This week, I went to hear a science lecture at Skidmore College, "Can We Still Feed the World in 2050?" by Professor Wilhelm Gruissem of ETH in Zurich.
As a serious vegetable gardener, I am, of course, monumentally interested in this question.
The answer, according to Professors Gruissem is yes, with GMOs. He is most interested in genetic manipulations that boost the nutritional value of staple crops such as rice and cassava, as well as genes that fight pathogens that threaten crops like wheat and bananas–and not, thank God, in RoundUp readiness.
He said that he differed from his colleagues in genetic engineering, also, in believing it would be good if we farmed more diverse crops, rather than just improve the handful of monocultures that provide most of the world's food.
He also lamented the loss of diversity within different varieties of crops, and proposes turning the genetic variations in heirloom varieties of vegetables into information. He doesn't think seed banks like Svalbard are particularly useful to scientists–or farmers. "Farmers won't be growing these crops," he said. He thinks we need instead to create a giant database of the genetic riches in our vegetable varieties, so scientists can recreate and insert these old genes, should any of them prove valuable, into modern varieties.
Of course, that puts the burden of evolution squarely on the scientists' shoulders. No more adaptation in a field!
It's not easy, doing bioengineering in Europe, where GMOs are reviled. Professor Gruissem showed photos of activists destroying his field trials, his house spray-painted with anti-GMO slogans, and his wife's car covered in paint thinner.
And then he showed a slide of horrible American supermarket food, in order to illustrate how much more reasonable we Americans are. He said that he eats this food when he is in America and doesn't get sick, so what's the problem? (Sorry, buddy, but I feel much better about my agricultural experts when they also happen to be foodies!)
Professor Gruissem seems to have a great deal of contempt for the small farms that surround him in Switzerland–and the Swiss who think they need to see where their food grows. In America, we are more sensible, he said, because we believe food comes from the Safeway and we accept production agriculture.
I won't take the time to go into the many ways that production agriculture is an ecological and nutritional disaster. Ultimately, the problem of feeding the world is one of limited arable land and a rising population. And diverse small farms, which can produce more food on the same acreage than giant industrial monocultures–with less ecological damage–seem to me an important part of the answer.
Nonetheless, I do have an open mind about the possibilities of genetic engineering. But I would have assumed that this was a politically incorrect position. I seem to be wrong. The single most interesting thing about Professor Gruissem's lecture was that an audience of college students showed no outrage whatsoever in the Q&As about GMOs.
In fact, they largely left it up to Professor Gruissem to criticize Monsanto.
Has the battle for public opinion actually been won by Monsanto?