a bit of science for the summer
Bite-Sized Biology will be taking a short break over the summer. I know, I know… I’m bummed about it, too. But between being away for an intense seven-week cell biology class and studying for my PhD qualifying exam, I really won’t have any extra time for blogging. But don’t worry! There’s still lots of food and science fun to be had, and I’ll be back in action before you know it.
In the meantime, I thought I’d leave you with a few things to explore while I’m away. My last post got me thinking more about the way agriculture presents an interesting intersection of science, society, the economy, and the environment. This first piece explores what can happen when scienctific research conflicts with the economic interests of industry.
“The Pulse of Scientific Freedom in the Age of Biotech Industry”
With Arpad Pusztai, John Losey, Tyrone Hayes, and Ignacio Chapela.
Hosted by UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2003 (and with an eloquent introduction by Michael Pollan of The Omnivore’s Dilemma fame), this panel features four prominent scientists who have come under fire for making important scientific discoveries that question the practices of the agricultural biotech industry. One thing that really stands out to me in this conversation is the open-mindedness of the four scientists. None of these scientists purposely went after the biotech industry when they first started their research. Arpad Pusztai, for example, was genuinely surprised when he first discovered that genetically modified potatoes have adverse effects on rats. Unfortunately, industry has made it all but impossible to have a fair and open conversation about this kind of research. Says John Losey,
“If we can start to have negative [research] results as well as positive [research] results respected, then we can start to have some really constructive dialogue, and then we can really see if maybe some of these genetically modified organisms, transgenic plants, are going to actually be an environmentally sound option. But we can’t really get to that point, we can’t start making progress, until we can get past the battle lines.”
The second thing I’d like to share is a set of video lectures from iBioSeminars* about genetically modified crops.
Pamela Ronald, a professor at UC Davis, has an especially unique perspective on transgenic crops. Why? Because she’s married to an organic farmer! She and her husband, Raoul Adamchak, have even written a book together called Tomorrow’s Table (you may have heard about it from this guy). You can also check out Ronald’s blog if you’d like to read more about her thoughts on food, farming, and genetics.
In her video, Ronald brings up an important point about GMOs:
“It’s not the method of introducing genes that’s critical, but it’s the product. What is the variety that’s being developed, and who do those varieties benefit?… All new crops must be considered on a case by case basis. We cannot simply say that genetic engineering is all beneficial or all harmful; we really need to look at the crops developed through this technique.”
I’ve expressed a similar sentiment in my past posts about GMOs. “Genetically modified organism” is such a broad term that it really makes no sense to discount (or accept, for that matter) the potential benefit of a GMO simply because its DNA has been altered in some way. The real questions we need to ask should address the environmental, social, and economic impacts of each unique GMO. In her own work, which she explains in part two of her lecture, Ronald creates and studies disease- and flood-resistant transgenic rice to benefit farmers in third world countries. I think it will be interesting to watch the evolution of GMOs as more scientists turn to genetics to address the challenges of global food production and sustainability.
The issue of sustainability in agriculture is a common theme in Ronald’s lectures and a major issue now facing our food production system. In keeping with this theme, I’ll end with something a little more fun, but equally important:
And with that, I’m off. I wish you all wonderful summers full of science, discovery, and culinary conquest. See you in the fall!
*While you’re over at iBioSeminars, you should check out the rest of the website, too! This is a really unique and fantastic resource for anyone interested in biology and biological research.