We can basically all agree that the best way to feed the world would involve as little spraying as possible, as few added chemicals as possible, have plants defend themselves against pests or diseases, and then have them carry as many nutrients as possible to our plates, right? We pretty much all want food that is better for us, better for the environment, and better for the farmers. Luckily for me, you, and your local farmer: there is a reliable and safe way to accomplish this.
When you read the title you probably immediately thought of the organic movement, right? After all, if you ask any normal person you will be told that organic is about creating food with fewer environmental impacts and reduced dependence on toxic chemicals. But, what if I told you that the type of technique I am talking about is currently banned from organic growing, despite fulfilling this description more completely than the crops you are thinking of?
To get to the heart of the matter, I set up an interview with Professor Dr. Karsten Niehaus of Bielefeld University’s Center for Biotechnology. Dr. Niehaus is the supervisor of proteomic and metabolic research in Bielefeld, as well as helping administrate research into both the safety testing of pesticides and other chemicals, as well as genetic engineering. He was an esteemed speaker at the CeBiTec’s 2015 biotechnology conference, and describes himself as an environmentally conscious vegetarian since over 25 years.
“Genetic engineering is no more dangerous than any other technology. If you compare it to architecture or engineering, then we both know that architects can design brilliant, but also faulty, structures. At the same time, would it be appropriate to describe architecture or engineering as dangerous because a bridge could fall down? That isn’t a rational argument.” Karsten Niehaus
We discussed the safety and potential of genetically modified crops, as well as comparing the techniques to conventional methods, and also discussed how safety testing of industrial chemicals for companies is done at the university. Most of what he said contradicts how the average person thinks any of this works, so we’ll go through it piece-by-piece.
Here are excerpts of the interview:
Me: What ways are probably best suited for improving how much food we are able to produce on the same amount of land?
Niehaus: Well, improving yield is always an epistatic (multigene) question. We can improve how well the plants absorb nutrients, change their source-sink qualities, reduce their production of low-nutrient carbohydrates like lignin or cellulose, increase their tolerance towards abiotic stress like temperature and flood/drought tolerance, and make them immune to common pathogens.
Me: What ways are there to go about doing this?
Niehaus: We can use natural mutants, like they are doing for drought/flood resistance in Lima, Peru, to help identify genes that enable this. The identification of genotypes allows us to potentially improve and then introduce these genes into existing commercial strains that have already been optimized for yield and other qualities.
Me: What differences are there between when you breed the naturally skilled mutants directly with existing crops, and when you introduce the gene directly?
Niehaus: When you try to breed the mutant strain into the commercial strain, you have an increased risk of losing any number of genes that are important. The mutants are almost always based on wild types, which are often not very good for cultivation compared to the commercial species. You risk losing fewer of the useful traits you already have when you introduce the gene, as opposed to trying to breed it in.
Me: What about resistance to diseases or parasites, aren’t these seen more often in wild type crops?
Niehaus: Wild type plants tend to have improved resistance to diseases, and crossing wild type with commercial plants takes about 10 years for the pathogen resistance gene to be acquired correctly in the commercial strain.
Ironically, there is typically there is about a 10 year lag between a genetic resistance emerging and the pathogen developing a way around the defense. This means that conventional attempts to defeat pathogens, as seen with the tobacco mosaic virus or papaya ringspot virus, can barely keep up with the pathogen. This can be more effectively accomplished with genetic engineering using single resistance genes.
Me: So including genes that make a plant immune to a pathogen is a lot more simple than improving yield through other means?
Niehaus: That’s correct, you can engineer the ability for the plant to recognize or resist the pathogen in a single gene, and you can get this done in a single year compared to the 10 needed when using conventional breeding techniques.
Me: Most of these techniques require adding or modifying proteins. Would there be any reason that genetically modified foods would be more likely to trigger allergies?
Niehaus: There is no reasonable suspicion that GM foods would carry greater potential for allergens. Unless the added protein is related to an existing allergen, the probability is very low. In the case of antisense RNA technology (gene silencing), there is literally no chance whatsoever for allergies.
Me: Are there circumstances where genetically engineered crops could have an increased chance of triggering allergies?
Niehaus: It all depends on whether a protein was added, and whether that protein is related to existing or known allergens. In circumstances where allergies are possible, for instance when using brazil nut protein, then it would simply need to carry a label warning that it may contain nuts, and if it is used in animal feed then this risk is also removed completely.
Me: Why would it make sense to incorporate brazil nut protein into other crops?
Niehaus: The brazil nut has proteins which contain high levels of lysine, which is one of the least common amino acids found in our foods. Rice, for instance, has high carbohydrate content but very low levels of lysine, and it would reduce malnutrition to consider adding brazil nut protein alongside increased levels of ß-carotene in crops like golden rice.
Me: Would there be any chance that inserted genes could be transferred to other plants, to bacteria, or to humans?
Niehaus: There is very little chance of the genes from plants being transferred to either bacteria or humans. Our bodies protect themselves from foreign DNA, and every foreign protein gets precedence in being degraded by the proteosome.
Keep in mind that in the millions of years of human existence, and our even longer existence as a member of the primate family: we have only accumulated about 100 bacterial genes in our chromosomes despite them outnumbering our cells 10:1. In the event a gene did ever end up a human cell, there is little to no chance of it ending up in every cell, and affected cells have a higher chance of being targeted by T natural killer cells.
Me: Is there any chance of resistance genes transferring to bacteria, or spreading to wild populations?
Niehaus: So far there has been no example of inserted genes being taken up by bacteria or other populations. In most cases the added genes supply no advantage in selection, and in the example of pathogen resistance: most wild populations already have the resistance genes.
In many instances the modified organisms would not even survive the winter to be able to multiply, an example would be growing GM corn in Germany. Although we don’t allow it, there would be no potential for the GM corn to contaminate conventional corn or other plants.
Me: Is there a consensus about the safety of GM crops?
Niehaus: There’s no total consensus, but opponents have little to not factual basis for their arguments. Keep in mind that some jobs depend on GM opposition.
Me: Should people trust experts and scientists about the safety of GM crops above others speaking on the topics?
Niehaus: Yes, of course. The use of technology always carries potential dangers, and genetic engineering is no more dangerous than any other technology. If you compare it to architecture or engineering, then we both know that architects and engineers can design brilliant, but also faulty, structures. At the same time, would it be appropriate to describe architecture or engineering as dangerous because a bridge could fall down? That isn’t a rational argument.
An engineer or architect has a better capacity to point our structural problems in your building plans than someone of another discipline or a laymen. A building may appear unsteady to an uninformed observer, but judging its actual integrity should be based on science and expert analysis. A philosopher can no more capably judge the danger of a building collapsing or catching fire as they can judge the safety of GM crops.
Me: You said the university is sometimes given the job of testing the safety of different chemicals, like pesticides, could you explain how this works?
Niehaus: Basic research is frequently given to universities, because the labor of doctorates is cheaper and the university is an independant institution. The request is sent to the university, who reply with a list of costs to the company (upon which 75% is added to help the university survive). The university then gives the project and the reagents to the doctorates. The doctorates don’t have direct contact with the company, and their pay comes from the university and is completely independent of their findings, so it’s a process with no conflict of interest.
Me: Do you see any problem with the inclusion of genetically modified crops that don’t require extra chemicals being allowed into the organic/bio category?
Niehaus: I see no reason why that shouldn’t be allowed, it certainly makes sense.
The most sustainable utopic future I can picture has crops grown without needing to import or spray anything onto them or into the soil. In such a future, governments and companies will do their best to increase the ability of plants to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and get phosphorous from the soil. They will resist pests that try to eat them and prevent diseases that could kill them without any added chemicals, use the soil more efficiently, and be more nutritious when we eat them.
This world sounds like the epitome of organic, but the reality is that organic probably doesn’t really mean what you think it means. Organic crops are allowed to use pesticides, and they aren’t necessarily less toxic than synthetic ones. Crops like golden rice, which would provide much-needed vitamin A (through increased ß-carotene) to the poor in many third world nations, and is offered for free to any farmer who earns less than $10,000 a year, are routinely attacked by an uninformed mass of “anti-GM activists” and blocked from reaching those who they would help the most.
Ecologically sound agriculture isn’t about ideology, but about environmental impact. Pyrethroid, a common organic pesticide, is produced from plants and then shipped overseas for use by US farmers. How is this, or spraying Bt (also allowed in organic) preferable to having the plants protect themselves from insects?
The newest development in pest-biotechnology even allows a super-targeted pest-resistance against fungus and insects by hiding gene silencing against these specific genes inside the chloroplasts of the plants. This uses antisense technology to drive away pests, meaning no added protein, meaning no potential whatsoever for allergies. Combining these traits with increased yield and carbon fixation would be the smartest and most environmentally sound method to increase how much food we get from the same piece of land, so why is this prevented from being classified as organic?
At the same time, we should be asking why so many people are doing the equivalent of asking a hairdresser about structural integrity of some building they just saw. Keep in mind that just because something may seem unstable in your picture doesn’t necessarily mean the structure is actually unsound.