices there. I think that GMO is in the long run chemical warfare.
    AMEN to that, Did god say that he wanted things to change that drastically that he wanted his people to killed off by his prestigious people (Scientists) is that the only world there will be in 2035. A band of smart well rounded people to start the new world. Hello; kill us off slowly please.


  • Lance November 27, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    It doesn’t seem that anyone wants to discuss the uncomfortable and politically incorrect concept of how the “Green Revolution” brought about enormous population growth and because of this growth Borlaug suggested we need a second “Green Revolution” but this time with GMO’s.

    In my opinion it is the mentality of “Build it and they will come”. Do we really want to live on a planet of an ever increasing human population. More food equals more people. Is that the only thing people are concerned about anymore? Is anyone concerned about biodiversity and maybe a comfortable and sustainable human population?

    Once we can get rid of the attitude of we must always grow then maybe we can make some fundamental changes in a sustainable lifestyle and coexistence on the planet.

    Also, the above article mentions how the first “Green Revolution” was thought of as a Nobel Peace Prize wining concept until later we realized how many chemicals were being used and wreaking havoc all over the planet. Once GMO’s are everywhere and saving human life all over what will we learn in the future?


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  • Zak Henderson January 12, 2015 at 5:02 am

    You just re-posted a four year old story that was terrible even back then.
    It says rice is ignored by genetic modifying scientists. This author had never heard of hhe Golden Rice controversy? Unbelievable.
    Just one ignorant statement after another in this article.

    Take me off your mailing list.


  • John January 12, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    Whenever someone says “You don’t have to choose between this or that. You can have both,” run away really, really fast.


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