Let’s Make Genetically Modified Food Open-Source

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July 9 2013 9:30 AM

Let’s Make Genetically Modified Food Open-Source

It will help fight climate change and stick one in Monsanto’s eye.

An activist of the online network "Campact" protests outside the administrative court in Braunschweig, northern Germany, on April 28, 2009 against a request by US biotech giant Monsanto.
A German citizen protesting Monsanto. Can the biotech giant ever be slowed?

Photo by Nigel Treblin/AFP/Getty Images

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On July 25, Future Tense will be hosting an event on agriculture’s role in climate change at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation website.

Not too long ago, popular wisdom ran that molecular biologists were going to save billions of people from starvation by genetically engineering crops resistant to flood, freeze, and drought; crops that could blossom from desiccated soil and bloom in salty sand; crops that could flourish despite an atmosphere saturated with carbon dioxide and rays of sunshine riddled with radiation. A waterless seed was the next killer app.

“With the help of our Gods and our science, we must not only increase our food supplies but also insure them against biological and physical catastrophes,” declared agronomist Norman Borlaug in his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

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More recently, Cathleen Enright, executive vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, told me that since 1996, transgenic crops have “reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced pesticide runoffs, and reduced farm-fuel use. Because of biotech, there is more carbon sequestration in the soil.”

But despite the hopes of Borlaug and the hype of Enright, genetically modified crops as we know them have as a general rule increased agriculture’s reliance on a system of expensive “inputs”—agro-speak for the proprietary seeds and herbicides that have brought untold profits to multinationals such as Monsanto and Dow. The reputation of transgenic crops has tanked, as what was once a harbinger of green technology is now commonly perceived as a source of genetic pollution and has thus become anathema for many environmentalists.

The GMO story has become mired in the eco-wrecking narrative of industrial agriculture, and that is too bad for those who understand the real risks of climate change and discern our desperate need for innovation. And while the blue-sky hype of a genetically secured food supply has not become a reality, there have been a few breakthroughs. Even as climate change has increased the prevalence of many plant diseases, the new science can take credit for genetic inoculations that saved Hawaii’s papaya business. It’s also led to flood-resistant rice, created by Pamela Ronald of the University of California–Davis.

Of course, the party-line foodie dare not say anything positive about GMOs, at risk of being labeled a stooge of the foodopolists. And it’s true: Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, and Pioneer are not interested in GMO innovations that might help the bottom billion—molecular ramp-ups of crops like cassava, millet, or teff. They are not interested in low-insecticide eggplants that would help clean urban water supplies in South Asia. There’s not enough money in it for them.

But the truth is that GM products aren’t just necessary to help create an agriculture system that can survive in a post–climate-change world—they may actually help ameliorate global warming. As David Zilbermans, professor of agriculture and resource economics at the University of California–Berkeley has noted, “Adoption of herbicide tolerant varieties enabled transition to minimal tillage techniques, which reduced the greenhouse gas effect of agriculture equivalent to hundreds of thousands of cars annually. GMOs make it possible to produce food on less land, reducing the incentive of converting wild land into agricultural land.”

So the question looms: How can we harness the possible positives of GMOs without lining the pockets of the pharmers?

GMO agriculture relies on the relatively new science of bioinformatics (a mixture of bio- and information science), which means that DNA sequences look a lot more like software code than a vegetable garden. And if Monsanto is the Microsoft of food supply—raking in the rent on bites instead of bytes—perhaps the time has come for the agricultural equivalent of Linux, the open-source operating system that made computer programming a communal effort.