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EU Buys Bees A Breather With Neonicotinoid Ban. Bees’ Goose Still Cookin’

In the quest to pre­vent a col­lapse in the glob­al bee pop­u­la­tion, few approach­es look more promis­ing than sim­ply ban­ning the use of neon­i­coti­noids in agri­cul­ture [1]. To the EU’s cred­it, that’s exact­ly what was done last May when the EU passed a two-year ban on nicoti­noid usage [2]. For life on earth it was the bee’s knees, although the Life Sci­ences indus­try was­n’t entire­ly pleased [3]:

World On a Plate
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Lon­don bee sum­mit: pes­ti­cides or no pes­ti­cides?
The deci­sion to frame the argu­ment over neon­i­coti­noids as pro- or anti-pes­ti­cide ignores the myr­i­ad options

Post­ed by Emma Bryce
Tues­day 28 Jan­u­ary 2014 05.38 EST

In Lon­don last Fri­day [4], research sci­en­tists, chem­i­cal indus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives, and jour­nal­ists gath­ered for an open dis­cus­sion ses­sion that con­clud­ed a three-day sum­mit about the impact of neon­i­coti­noid pes­ti­cides [5] on hon­ey­bees. The result was a rich debate about the future use of these chem­i­cals in agri­cul­ture, and impli­ca­tions for food pro­duc­tion. But the efforts by some indus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives to over­sim­pli­fy the issue gave an oth­er­wise intri­cate dis­cus­sion the aura of a high­ly polarised one.

Neon­i­coti­noids, which are wide­ly used in Europe and Amer­i­ca, are applied as a coat­ing on seeds of crops like oilseed rape, maize, and sun­flow­ers before they are plant­ed, in this way pro­tect­ing the plant from the start. But since this class of chem­i­cals was linked with a decline [6] in hon­ey- and bum­ble­bee health in 2012, fol­lowed by The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s imposed restric­tions [7] on spe­cif­ic uses of neon­i­con­ti­noids soon after, they have been recog­nised more for the con­tro­ver­sy they are asso­ci­at­ed with than any­thing else.

The sci­ence can­not defin­i­tive­ly link neon­i­coti­noid impact on indi­vid­ual pol­li­na­tors to the wide­spread, over­all decline of hon­ey­bee pop­u­la­tions going on in Europe and America—the phe­nom­e­non labelled Colony Col­lapse Dis­or­der [8]. But a grow­ing body of research on the sub­ject is help­ing to cement the con­cerns of con­ser­va­tion­ists and sci­en­tists alike. Fri­day’s open dis­cus­sion helped air those con­cerns, and yet, these were fore­ground­ed against a con­tro­ver­sial indus­try sug­ges­tion that if we stop using neon­i­coti­noids, we essen­tial­ly com­mit to a future of envi­ron­men­tal ruin.

Speak­ing dur­ing his pre­sen­ta­tion on behalf of Bay­er Crop­Science [9]the com­pa­ny that makes imi­da­clo­prid, a neon­i­coti­noid-based pes­ti­cide—envi­ron­men­tal safe­ty man­ag­er Richard Schmuck [10] con­clud­ed his talk by stat­ing that not only will food pro­duc­tion dip dra­mat­i­cal­ly if we stop using neon­i­coti­noids, but that in an effort to make up for low­ered pro­duc­tion, coun­tries will have to con­vert untouched wild land into crops and ‘import’ land from devel­op­ing world coun­tries. That will result in decreased bio­di­ver­si­ty in Europe, Amer­i­ca, and abroad, he said.

This rather extreme argu­ment gives us just two options: a world with pes­ti­cides, or one with­out. But it mis­rep­re­sents the approach of sci­en­tists and sev­er­al con­ser­va­tion groups, and also con­tra­dicts what the chem­i­cal indus­tries them­selves say.

“I think it’s just an over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion by the indus­try to suit their mes­sage,” says San­dra Bell [11], nature cam­paign­er at Friends of the Earth UK who was present at Fri­day’s meet­ing. “We’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly talk­ing about ban­ning every pes­ti­cide. We’re talk­ing about min­imis­ing the use.” A speak­er at the con­fer­ence, Uni­ver­si­ty of Sus­sex Pro­fes­sor David Goul­son [12], leader of one of the research groups that found neon­i­coti­noid impacts [13] on pol­li­na­tors in 2012, agreed, adding that in order to grow enough food to feed an increas­ing world pop­u­la­tion, he recog­nised that chem­i­cals would inevitably be part of the mix.

But the bina­ry pesticide/no pes­ti­cide sce­nario over­writes a third option: using pes­ti­cides togeth­er with oth­er con­trols. This is one aspect of inte­grat­ed pest man­age­ment (IPM), tout­ed as a ‘com­mon sense [14]’ approach to farm­ing. “IPM is not a sys­tem that does­n’t use pes­ti­cides at all,” says Goul­son, “but you try and min­imise the pes­ti­cides and only ever use them respon­si­bly, and as a last resort.” This ide­al con­trasts stark­ly with the cur­rent real­i­ty of crops that receive up to 22 pes­ti­cides at a time [15].

Rota­tion-crop­ping, organ­ic farm­ing, pro­duc­tion of pest-resis­tant crops, and the use of state-fund­ed agron­o­mists to eval­u­ate land and apply tai­lored pest con­trol, were all raised as alter­na­tive man­age­ment options dur­ing the open debate. Matthias Schott [16], a PhD stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Giessen in Ger­many, who was there to present a poster about whether bees can sense neon­i­coti­noids, sug­gest­ed that in an ide­al future, farm­ers would be giv­en finan­cial incen­tives for avoid­ing unnec­es­sary pes­ti­cide use. Cur­rent­ly, he says, “there is no pos­si­bil­i­ty for farm­ers to get pes­ti­cide-undressed seeds from the big com­pa­nies. There­fore most agri­cul­tur­al land is exposed to insec­ti­cides.”

Bay­er Crop­Science notes that alter­na­tives are part of its port­fo­lio, too. “We are very open to find­ing the right syn­the­sis between inte­grat­ed pest man­age­ment and pes­ti­cides,” said Bay­er’s glob­al pol­li­na­tor safe­ty man­ag­er, Dr. Chris­t­ian Maus [17], adding that it is nec­es­sary to estab­lish a pes­ti­cide’s com­pat­i­bil­i­ty with IPM before it goes on the mar­ket. (He spoke on behalf of Richard Schmuck who was trav­el­ing and not avail­able for an inter­view.)

The real­i­ty, of course, is that the pesticide/no pes­ti­cide split exists because there is no finan­cial incen­tive right now to mould things dif­fer­ent­ly. Alter­na­tive meth­ods of pest con­trol get lit­tle fund­ing, and less research. “There’s no prof­it to be made for any­one who devel­ops any­thing like that,” says Goul­son. “So real­ly, most research into how to farm is focused on high-tech solu­tions that can be sold by the peo­ple that man­u­fac­ture them.”

The UK gov­ern­men­t’s seem­ing­ly tight-knit rela­tion­ship [18] with major chem­i­cal com­pa­ny Syn­gen­ta [19] has only inten­si­fied the frus­tra­tions felt by those seek­ing alter­na­tives. Indus­try-fund­ed stud­ies that find no neon­i­coti­noid impact are a tar­get for crit­ics, and researchers high­light the gen­er­al scarci­ty of peer-reviewed sci­ence on the sub­ject.

Indeed, the con­fi­dent con­clu­sion in Schmuck­’s pre­sen­ta­tion that a future with­out pes­ti­cides will amount to a loss of vir­gin land and bio­di­ver­si­ty comes from an indus­try doc­u­ment [20] that he cit­ed in his talk. “It was a report by the agro­chem­i­cal indus­try,” says Goul­son. “I would strong­ly imag­ine it has no cred­i­bil­i­ty what­so­ev­er.” Yet, says Maus, every­thing Bay­er Crop­Science pub­lish­es is inde­pen­dent­ly reg­u­lat­ed, whether it appears in a jour­nal or not. “Our data are scru­ti­nised,” he states.


The bina­ry argu­ment over neon­i­coti­noids, no mat­ter how super­fi­cial, denies the role that cre­ativ­i­ty has to play in find­ing oth­er solu­tions. It per­pet­u­ates a threat­en­ing rhetoric in which the obvi­ous pres­sure exists to stick with the sta­tus quo. “It’s about a lack of invest­ment in the right kind of research,” says Bell. “If sev­er­al years ago more mon­ey had been direct­ed towards [alter­na­tives] we might not be in this sit­u­a­tion now.”

The two-year EU ban on neon­i­coti­noids is going to be a crit­i­cal sto­ry to watch but it’s also a dif­fi­cult sto­ry. As the atten­dees to the Lon­don Bee Sum­mit often point­ed out, bee colony col­lapse is an incred­i­bly com­pli­cat­ed phe­nom­e­na and nicoti­noids are just one piece of the puz­zle.

Anoth­er piece of the puz­zle that adds uncer­tain­ty to the future of the neon­i­coti­noid ban is the fact that Ettore Capri, the direc­tor of [21] the Italy based OPERA Research Cen­ter — a pes­ti­cide indus­try-friend­ly think tank with a his­to­ry of lob­by­ing the EU for lax­er neon­i­coti­noid reg­u­la­tions [22]is also sit­ting on the EU’s pes­ti­cide pan­el [23]. But it’s a big pan­el [24] so we’ll see soon how the EU’s two year mora­to­ri­um works out. Major nicoti­noid man­u­fac­tur­ers like Bay­er and Syn­gen­ta [25] may not like bans on neon­i­coti­noids but the bees do. And in two years we’ll see who wins, Big Pes­ti­cide or the bees. Hint: It’s look­ing like it’s going to be a cliff-hang­er/­cat­a­stro­phe sort of expe­ri­ence [26].

It Isn’t Easy Being a Bee
Neon­i­coti­noids and lob­by­ists aren­t’t the only threats com­pli­cat­ing the fate of the bees. If your a bee, mites might make for a real­ly bad day. Or a new farm where your deli­cious prairie flow­ers used to be. Or both. It isn’t being a bee, and its get­ting hard­er [27]:

Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times
How Can We Save Bees? 3 Pos­si­ble Solu­tions To Com­bat Hon­ey­bee Decline

By Rox­anne Palmer
on Jan­u­ary 22 2014 11:38 PM

The pleas­ant buzz of the hon­ey­bee is going silent across the nation, and the globe. But not every­one is plan­ning on let­ting bees bum­ble gen­tly into that good night.

Since 2006, U.S. bee­keep­ers have been see­ing colony loss­es of an aver­age of 33 per­cent a year, with a third of that attrib­uted to colony col­lapse dis­or­der, or CCD, the abrupt dis­ap­pear­ance of work­er bees from the hive.


Since no one can quite pin down a sin­gu­lar cause for the drop in bee pop­u­la­tions across the globe, a nest of dif­fer­ent approach­es to sav­ing the hon­ey­bee is spring­ing up. Here are just a few of the mea­sures that are being tak­en to try and save the bees:

Europe’s pes­ti­cide ban

Last April, the Euro­pean Union vot­ed to ban a cer­tain class of pes­ti­cides called neon­i­coti­noids....


Nev­er­the­less, the EU ban went into effect this past Decem­ber and will last for two years. Some sci­en­tists fear that Euro­pean farm­ers may turn to more tox­ic pes­ti­cides in the wake of the ban, while oth­ers fear that crop pests may seize their advan­tage in the com­ing years. Only time will tell what the ban has wrought.

Com­bat­ing the var­roa mite

One of the oth­er prime sus­pects in CCD is the var­roa mite, a tiny arach­nid that can hitch a ride back to bee­hives on the backs of for­ag­ing work­er bees. Once it invades the hive, the mite lays its eggs in hon­ey­combs along­side young bees. The mite brings its own hitch­hik­ers into the colony as well: bac­te­ria, virus­es and oth­er pathogens that can sweep through the bees.

Bay­er sci­en­tists and bee researchers from Frank­furt Uni­ver­si­ty have come up with a way [28] to nip the var­roa mite right at the entrance of the hive, using a spe­cial­ly designed entry­way for com­mer­cial hives. When bees pass through this var­roa gate through small entry holes, they brush up against a coat­ing of poi­son that tar­gets the mite (it’s based on the same prin­ci­ple as a flea col­lar for dogs or cats).

In Aus­tralia, where the mite has yet to gain a foothold, sci­en­tist Denis Ander­son has been search­ing for a chem­i­cal switch that would allow him to turn off the mite’s breed­ing cycle. But, Ander­son says his work has been ham­pered by a lack of funds, accord­ing to the Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald [29].

Fill­ing emp­ty bee bel­lies

Any hun­gry crea­ture is vul­ner­a­ble to ill­ness and calami­ty, and bees are no excep­tion. And the spread of mod­ern agri­cul­ture, cou­pled with sky­rock­et­ing demand for bio­fu­els, may be chew­ing up the bees’ sources of food.

Amer­i­can grass­lands are rich in wild­flow­ers, which pro­vide food for a host of pol­li­nat­ing insects, includ­ing hon­ey­bees. But these grass­lands are being destroyed as a study pub­lished last year in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences found. The study found that 1.3 mil­lion acres of grass­land and wet­land were con­vert­ed to crop­land in the Dako­tas, Nebras­ka and parts of Min­neso­ta and Iowa between 2006 and 2011, at a rate not seen since before the Dust Bowl.


So even when neon­i­coti­noids are banned, the farm­ers might just use some­thing even worse, mites might infest your colony with bac­te­ria and virus­es, and, in the US, native bee habi­tat loss from 2006–2011 was at a rate not seen since the Dust Bowl! It’s sure not easy being bee, neon­i­coti­noids or not.

Cli­mate Change Is A Pest For The Bees Too. Tech­nol­o­gy Change Is More Of An Open Ques­tion.
And then there’s cli­mate change. Cli­mate change direct­ly impacts bees by caus­ing flow­ers to blos­som when bees aren’t ready [30] but it’s also the per­fect storm for exac­er­bat­ing vir­tu­al­ly all of the oth­er oth­er bee-life stress­es. For exaple, the loss of native bee habi­tats from the chang­ing cli­mate is going to be com­pound­ed by the increased demand for new farm land as cli­mate change destroys arable land [31]. And then there are the pests. As the cli­mate changes, pests change too [32]. Not only the types of pests but also the sheer vol­ume of them. And when new pests arrive, and the old ones increase in num­ber, the pest con­trol strate­gies have to increase [33] too [34].

Since there’s quite pos­si­bly going to be a lot more pests to con­trol in the warm­ing cli­mates of the future, we should prob­a­bly hope that the new pest con­trol strate­gies required for that warmer future are eas­i­er on the bees that what we’re cur­rent­ly doing. Espe­cial­ly the pes­ti­cides use for major crops that attract bees. Crops like corn [35]. High Fruc­tose Corn Syrup isn’t the only corn-relate threat to the bees [36]. +90% of corn grown in the US is cov­ered with Bay­er’s neon­i­coti­noid prod­ucts, along with a grow­ing num­ber of oth­er crops [37]. Quite sim­ply, as the demand for pest con­trol strate­gies grows with the chang­ing cli­mate, it’s going to be very hard to see how an out­right ban on the use of neon­i­coti­noids going to be pos­si­ble with­out either a very big shift in how human­i­ty feeds itself or the devel­op­ment of some new, effec­tive pest-con­trol tech­nolo­gies that can be used for sta­ple foods.

All of these grow­ing threats are a reminder that the chal­lenges bees faced in the 20th cen­tu­ry (the emer­gence of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture) might be mul­ti­ply in the 21st cen­tu­ry. And since it’s look­ing increas­ing­ly like bee colonies are col­laps­ing from the ‘death of a thou­sand cuts’ of many dif­fer­ent envi­ron­men­tal insults simul­ta­ne­ous­ly [38] it’s impor­tant to keep in mind that even a com­plete ban­ning of nicoti­noids still might not save the bees. A ban will be help­ful, sure. But if we sim­ply replace nicoti­noids with oth­er forms of bee-harm­ing pest con­trol strate­gies the bees and the rest of us [39] might still be screwed.

And, sure, if human­i­ty gets a lot bet­ter at shar­ing and not wast­ing food [40] we could poten­tial­ly shift to a organ­ic farm­ing strate­gies and min­i­mize pes­ti­cide use around the world [41] and still feed our­selves, but is that real­is­tic [42]? If not, that means a key chal­lenge for the future of bee-friend­ly pest-con­trol is going to ever-increas­ing speci­fici­ty: you want tools that elim­i­nate only the pest on the crop of inter­est and noth­ing else. Or at least noth­ing ben­e­fi­cial like bees.

So, for exam­ple, let’s say Mon­san­to was to devel­op a new form of GMO tech­nol­o­gy designed to ward off major pests that have devel­oped immu­ni­ty to Mon­san­to’s wide­ly-used GMO-based corn with the BT Tox­in [43] and Mon­san­to’s Roundup weed-killer [44]. That might be help­ful, at least for a while. But new tech­nol­o­gy that kill new­ly resis­tant pests aren’t going to help human­i­ty feed itself if those new tech­nolo­gies keep killing [45] our six-legged friends [46]:

Moth­er Jones
Is Mon­san­to Giv­ing Up on GMOs?

—By Tom Philpott
| Wed Jan. 29, 2014 3:00 AM GMT

Is genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied seed giant Mon­san­to doing the unthink­able and mov­ing away from genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied seeds?

It sounds crazy, but hear me out. Let’s start with Mon­san­to’s veg­etable divi­sion, Sem­in­is, which boasts [47] it is the “largest devel­op­er and grow­er of veg­etable seeds in the world.” Mon­san­to acknowl­edges [48] Sem­in­is has no new GM veg­eta­bles in devel­op­ment. Accord­ing to a recent Wired piece [49], Sem­in­is has has revert­ed instead to “good old-fash­ioned cross­breed­ing, the same tech­nol­o­gy that farm­ers have been using to opti­mize crops for mil­len­nia.”

Why? The arti­cle points to peo­ple’s grow­ing avoid­ance of genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied foods. So far, con­sumers have shown no appetite to gob­ble up GM veg­eta­bles. (But that does­n’t mean peo­ple aren’t eat­ing GMOs: Near­ly all GMOs cur­rent­ly on the mar­ket are big com­mod­i­ty crops like corn and soy, which, besides being used as live­stock feed, are reg­u­lar­ly used as ingre­di­ents in processed food—think high-fruc­tose corn syrup and soy oil.)

But the Wired piece also sug­gests a fac­tor that does­n’t get near­ly enough atten­tion: GM tech­nol­o­gy does­n’t seem to be very good at gen­er­at­ing com­plex traits like bet­ter fla­vor or more nutri­ents, the very attrib­ut­es Mon­san­to was hop­ing to engi­neer into veg­gies. Here’s Wired:

Fur­ther­more, genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fy­ing con­sumer crops proved to be inef­fi­cient and expen­sive. [Mon­san­to exec David] Stark esti­mates that adding a new gene takes rough­ly 10 years and $100 mil­lion to go from a prod­uct con­cept to reg­u­la­to­ry approval. And insert­ing genes one at a time does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly pro­duce the kinds of traits that rely on the inter­actions of sev­er­al genes. Well before their veg­gie busi­ness went kaput, Mon­san­to knew it could­n’t just genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fy its way to bet­ter pro­duce; it had to breed great veg­eta­bles to begin with. As Stark phras­es a com­pa­ny mantra: “The best gene in the world does­n’t fix dogshit germplasm.” [Empha­sis added.]

Okay, that’s veg­eta­bles. What about Mon­san­to’s core busi­ness, sell­ing seeds for big indus­tri­al com­mod­i­ty crops like corn, soy­beans, cot­ton, and alfal­fa? Mon­san­to has come to dom­i­nate these mar­kets with its Roundup Ready prod­ucts, which are designed to with­stand Mon­san­to’s flag­ship her­bi­cide, and, for corn and cot­ton, its “Bt” prod­ucts, which are engi­neered to pro­duce a tox­in found in Bacil­lus thuringien­sis, an insect-killing bac­te­ria. Does the com­pa­ny have lots of nov­el GM prod­ucts in mind for this vast, lucra­tive sec­tor?

Mon­san­to’s lat­est Annu­al R&D Pipeline Review [50], a doc­u­ment released ear­li­er this month that show­cas­es the com­pa­ny’s research into new prod­uct lines, fore­tells all kinds of impres­sive-sound­ing stuff. But a sur­pris­ing amount of the com­pa­ny’s new research, even for its most lucra­tive crops like corn and soy, promise either new iter­a­tions of her­bi­cide tol­er­ance and Bt, or rely on clas­si­cal breeding—not biotech­nol­o­gy.

The one major excep­tion is a corn seed rely­ing on a new kind of GMO: RNA inter­fer­ence (RNAi) tech­nol­o­gy, a recent­ly dis­cov­ered way to turn off cer­tain genes, which Mon­san­to plans to engi­neer into crops to kill cer­tain insects. Accord­ing to Mon­san­to’s pipeline review, RNAi corn remains in the ear­ly “proof of con­cept” phase. In a recent piece [51], the New York Times’ Andrew Pol­lack reports [52] that the tech­nol­o­gy is show­ing promise—Monsanto hopes to have it on the mar­ket “late this decade.” But it’s also gen­er­at­ing con­tro­ver­sy even in nor­mal­ly Mon­san­to-friend­ly reg­u­la­to­ry cir­cles because researchers have sug­gest­ed it may kill ben­e­fi­cial insects like lady­bugs along with tar­get­ed pests [53]. Pol­lack points to this 2013 paper [54] by Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency sci­en­tists, which warned that the unfa­mil­iar tech­nol­o­gy pre­sent­ed “unique chal­lenges for eco­log­i­cal risk assess­ment that have not yet been encoun­tered in assess­ments for tra­di­tion­al chem­i­cal pes­ti­cides.”

So RNAi corn may be coming—and could bring pub­lic rela­tions and reg­u­la­to­ry com­pli­ca­tions for Mon­san­to, not to men­tion unpre­dictable eco­log­i­cal con­se­quences for the rest of us. But how much oth­er GMO-based stuff does Mon­san­to have up its sleeve? Accord­ing to the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s Ani­mal and Plant Health Inspec­tion Ser­vice, the agency that over­sees the roll­out of new GM crops, not much. Of the 13 new GMOs APHIS is track­ing [55], only 2 are from Mon­san­to: an alfal­fa engi­neered to be more eas­i­ly digestible as ani­mal feed, and a soy­bean designed to with­stand a harsh old her­bi­cide called dicam­ba (a vari­a­tion on the famil­iar Roundup Ready her­bi­cide-tol­er­ance theme).


Are you excit­ed for Extra-Super-Corn [56] with RNAi tech­nol­o­gy that kills lady­bugs but not nec­es­sar­i­ly bees? Yes? No? Regard­less, the super-pests like BT-Tox­in-resis­tant corn root­worms and Roundup-resis­tant super­weeds are already here munch­ing away on super-corn’s roots [57] so we prob­a­bly should­n’t be sur­prised if extra-super-corn fea­tur­ing RNAi tech­nol­o­gy makes its way onto the farm soon­er rather than lat­er (and then pro­ceed to wan­der around the ecosys­tem from there [58]). The lady­bugs prob­a­bly aren’t very excit­ed. They might pre­fer the smart-breed­ing strat­e­gy [59].

The bees, inter­est­ing­ly, might actu­al­ly have rea­son to be excit­ed by the devel­op­ment of this extra-super-corn, although not for the rea­son you might sus­pect: Near­ly all corn grown in the US and Cana­da (and much of the world) is Mon­san­to’s BT tox­in GMO corn (our present day super-corn). But that BT tox­in only pro­tects against key pests like the corn root­worm. Or at least it used to against them [60]. So, bar­ring a neon­i­coti­noid ban in the US and Cana­da, even if this new RNAi tech­nol­o­gy tem­porar­i­ly thwarts the emer­gence of BT Tox­in-resis­tant corn root­worms neon­i­coti­noid prod­ucts are still going to be used on corn and a grow­ing num­ber of oth­er crops [37]. No, the rea­son the bees might be breath­ing a bit of a sigh of relief is because RNAi tech­nol­o­gy might make mites a lit­tle less of pest for bees [52]:

The New York Times
Genet­ic Weapon Against Insects Rais­es Hope and Fear in Farm­ing


Sci­en­tists and biotech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies are devel­op­ing what could become the next pow­er­ful weapon in the war on pests — one that har­ness­es a Nobel Prize-win­ning dis­cov­ery to kill insects and pathogens by dis­abling their genes.

By zero­ing in on a genet­ic sequence unique to one species, the tech­nique has the poten­tial to kill a pest with­out harm­ing ben­e­fi­cial insects. That would be a big advance over chem­i­cal pes­ti­cides.

“If you use a neu­ro-poi­son, it kills every­thing,” said Sub­ba Red­dy Pal­li, an ento­mol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ken­tucky who is research­ing the tech­nol­o­gy, which is called RNA inter­fer­ence. “But this one is very tar­get-spe­cif­ic.”

But some spe­cial­ists fear that releas­ing gene-silenc­ing agents into fields could harm ben­e­fi­cial insects, espe­cial­ly among organ­isms that have a com­mon genet­ic make­up, and pos­si­bly even human health. The con­tro­ver­sy echoes the larg­er debate over genet­ic mod­i­fi­ca­tion of crops that has been rag­ing for years. The Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, which reg­u­lates pes­ti­cides, will hold a meet­ing [61] of sci­en­tif­ic advis­ers on Tues­day to dis­cuss the poten­tial risks of RNA inter­fer­ence.

“To attempt to use this tech­nol­o­gy at this cur­rent stage of under­stand­ing would be more naïve than our use of DDT in the 1950s,” the Nation­al Hon­ey Bee Advi­so­ry Board said in com­ments sub­mit­ted to the E.P.A. before the meet­ing, at the agency’s con­fer­ence cen­ter in Arling­ton, Va.

RNA inter­fer­ence is of inter­est to bee­keep­ers because one pos­si­ble use, under devel­op­ment by Mon­san­to, is to kill a mite that is believed to be at least part­ly respon­si­ble for the mass die-offs of hon­ey­bees in recent years.

Mon­san­to has applied for reg­u­la­to­ry approval of corn that is genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered to use RNAi, as the approach is called for short, to kill the west­ern corn root­worm, one of the costli­est of agri­cul­tur­al pests. In anoth­er project it is try­ing to devel­op a spray that would restore the abil­i­ty of its Roundup her­bi­cide to kill weeds that have grown imper­vi­ous to it.

Some bee spe­cial­ists sub­mit­ted com­ments say­ing they would wel­come attempts to use RNAi to save hon­ey­bees. Groups rep­re­sent­ing corn, soy­bean and cot­ton farm­ers also sup­port the tech­nol­o­gy.

“Com­mer­cial RNAi tech­nol­o­gy brings U.S. agri­cul­ture into an entire­ly new gen­er­a­tion of tools hold­ing great promise,” the Nation­al Corn Grow­ers Asso­ci­a­tion said.

Corn grow­ers need a new tool. For a decade they have been com­bat­ing the root­worm by plant­i­ng so-called BT crops, which are genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered to pro­duce a tox­in that kills the insects when they eat the crop.

Or at least the tox­in is sup­posed to kill them. But root­worms are now evolv­ing resis­tance to at least one BT tox­in.

RNA inter­fer­ence is a nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­non that is set off by dou­ble-strand­ed RNA.

DNA, which is what genes are made of, is usu­al­ly dou­ble strand­ed, the famous dou­ble helix. But RNA, which is a mes­sen­ger in cells, usu­al­ly con­sists of a sin­gle strand of chem­i­cal units rep­re­sent­ing the let­ters of the genet­ic code.

So when a cell sens­es a dou­ble-strand­ed RNA, it acts as if it has encoun­tered a virus. It acti­vates a mech­a­nism that silences any gene with a sequence cor­re­spond­ing to that in the dou­ble-strand­ed RNA.

Sci­en­tists quick­ly learned that they could deac­ti­vate vir­tu­al­ly any gene by syn­the­siz­ing a snip­pet of dou­ble-strand­ed RNA with a match­ing sequence.


Using RNAi in insects, at least for bee­tles, should be eas­i­er than in peo­ple. Bee­tles, includ­ing the corn root­worm, can sim­ply eat the dou­ble-strand­ed RNA to set off the effect.

One way to get insects to do that is to genet­i­cal­ly engi­neer crops to pro­duce dou­ble-strand­ed RNA cor­re­spond­ing to an essen­tial gene of the pest.

Var­i­ous genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered crops already har­ness RNAi to silence genes in the crop itself. These include soy­beans with more health­ful oil and a non­brown­ing apple that appears close to fed­er­al approval. The tech­nique has also been used to genet­i­cal­ly engi­neer virus resis­tance into crops like papaya.

But gen­er­al­ly those crops had been devel­oped using meth­ods to mod­i­fy DNA that were known to work but were not under­stood at the time to involve RNAi. Monsanto’s new root­worm-killing corn is one of the first in which the crop has been engi­neered specif­i­cal­ly to pro­duce a dou­ble-strand­ed RNA, in this case to inac­ti­vate a gene called Snf7 that is essen­tial for mov­ing pro­teins around in the root­worm. Mon­san­to, which is based in St. Louis, hopes to have the corn, which it calls Smart­Stax Pro, on the mar­ket late this decade.

The dou­ble-strand­ed RNA could also be incor­po­rat­ed in sprays.

Mon­san­to is devel­op­ing a spray that would shore up one of its biggest prod­uct lines — crops resis­tant to its Roundup her­bi­cide. Farm­ers have grown them wide­ly because they can spray Roundup to kill weeds with­out hurt­ing the crop.

Roundup, known gener­i­cal­ly as glyphosate, works by inhibit­ing the action of a pro­tein plants need to sur­vive. But many weeds have evolved resis­tance to Roundup. Some of these weeds make so much of the pro­tein that Roundup can­not inhib­it it all.

Monsanto’s spray would use RNAi to silence the gene for that pro­tein, reduc­ing pro­duc­tion of the pro­tein and restor­ing the abil­i­ty of Roundup to kill the weed.

Mon­san­to is also look­ing at putting RNA into sug­ar water fed to hon­ey­bees to pro­tect them from the var­roa mite. The way to fight the mite now is to spray pes­ti­cides that can also harm bees.

“We were try­ing to kill a lit­tle bug on a big bug,” said Jer­ry Hayes, the head of bee health at Mon­san­to.


Take a moment and note that this new dou­ble-strand­ed RNA tech­nol­o­gy can poten­tial­ly be used in sprays or added to water. And that’s in addi­tion to the abil­i­ty to actu­al­ly incor­po­rate it into the genomes of liv­ing sys­tems. It’s a reminder that there’s going to be a lot more poten­tial uses for this new RNAi tech­nol­o­gy than just pest [62] con­trol [63].


If the RNAi is direct­ed at a genet­ic sequence unique to the mite, the bees would not be harmed by ingest­ing it, while the mites would be killed once they attacked the bees. One field tri­al [64] showed that this tech­nique could help pro­tect bees from a virus. Mon­san­to acquired Bee­o­log­ics, a com­pa­ny devel­op­ing the RNAi tech­nol­o­gy for bees. It bought at least two oth­er com­pa­nies pur­su­ing agri­cul­tur­al appli­ca­tions of the tech­nol­o­gy. And it has paid tens of mil­lions of dol­lars for patent rights and tech­nol­o­gy from med­ical RNAi com­pa­nies like Alny­lam Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals and Tek­mi­ra Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals.

But Mon­san­to is not alone. In 2012, Syn­gen­ta signed an agree­ment to work on RNAi sprays with Dev­gen, a Bel­gian biotech com­pa­ny, and lat­er said that it had acquired all of Dev­gen for around $500 mil­lion.

Some sci­en­tists are call­ing for cau­tion, how­ev­er, In a paper [65] pub­lished last year, two ento­mol­o­gists at the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture warned that because genes are com­mon to var­i­ous organ­isms, RNAi pes­ti­cides might hurt unin­tend­ed insects.

One lab­o­ra­to­ry study [53] by sci­en­tists at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ken­tucky and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka, for instance, found that a dou­ble-strand­ed RNA intend­ed to silence a root­worm gene also affect­ed a gene in the lady­bug, killing that ben­e­fi­cial insect.


Well that’s cer­tain­ly an excit­ing mael­strom of tech­no­log­i­cal pos­si­bilites. To sum­ma­rize, almost all corn grown in the US and Cana­da is Mon­san­to’s “Bt corn” with the Bt tox­in gene arti­fi­cial­ly added to kill the corn root­worms munch­ing on the plants’ roots. But Bt corn might becom­ing some­what irrel­e­vant because the corn root­worm is already devel­op­ing resis­tance to the Bt tox­in [66]. And the weeds that were under con­trol using Roundup her­bi­cide are now grow­ing resis­tant to that too. But now Mon­san­to has a new trick that might save the Bt corn from both the corn root­worm and the super-weeds: The new­ly resis­tant corn root­worms and super-weeds are resis­tant because they have a new genes so if Mon­san­to can pre­vent the expres­sion of those new genes both the Bt tox­in and the Roundup can begin to work again. And this can be accom­plished adding a new dou­ble-strand­ed RNA gene to the Bt corn that will silence the new gene in the corn root­worm bee­tle and then spray­ing the weeds with new dou­ble-strand­ed RNA tar­get­ting the new gene in the super-weeds. And this new RNAi tech­nol­o­gy can also be added to sprays or even water! So many pos­si­bil­i­ties... [67]

And one of those pos­si­bil­i­ties includes feed­ing bees RNAi-laced sug­ar water so then the RNAi gets passed from the bee to the mite [68], allow­ing for less anti-mite pes­ti­cide use. This is actu­al­ly a pret­ty big deal if this tech­nol­o­gy works! Although, as the above arti­cle point­ed out, one of those big deals might be the dis­ap­pear­ance of the lady­bug due to the non-spe­cif­ic inter­ac­tions between the RNA that was cho­sen to tar­get a gene in the corn root­worm but also impact­ed one of the lady­bug’s genes (a rather impor­tant gene for the lady­bug, appar­ent­ly).

So while it appears that this new RNAi tech­nol­o­gy has the pos­si­bil­i­ty to pro­vide new lev­els of speci­fici­ty when tar­get­ing pests it’s still does­n’t appear to be spe­cif­ic enough to avoid col­lat­er­al dam­age to the broad­er ecosys­tem. Which rais­es the ques­tion: what new unin­tend­ed bio­log­i­cal sur­pris­es are in store for the bees as RNAi tech­nol­o­gy flour­ish­es and the num­ber of dif­fer­ent dsR­NA strands get­ting added to plants, sprayed on the fields, or thrown into the water sup­ply grows? The answer appears to be the stan­dard answer to these types of ques­tions: we don’t wnok what hos unin­tend­ed sur­pris­es are going to be, but we’re going to find out! Yes, human­i­ty is going to find out what sur­pris­es are in store for a species that casu­al­ly dab­bles in GMO tech­nol­o­gy because:
1. We can’t help our­selves [42].

2. It’s going to be increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to feed the world with­out advanced farm­ing meth­ods and pest con­trol strate­gies unless we sig­nif­i­cant­ly change how food resources are used (see rea­son 1 [69]).

3. We aren’t the neo-Lud­dites we need to be. And no, not the stu­did smashy [70]-anti-thought­less-imple­men­ta­tion-of-tech­nol­o­gy Lud­dite [71]:

Smith­son­ian Mag­a­zine
What the Lud­dites Real­ly Fought Against
The label now has many mean­ings, but when the group protest­ed 200 years ago, tech­nol­o­gy was­n’t real­ly the ene­my

By Richard Con­niff

March 2011

n an essay in 1984—at the dawn of the per­son­al com­put­er era—the nov­el­ist Thomas Pyn­chon won­dered if it was “O.K. to be a Lud­dite,” mean­ing some­one who oppos­es tech­no­log­i­cal progress. A bet­ter ques­tion today is whether it’s even pos­si­ble. Tech­nol­o­gy is every­where, and a recent head­line at an Inter­net hu-mor site per­fect­ly cap­tured how dif­fi­cult it is to resist: “Lud­dite invents machine to destroy tech­nol­o­gy quick­er.”

Like all good satire, the mock head­line comes per­ilous­ly close to the truth. Mod­ern Lud­dites do indeed invent “machines”—in the form of com­put­er virus­es, cyber­worms and oth­er malware—to dis­rupt the tech­nolo­gies that trou­ble them. (Recent tar­gets of sus­pect­ed sab­o­tage include the Lon­don Stock Exchange and a nuclear pow­er plant in Iran.) Even off-the-grid extrem­ists find tech­nol­o­gy irre­sistible. The Unabomber, Ted Kaczyn­s­ki, attacked what he called the “indus­tri­al-tech­no­log­i­cal sys­tem” with increas­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed mail bombs. Like­wise, the cave-dwelling ter­ror­ist some­times derid­ed as “Osama bin Lud­dite” hijacked avi­a­tion tech­nol­o­gy to bring down sky­scrap­ers.

For the rest of us, our uneasy protests against tech­nol­o­gy almost inevitably take tech­no­log­i­cal form. We wor­ry about whether vio­lent com­put­er games are warp­ing our chil­dren, then decry them by tweet, text or Face­book post. We try to sim­pli­fy our lives by shop­ping at the local farm­ers market—then haul our organ­ic arugu­la home in a Prius. Col­lege stu­dents take out their ear­buds to dis­cuss how tech­nol­o­gy dom­i­nates their lives. But when a class ends, Loy­ola Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go pro­fes­sor Steven E. Jones notes, their cell­phones all come to life, screens glow­ing in front of their faces, “and they migrate across the lawns like giant schools of cyborg jel­ly­fish.”

That’s when he turns on his phone, too.

The word “Lud­dite,” hand­ed down from a British indus­tri­al protest that began 200 years ago this month, turns up in our dai­ly lan­guage in ways that sug­gest we’re con­fused not just about tech­nol­o­gy, but also about who the orig­i­nal Lud­dites were and what being a mod­ern one actu­al­ly means.


The word “Lud­dite” is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a dec­la­ra­tion of inep­ti­tude and a badge of hon­or. So you can hurl Lud­dite curs­es at your cell­phone or your spouse, but you can also sip a wine named Lud­dite (which has its own Web site: www.luddite.co.za). You can buy a gui­tar named the Super Lud­dite, which is elec­tric and costs $7,400. Mean­while, back at Twit­ter, Super­man­Hot­Male Tim is under­stand­ably puz­zled; he grunts to ninatype­writer, “What is Lud­dite?”

Almost cer­tain­ly not what you think, Tim.

Despite their mod­ern rep­u­ta­tion, the orig­i­nal Lud­dites were nei­ther opposed to tech­nol­o­gy nor inept at using it. Many were high­ly skilled machine oper­a­tors in the tex­tile indus­try. Nor was the tech­nol­o­gy they attacked par­tic­u­lar­ly new. More­over, the idea of smash­ing machines as a form of indus­tri­al protest did not begin or end with them. In truth, the secret of their endur­ing rep­u­ta­tion depends less on what they did than on the name under which they did it. You could say they were good at brand­ing.

The Lud­dite dis­tur­bances start­ed in cir­cum­stances at least super­fi­cial­ly sim­i­lar to our own. British work­ing fam­i­lies at the start of the 19th cen­tu­ry were endur­ing eco­nom­ic upheaval and wide­spread unem­ploy­ment. A seem­ing­ly end­less war against Napoleon’s France had brought “the hard pinch of pover­ty,” wrote York­shire his­to­ri­an Frank Peel, to homes “where it had hith­er­to been a stranger.” Food was scarce and rapid­ly becom­ing more cost­ly. Then, on March 11, 1811, in Not­ting­ham, a tex­tile man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­ter, British troops broke up a crowd of pro­test­ers demand­ing more work and bet­ter wages.


As the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion began, work­ers nat­u­ral­ly wor­ried about being dis­placed by increas­ing­ly effi­cient machines. But the Lud­dites them­selves “were total­ly fine with machines,” says Kevin Bin­field, edi­tor of the 2004 col­lec­tion Writ­ings of the Lud­dites. They con­fined their attacks to man­u­fac­tur­ers who used machines in what they called “a fraud­u­lent and deceit­ful man­ner” to get around stan­dard labor prac­tices. “They just want­ed machines that made high-qual­i­ty goods,” says Bin­field, “and they want­ed these machines to be run by work­ers who had gone through an appren­tice­ship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only con­cerns.”

So if the Lud­dites weren’t attack­ing the tech­no­log­i­cal foun­da­tions of indus­try, what made them so fright­en­ing to man­u­fac­tur­ers? And what makes them so mem­o­rable even now? Cred­it on both counts goes large­ly to a phan­tom.


Peo­ple of the time rec­og­nized all the aston­ish­ing new ben­e­fits the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion con­ferred, but they also wor­ried, as Car­lyle put it in 1829, that tech­nol­o­gy was caus­ing a “mighty change” in their “modes of thought and feel­ing. Men are grown mechan­i­cal in head and in heart, as well as in hand.” Over time, wor­ry about that kind of change led peo­ple to trans­form the orig­i­nal Lud­dites into the hero­ic defend­ers of a pretech­no­log­i­cal way of life. “The indig­na­tion of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry pro­duc­ers,” the his­to­ri­an Edward Ten­ner has writ­ten, “has yield­ed to “the irri­ta­tion of late-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry con­sumers.”

The orig­i­nal Lud­dites lived in an era of “reas­sur­ing­ly clear-cut targets—machines one could still destroy with a sledge­ham­mer,” Loyola’s Jones writes in his 2006 book Against Tech­nol­o­gy, mak­ing them easy to roman­ti­cize. By con­trast, our tech­nol­o­gy is as neb­u­lous as “the cloud,” that Web-based lim­bo where our dig­i­tal thoughts increas­ing­ly go to spend eter­ni­ty. It’s as liq­uid as the chem­i­cal con­t­a­m­i­nants our infants suck down with their moth­ers’ milk and as ubiq­ui­tous as the genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied crops in our gas tanks and on our din­ner plates. Tech­nol­o­gy is every­where, knows all our thoughts and, in the words of the tech­nol­o­gy utopi­an Kevin Kel­ly, is even “a divine phe­nom­e­non that is a reflec­tion of God.” Who are we to resist?

The orig­i­nal Lud­dites would answer that we are human. Get­ting past the myth and see­ing their protest more clear­ly is a reminder that it’s pos­si­ble to live well with tech­nol­o­gy—but only if we con­tin­u­al­ly ques­tion the ways it shapes our lives. It’s about small things, like now and then cut­ting the cord, shut­ting down the smart­phone and going out for a walk. But it needs to be about big things, too, like stand­ing up against tech­nolo­gies that put mon­ey or con­ve­nience above oth­er human val­ues. If we don’t want to become, as Car­lyle warned, “mechan­i­cal in head and in heart,” it may help, every now and then, to ask which of our mod­ern machines Gen­er­al and Eliza Ludd would choose to break. And which they would use to break them.

As the above arti­cle points out, con­trary to their anti-tech­nol­o­gy rep­u­ta­tion, the Lud­dites “just want­ed machines that made high-qual­i­ty goods... they want­ed these machines to be run by work­ers who had gone through an appren­tice­ship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only con­cerns”. Tech­no­log­i­cal progress is fine. But make it eth­i­cal. When you put aside the “smash­ing and burn­ing” part of their his­to­ry there’s a lot we can learn from the Lud­dites [72].

And as the above arti­cle also points out, tech­nol­o­gy dur­ing the time of the Lud­dite protests (1811–1817) was large­ly lim­it­ed to the new machines of the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. Today, we’re sort of like the Borg with just with one plan­et to assim­i­late [73]. Our future is going to include a robust imple­men­ta­tion of tech­nol­o­gy. And demand is going to be grow­ing for any tech­nol­o­gy that can increase food and ener­gy sup­plies in a world with shrink­ing resources, a chang­ing cli­mate, and an ever grow­ing human demand. So when we’re look­ing for answers to the twin ques­tions of “how do we pro­tect the key species need­ed to feed our­selves pro­tect­ed from the prac­tices of mod­ern agri­cul­ture?” and “how do we feed our­selves?” the answer is most like­ly going to involve com­ing up with less dam­ag­ing yet more pow­er­ful mod­ern agri­cul­tur­al solu­tions. And that means bet­ter biotech. Maybe that will involve things like Bt corn and RNAi sprays, and Roundup. Hope­ful­ly not because it’s very unclear why we would want to intro­duce more stress­es into the envi­ron­ment at this point if we can get by with­out it [74].

In The Future, Food Will Come Pre-Cooked. And Dis­eased.
But it’s hard to rule out biotech tools when we’re talk­ing about future threats to the glob­al food sup­ply. And who knows, maybe the most envi­ron­men­tal­ly effi­ca­cious solu­tions in the future real­ly will involve uti­liz­ing a Rube Gold­berg Machine of GMO tech com­bined with a con­coc­tion of oth­er care­ful­ly select­ed pes­ti­cides, her­bi­cides, and fer­til­iz­ers. Hope­ful­ly all of that won’t be nec­es­sary and organ­ics farm­ing meth­ods real­ly will be ade­quate of the rest of the cen­tu­ry, but we can’t real­ly rule out the Rube Gold­berg approach indef­i­nite­ly. For starters, GMO tech­noloy is still pret­ty new and there’s no rea­son future gen­er­a­tions of GMO tech­nol­o­gy have to car­ry with the same risks and dan­gers seen today.

For exam­ple, as the fol­low­ing arti­cle points out, future GMO tech­nol­o­gy may not involve intro­duc­ing new genes into an organ­ism at all but instead tweak exist­ing genes. Also, depend­ing on how cli­mate change plays out, doing every­thing we pos­si­bly can to increase crop yields using tra­di­tion­al farm­ing meth­ods may not be an option in our warmer, more pop­u­lat­ed future with with extreme tem­per­a­ture spikes. Many plants can han­dle high­er aver­age tem­per­a­tures but not when those high­er aver­ages are arrived at through a series of extreme tem­per­a­ture spikes. And that’s the future cli­mate we’re look­ing at in many parts of the globe: one with a lot more extreme­ly hot days that phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly shock plants [75]. Bees aren’t the only species human­i­ty needs to sur­vive that can die a death of a thou­sand envi­ron­men­tal cuts. Our food in the future just might need all the help it can get [76]:

MIT Tech­nol­o­gy Review
Why We Will Need Genet­i­cal­ly Mod­i­fied Foods
Biotech crops will have an essen­tial role in ensur­ing that there’s enough to eat.

By David Rot­man on Decem­ber 17, 2013

Signs of late blight appear sud­den­ly but pre­dictably in Ire­land as soon as the sum­mer weath­er turns humid, spores of the fun­gus­like plant pathogen waft­ing across the open green fields and land­ing on the wet leaves of the pota­to plants. This year it began to rain in ear­ly August. With­in sev­er­al weeks, late blight had attacked a small plot of pota­toes in the cor­ner of the neat grid of test plant­i­ngs at the head­quar­ters of Tea­gasc, Ireland’s agri­cul­tur­al agency, in Car­low.


It’s the sec­ond year of what are sched­uled to be three-year field tri­als. But even if the results from next year are sim­i­lar­ly encour­ag­ing, Tea­gasc has no inten­tion of giv­ing farm­ers access to the plant, which was devel­oped by researchers at Wagenin­gen Uni­ver­si­ty in the Nether­lands. Such genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered crops remain con­tro­ver­sial in Europe, and only two are approved for plant­i­ng in the EU. Though Mullins and his col­leagues are eager to learn how blight affects the GM pota­toes and whether the plants will affect soil microbes, dis­trib­ut­ing the mod­i­fied plant in Ire­land is, at least for now, a non­starter.

Nev­er­the­less, the fields of Car­low present a tan­ta­liz­ing pic­ture of how genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied crops could help pro­tect the world’s food sup­ply. Blight-resis­tant pota­toes would be one of the first major foods genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered to incor­po­rate defens­es against plant dis­eases, which annu­al­ly destroy some 15 per­cent of the world’s agri­cul­tur­al har­vest. Despite the heavy use of fungi­cides, late blight and oth­er plant dis­eases ruin an esti­mat­ed fifth of the world’s pota­toes, a food increas­ing­ly grown in Chi­na and India. Stem rust, a fun­gal dis­ease of wheat, has spread through much of Africa and the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la and is now threat­en­ing the vast grow­ing regions of cen­tral and south Asia, which pro­duce some 20 per­cent of the world’s wheat. Bananas, which are a pri­ma­ry source of food in coun­tries such as Ugan­da, are often destroyed by wilt dis­ease. In all these cas­es, genet­ic engi­neer­ing has the poten­tial to cre­ate vari­eties that are far bet­ter able to with­stand the onslaught.

GM pota­toes could also lead to a new gen­er­a­tion of biotech foods sold direct­ly to con­sumers. Though trans­genic corn, soy­beans, and cotton—mostly engi­neered to resist insects and herbicides—have been wide­ly plant­ed since the late 1990s in the Unit­ed States and in a smat­ter­ing of oth­er large agri­cul­tur­al coun­tries, includ­ing Brazil and Cana­da, the corn and soy­bean crops go main­ly into ani­mal feed, bio­fu­els, and cook­ing oils. No genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied vari­eties of rice, wheat, or pota­toes are wide­ly grown, because oppo­si­tion to such foods has dis­cour­aged invest­ment in devel­op­ing them and because seed com­pa­nies haven’t found ways to make the kind of mon­ey on those crops that they do from genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied corn and soy­beans.

With the glob­al pop­u­la­tion expect­ed to reach more than nine bil­lion by 2050, how­ev­er, the world might soon be hun­gry for such vari­eties. Although agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tiv­i­ty has improved dra­mat­i­cal­ly over the past 50 years, econ­o­mists fear that these improve­ments have begun to wane at a time when food demand, dri­ven by the larg­er num­ber of peo­ple and the grow­ing appetites of wealth­i­er pop­u­la­tions, is expect­ed to rise between 70 and 100 per­cent by mid­cen­tu­ry. In par­tic­u­lar, the rapid increas­es in rice and wheat yields that helped feed the world for decades are show­ing signs of slow­ing down, and pro­duc­tion of cere­als will need to more than dou­ble by 2050 to keep up. If the trend con­tin­ues, pro­duc­tion might be insuf­fi­cient to meet demand unless we start using sig­nif­i­cant­ly more land, fer­til­iz­er, and water.

Cli­mate change is like­ly to make the prob­lem far worse, bring­ing high­er tem­per­a­tures and, in many regions, wet­ter con­di­tions that spread infes­ta­tions of dis­ease and insects into new areas. Drought, dam­ag­ing storms, and very hot days are already tak­ing a toll on crop yields, and the fre­quen­cy of these events is expect­ed to increase sharply as the cli­mate warms. For farm­ers, the effects of cli­mate change can be sim­ply put: the weath­er has become far more unpre­dictable, and extreme weath­er has become far more com­mon.


One advan­tage of using genet­ic engi­neer­ing to help crops adapt to these sud­den changes is that new vari­eties can be cre­at­ed quick­ly. Cre­at­ing a pota­to vari­ety through con­ven­tion­al breed­ing, for exam­ple, takes at least 15 years; pro­duc­ing a genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied one takes less than six months. Genet­ic mod­i­fi­ca­tion also allows plant breed­ers to make more pre­cise changes and draw from a far greater vari­ety of genes, gleaned from the plants’ wild rel­a­tives or from dif­fer­ent types of organ­isms. Plant sci­en­tists are care­ful to note that no mag­i­cal gene can be insert­ed into a crop to make it drought tol­er­ant or to increase its yield—even resis­tance to a dis­ease typ­i­cal­ly requires mul­ti­ple genet­ic changes. But many of them say genet­ic engi­neer­ing is a ver­sa­tile and essen­tial tech­nique.

“It’s an over­whelm­ing­ly log­i­cal thing to do,” says Jonathan Jones, a sci­en­tist at the Sains­bury Lab­o­ra­to­ry in the U.K. and one of the world’s lead­ing experts on plant dis­eases. The upcom­ing pres­sures on agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion, he says, “[are] real and will affect mil­lions of peo­ple in poor coun­tries.” He adds that it would be “per­verse to spurn using genet­ic mod­i­fi­ca­tion as a tool.”

It’s a view that is wide­ly shared by those respon­si­ble for devel­op­ing tomorrow’s crop vari­eties. At the cur­rent lev­el of agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion, there’s enough food to feed the world, says Eduar­do Blumwald, a plant sci­en­tist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis. But “when the pop­u­la­tion reach­es nine bil­lion?” he says. “No way, José.”

Failed promis­es

The promise that genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied crops could help feed the world is at least as old as the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of the first trans­genic seeds in the mid-1990s. The cor­po­ra­tions that helped turn genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered crops into a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness, includ­ing the large chem­i­cal com­pa­nies Mon­san­to, Bay­er, and DuPont, pro­mot­ed the tech­nol­o­gy as part of a life sci­ence rev­o­lu­tion that would great­ly increase food pro­duc­tion. So far it’s turned out, for a num­ber of rea­sons, to have been a some­what emp­ty promise.

To be sure, bio­engi­neered crops are a huge com­mer­cial suc­cess in some coun­tries. The idea is sim­ple but com­pelling: by insert­ing a for­eign gene derived from, say, bac­te­ria into corn, you can give the plant a trait it wouldn’t oth­er­wise pos­sess. Sur­veys esti­mate that more than 170 mil­lion hectares of such trans­genic crops are grown world­wide. In the Unit­ed States, the major­i­ty of corn, soy­beans, and cot­ton plant­ed have been engi­neered with a gene from the soil bac­teri­um Bacil­lus thuringensis—Bt—to ward off insects or with anoth­er bac­te­r­i­al gene to with­stand her­bi­cides. World­wide, 81 per­cent of the soy­beans and 35 per­cent of the corn grown are biotech vari­eties. In India, Bt cot­ton was approved more than a decade ago and now rep­re­sents 96 per­cent of the cot­ton grown in the coun­try.

Yet it’s not clear whether that boom in trans­genic crops has led to increased food pro­duc­tion or low­er prices for con­sumers. Take corn, for exam­ple. In the Unit­ed States, 76 per­cent of the crop is genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied to resist insects, and 85 per­cent can tol­er­ate being sprayed with a weed killer. Such corn has, arguably, been a boon to farm­ers, reduc­ing pes­ti­cide use and boost­ing yields. But lit­tle of U.S. corn pro­duc­tion is used direct­ly for human food; about 4 per­cent goes into high–fructose corn syrup and 1.8 per­cent to cere­al and oth­er foods. Genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied corn and soy­beans are so prof­itable that U.S. farm­ers have begun sub­sti­tut­ing them for wheat: around 56 mil­lion acres of wheat were plant­ed in 2012, down from 62 mil­lion in 2000. As sup­ply fell, the price of a bushel of wheat rose to near­ly $8 in 2012, from $2.50 in 2000.

So far, the short list of trans­genic crops used direct­ly for food includes virus-resis­tant papaya grown in Hawaii, Bt sweet corn recent­ly com­mer­cial­ized in the Unit­ed States by Mon­san­to, and a few vari­eties of squash that resist plant virus­es. That list could be about to grow, how­ev­er. The Indone­sian agri­cul­tur­al agency expects to approve a blight-resis­tant pota­to soon, and J.?R. Sim­plot, an agri­cul­tur­al sup­pli­er based in Boise, Ida­ho, is hop­ing to com­mer­cial­ize its own ver­sion by 2017. Mon­san­to, which aban­doned an attempt to devel­op GM wheat in 2004, bought a wheat-seed com­pa­ny in 2009 and is now try­ing again. And Cor­nell researchers are work­ing with col­lab­o­ra­tors in India, Bangladesh, and the Philip­pines, coun­tries where egg­plant is a sta­ple, to make an insect-resis­tant form of the veg­etable avail­able to farm­ers.

These bio­engi­neered ver­sions of some of the world’s most impor­tant food crops could help ful­fill ini­tial hopes for genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied organ­isms, or GMOs. But they will also almost cer­tain­ly heat up the debate over the tech­nol­o­gy. Oppo­nents wor­ry that insert­ing for­eign genes into crops could make food dan­ger­ous or aller­genic, though more than 15 years of expe­ri­ence with trans­genic crops have revealed no health dan­gers, and nei­ther have a series of sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies. More cred­i­bly, detrac­tors sug­gest that the tech­nol­o­gy is a ploy by giant cor­po­ra­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly Mon­san­to, to ped­dle more her­bi­cides, dom­i­nate the agri­cul­tur­al sup­ply chain, and leave farm­ers depen­dent on high-priced trans­genic seeds. The most per­sua­sive crit­i­cism, how­ev­er, may sim­ply be that exist­ing trans­genic crops have done lit­tle to guar­an­tee the future of the world’s food sup­ply in the face of cli­mate change and a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion.

The first gen­er­a­tion of insect-resis­tant and her­bi­cide-tol­er­ant crops offer few new traits, such as drought tol­er­ance and dis­ease resis­tance, that could help the plants adapt to changes in weath­er and dis­ease pat­terns, acknowl­edges Mar­garet Smith, a pro­fes­sor of plant breed­ing and genet­ics at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty. Nonethe­less, she says there is no valid rea­son to dis­miss the tech­nol­o­gy as plant sci­en­tists race to increase crop pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Sci­en­tists are “fac­ing a daunt­ing breed­ing chal­lenge,” Smith says. “We will need a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of trans­genic crops. It would be a mis­take to rule out this tool because the first prod­ucts didn’t address the big issues.”

Devel­op­ing crops that are bet­ter able to with­stand cli­mate change won’t be easy. It will require plant sci­en­tists to engi­neer com­plex traits involv­ing mul­ti­ple genes. Durable dis­ease resis­tance typ­i­cal­ly requires a series of genet­ic changes and detailed knowl­edge of how pathogens attack the plant. Traits such as tol­er­ance to drought and heat are even hard­er, since they can require basic changes to the plant’s phys­i­ol­o­gy.

Is genet­ic engi­neer­ing up to the task? No one knows. But recent genom­ic break­throughs are encour­ag­ing. Sci­en­tists have sequenced the genomes of crops such as rice, pota­toes, bananas, and wheat. At the same time, advances in mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gy mean that genes can be delet­ed, mod­i­fied, and insert­ed with far greater pre­ci­sion. In par­tic­u­lar, new genome engi­neer­ing tools known as Tal­ens and Crispr allow geneti­cists to “edit” plant DNA, chang­ing chro­mo­somes exact­ly where they want.

Exact Edits

The work­shop adja­cent to the rows of green­hous­es at the edge of Cornell’s cam­pus in Itha­ca, New York, smells musty and damp from the crates of pota­toes. It is less than a mile from the university’s mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gy labs, but what you see are wood­en con­vey­er belts, wire screens, and water hoses. Wal­ter De Jong is sort­ing and siz­ing har­vest­ed pota­toes as part of a mul­ti­year effort to come up with yet a bet­ter vari­ety for the region’s grow­ers. Box­es are filled with potatoes—some small and round, oth­ers large and mis­shapen. Asked what traits are impor­tant to con­sumers, he smiles sly­ly and says, “Looks, looks, looks.”

The ques­tion of how he feels about efforts to devel­op trans­genic pota­toes is not as eas­i­ly answered. It’s not that De Jong is opposed to genet­ic engi­neer­ing. As a pota­to breed­er, he’s well versed in con­ven­tion­al meth­ods of intro­duc­ing new traits, but he also has a PhD in plant pathol­o­gy and has done con­sid­er­able research in mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gy; he knows the oppor­tu­ni­ties that advanced genet­ics opens up. In the north­east­ern Unit­ed States, a vari­ety of pota­to is opti­mized for about a 500-mile radius, tak­ing into account the length of the grow­ing sea­son and the type of weath­er in the area. Cli­mate change means these grow­ing zones are shift­ing, mak­ing crop breed­ing like solv­ing a puz­zle in which the pieces are mov­ing around. The speed offered by genet­ic mod­i­fi­ca­tion would help. But, De Jong says dis­mis­sive­ly, “I don’t expect to use [trans­genic] tech­nol­o­gy. I can’t afford it.”

“It’s a curi­ous sit­u­a­tion,” he says. Sci­en­tists at pub­lic and aca­d­e­m­ic research insti­tu­tions have done much of the work to iden­ti­fy genes and under­stand how they can affect traits in plants. But the lengthy test­ing and reg­u­la­to­ry process­es for genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied crops, and the dan­ger that con­sumers will reject them, mean that only “a hand­ful of large com­pa­nies” can afford the expense and risk of devel­op­ing them, he says.

But De Jong sud­den­ly becomes ani­mat­ed when he’s asked about the newest genome engi­neer­ing tools. “This is what I have been wait­ing my whole career for,” he says, throw­ing his hands up. “As long as I have been a pota­to sci­en­tist, I’ve want­ed two things: a sequenced pota­to genome and the abil­i­ty to mod­i­fy the genome at will.” Across cam­pus, De Jong also runs a mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gy lab, where he has iden­ti­fied the DNA sequence respon­si­ble for red pig­ment in pota­to tubers. Soon, it could be pos­si­ble to pre­cise­ly alter that sequence in a pota­to cell that can then be grown into a plant: “If I had a white pota­to I want­ed to turn red, I could just edit one or two nucleotides and get the col­or I want.” Plant breed­ing “is not the art of shuf­fling genes around,” De Jong explains. “Basi­cal­ly, all pota­toes have the same genes; what they have is dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the genes—alleles. And alle­les dif­fer from one anoth­er in a few nucleotides. If I can edit the few nucleotides, why breed for [a trait]? It’s been the holy grail in plant genet­ics for a long time.”


One impli­ca­tion of the new tools is that plants can be genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied with­out the addi­tion of for­eign genes. Though it’s too ear­ly to tell whether that will change the pub­lic debate over GMOs, reg­u­la­to­ry agencies—at least in the Unit­ed States—indicate that crops mod­i­fied with­out for­eign genes won’t have to be scru­ti­nized as thor­ough­ly as trans­genic crops. That could great­ly reduce the time and expense it takes to com­mer­cial­ize new vari­eties of genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered foods. And it’s pos­si­ble that crit­ics of biotech­nol­o­gy could draw a sim­i­lar dis­tinc­tion, tol­er­at­ing genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied crops so long as they are not trans­genic.

Dan Voy­tas, direc­tor of the genome engi­neer­ing cen­ter at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta and one of Talens’s inven­tors, says one of his main moti­va­tions is the need to feed anoth­er two bil­lion peo­ple by the mid­dle of the cen­tu­ry. In one of his most ambi­tious efforts, cen­tered at the Inter­na­tion­al Rice Research Insti­tute in Los Baños, the Philip­pines, he is col­lab­o­rat­ing with a world­wide net­work of researchers to rewrite the phys­i­ol­o­gy of rice. Rice and wheat, like oth­er grains, have what botanists call C3 pho­to­syn­the­sis, rather than the more com­plex C4 ver­sion that corn and sug­ar­cane have. The C4 ver­sion of pho­to­syn­the­sis uses water and car­bon diox­ide far more effi­cient­ly. If the project is suc­cess­ful, both rice and wheat yields could be increased in regions that are becom­ing hot­ter and dri­er as a result of cli­mate change.

Rewrit­ing the core work­ings of a plant is not a triv­ial task. But Voy­tas says Tal­ens could be a valu­able tool—both to iden­ti­fy the genet­ic path­ways that might be tweaked and to make the many nec­es­sary genet­ic changes.

The pres­sure to help feed the grow­ing pop­u­la­tion at a time when cli­mate change is mak­ing more land mar­gin­al for agri­cul­ture is “the bur­den that plant biol­o­gists bear,” Voy­tas says. But he’s opti­mistic. Over much of the last 50 years, he points out, crop pro­duc­tiv­i­ty has made repeat­ed gains, attrib­ut­able first to the use of hybrid seeds, then to the new plant vari­eties intro­duced dur­ing the so-called Green Rev­o­lu­tion, and “even to the first GM plants.” The intro­duc­tion of the new genome engi­neer­ing tools, he says, “will be anoth­er inflec­tion point.”

If he’s right, it might be just in time.

Heat Wave

For agron­o­mists, plant breed­ers, and farm­ers, it’s all about yield—the amount a crop pro­duces in a hectare. The remark­able increas­es in crop yields begin­ning in the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tu­ry are the main rea­son that we have enough food to go from feed­ing three bil­lion peo­ple in 1960 to feed­ing sev­en bil­lion in 2011 with only a slight increase in the amount of land under cul­ti­va­tion. Per­haps most famous­ly, the Green Rev­o­lu­tion spear­head­ed by the Iowa-born plant pathol­o­gist and geneti­cist Nor­man Bor­laug sub­stan­tial­ly increased yields of wheat, corn, and rice in many parts of the world. It did so, in part, by intro­duc­ing more pro­duc­tive crop vari­eties, start­ing in Mex­i­co and then in Pak­istan, India, and oth­er coun­tries. But for at least the past decade, increas­es in the yields of wheat and rice seem to have slowed. Yields of wheat, for exam­ple, are grow­ing at rough­ly 1 per­cent annu­al­ly; they need to increase near­ly 2 per­cent annu­al­ly to keep up with food demand over the long term. Agri­cul­tur­al experts warn that yields will have to improve for oth­er crops as well if we are to feed a rapid­ly grow­ing population—and yet ris­ing tem­per­a­tures and oth­er effects of glob­al cli­mate change will make this tougher to achieve.

David Lobell, a pro­fes­sor of envi­ron­men­tal earth sys­tem sci­ence at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, has a calm demeanor that belies his bleak mes­sage about how glob­al warm­ing is already affect­ing crops. The effects of cli­mate change on agri­cul­ture have been wide­ly debat­ed, but recent­ly Lobell and his col­lab­o­ra­tors have clar­i­fied the pro­jec­tions by comb­ing through his­tor­i­cal records of weath­er and agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion. They found that from 1980 to 2008, cli­mate change depressed yields of wheat and corn; yields still rose dur­ing that time, but over­all pro­duc­tion was 2 to 3 per­cent less than it would have been if not for glob­al warm­ing. This has held true across most of the regions where corn and wheat are grown.

The find­ing is star­tling because it sug­gests that glob­al warm­ing has already had a sig­nif­i­cant impact on food pro­duc­tion and will make an even big­ger dif­fer­ence as cli­mate change inten­si­fies. “Any­thing that caus­es yield [growth] to flat­ten out is a con­cern,” says Lobell. And while over­all yields of wheat and corn are still increas­ing, he says, “cli­mate change becomes a con­cern long before you have neg­a­tive yield trends.”

Even more dis­turb­ing, Lobell and his col­lab­o­ra­tor Wol­fram Schlenker, an econ­o­mist at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, have found evi­dence that in the case of sev­er­al impor­tant crops, the neg­a­tive effect of glob­al warm­ing is more strong­ly tied to the num­ber of extreme­ly hot days than to the rise in aver­age tem­per­a­tures over a sea­son. If that’s true, ear­li­er research might have severe­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed the impact of cli­mate change by look­ing only at aver­age tem­per­a­tures.

Schlenker’s cal­cu­la­tions show steady increas­es in corn and soy­bean yields as the tem­per­a­ture ris­es from 10 °C into the 20s—but at around 29 °C for corn and 30 °C for soy­beans, the crops are “hit hard” and yields drop dra­mat­i­cal­ly. In sub­se­quent work, Lobell showed that hot days were doing far more dam­age to wheat in north­ern India than pre­vi­ous­ly thought.

A sur­pris­ing and trou­bling detail of the research, says Schlenker, is that crops and farm­ers don’t seem to have adapt­ed to the increased fre­quen­cy of hot days. What sur­prised me most and should inform us going for­ward,” he says, “is that there has been tremen­dous progress in agri­cul­tur­al breeding—average yields have gone up more than three­fold since the 1950s—but if you look at sen­si­tiv­i­ty to extreme heat, it seems to be just as bad as it was in the 1950s. We need to have crops that are bet­ter at deal­ing with hot cli­mates.” Dur­ing the heat wave that hit much of the Unit­ed States in 2012, he says, yields of corn were down 20 per­cent, and “2012 is not that unusu­al a year com­pared to what the cli­mate mod­els pre­dict will be a new nor­mal pret­ty soon.”

It’s pos­si­ble that plants are sim­ply hard­wired to shut down at tem­per­a­tures above 30 °C. Indeed, Schlenker says he’s not con­vinced that crops can be engi­neered to adapt to the increased fre­quen­cy of hot days, though he hopes he’s wrong. Like­wise, Lobell wants his work to bet­ter define which aspects of cli­mate change are dam­ag­ing crops and thus help tar­get the need­ed genet­ic changes. But, like Schlenker, he is unsure whether genet­ics can pro­vide much of an answer.

In California’s Cen­tral Val­ley, one of the world’s most pro­duc­tive agri­cul­tur­al areas, UC Davis’s Blumwald acknowl­edges that sci­en­tists have “nev­er bred for stress­es” like drought and heat. But he aims to change that. Insert­ing a com­bi­na­tion of genes for tol­er­ance to heat, drought, and high soil salin­i­ty into rice and oth­er plants, Blumwald is cre­at­ing crops that have at least some advan­tages dur­ing extreme weath­er con­di­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing key times in their growth cycle.

The chal­lenge is to avoid reduc­ing yields under good grow­ing con­di­tions. So Blumwald has iden­ti­fied a pro­tein that acti­vates the insert­ed genes only under adverse con­di­tions. “There’s no cure for drought. If there’s no water, the plant dies. I’m not a magi­cian,” he says. “We just want to delay the stress response as long as pos­si­ble in order to main­tain yields until the water comes.”


Note that the Cal­i­for­nia farm belt is expe­ri­enc­ing [77] its dri­est sea­son on record [78].


Dai­ly Bread


Wheat is also emblem­at­ic of the strug­gles fac­ing agri­cul­ture as it attempts to keep up with a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion and a chang­ing cli­mate. Not only have the gains in yield begun to slow, but wheat is par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to ris­ing tem­per­a­tures and is grown in many regions, such as Aus­tralia, that are prone to severe droughts. What’s more, wheat is vul­ner­a­ble to one of the world’s most dread­ed plant dis­eases: stem rust, which is threat­en­ing the fer­tile swath of Pak­istan and north­ern India known as the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Con­ven­tion­al breed­ing tech­niques have made remark­able progress against these prob­lems, pro­duc­ing vari­eties that are increas­ing­ly drought tol­er­ant and dis­ease resis­tant. But biotech­nol­o­gy offers advan­tages that shouldn’t be ignored.

“Cli­mate change doesn’t change [the chal­lenge for plant breed­ers], but it makes it much more urgent,” says Wal­ter Fal­con, deputy direc­tor of the Cen­ter on Food Secu­ri­ty and the Envi­ron­ment at Stan­ford. Fal­con was one of the foot sol­diers of the Green Rev­o­lu­tion, work­ing in the wheat-grow­ing regions of Pak­istan and in Mexico’s Yaqui Val­ley. But he says the remark­able increas­es in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty achieved between 1970 and 1995 have large­ly “played out,” and he wor­ries about whether the technology–intensive farm­ing in those regions can be sus­tained. He says the Yaqui Val­ley remains high­ly productive—recent yields of sev­en tons of wheat per hectare “blow your mind”—but the heavy use of fer­til­iz­ers and water is “push­ing the lim­its” of cur­rent prac­tices. Like­wise, Fal­con says he is wor­ried about how cli­mate change will affect agri­cul­ture in the Indo-Gangetic Plain, the home of near­ly a bil­lion peo­ple.

Asked whether trans­genic tech­nol­o­gy will solve any of these prob­lems, he answers, “I’m not hold­ing my breath,” cit­ing both sci­en­tif­ic rea­sons and oppo­si­tion to GM crops. But he does expect advances in genet­ic tech­nolo­gies over the next decade to cre­ate wheat vari­eties that are bet­ter equipped to with­stand pests, high­er tem­per­a­tures, and drought.

It is quite pos­si­ble that the first and most dra­mat­ic of the advances will come in adapt­ing crops to the shift­ing pat­terns of dis­ease. And as Teagasc’s Ewen Mullins puts it, “if you want to study plant dis­eases, you come to Ire­land.”

A hun­dred kilo­me­ters from the idyl­lic fields in Car­low, Fiona Doohan, a plant pathol­o­gist at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Dublin, is devel­op­ing wheat vari­eties that stand up to local dis­eases and try­ing to under­stand how plant pathogens might evolve with cli­mate change. At the school’s agri­cul­tur­al exper­i­ment sta­tion, she uses grow­ing cham­bers in which the con­cen­tra­tion of car­bon diox­ide can be adjust­ed to mim­ic the high­er lev­els expect­ed in 2050. The exper­i­ments have yield­ed a nasty sur­prise. When wheat and the pathogens that com­mon­ly afflict it are put in the cham­ber with the increased lev­els of car­bon diox­ide, the plant remains resis­tant to the fun­gus. But when both are sep­a­rate­ly grown through sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions under 2050 con­di­tions and then placed togeth­er, Doohan says, the plants “crash.” This sug­gests, omi­nous­ly, that plant pathogens might be far bet­ter and faster than wheat at adapt­ing to increased car­bon diox­ide.


What a won­der­ful sur­prise: So are researchers find­ing that heat shocks are going to be par­tic­u­lar­ly dam­ag­ing to sta­ple crops like wheat. But on top of that, when they stud­ied the impact of a 2050 cli­mate on wheat they found that the wheat could adapt to the high­er CO2 lev­els but wheat’s pathogens adapt­ed faster and bet­ter to the new con­di­tions. And when the two were allowed to adapt sep­a­rate­ly and then com­bined, the plants were over­whelmed by their more-rapid­ly-adapt­ing pest. It’s a nasty sur­prise that high­lights the grim real­i­ty that today’s pests can effec­tive­ly become tomor­row’s super-pests sim­ply by adapt­ing more rapid­ly to the oncom­ing stress­es cli­mate change. And since pests almost always adapt more rapid­ly than the their more com­plex tar­get organ­isms to chang­ing con­di­tions and since pests are bound to move into new regions as the cli­mate warms, it sounds like we could be in for a glob­al tidal wave of super-pests prey­ing on some very stressed out plants.

That’s not a very fun sound­ing sce­nario but it is what it is. It’s also our future. Or might be. And as the above author points out, if the impact of cli­mate change on crop yields real­ly is worse then we’ve been led to believe, com­mit­ting to a GMO-free future may be a hard sell decades from if when crops are dying at greater-than-expect­ed rates. And if the sit­u­a­tion is look­ing so dire that glob­al hunger could be loom­ing over the hori­zon, why, as one of the researchers in the arti­cle point­ed out, do we have this sit­u­a­tion?

“It’s a curi­ous sit­u­a­tion,” he says. Sci­en­tists at pub­lic and aca­d­e­m­ic research insti­tu­tions have done much of the work to iden­ti­fy genes and under­stand how they can affect traits in plants. But the lengthy test­ing and reg­u­la­to­ry process­es for genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied crops, and the dan­ger that con­sumers will reject them, mean that only “a hand­ful of large com­pa­nies” can afford the expense and risk of devel­op­ing them, he says.

Leav­ing the devel­op­ment of GMO tools that could be need­ed to avoid a mass calami­ty over the next cen­tu­ry in the hands of a hand­ful of large cor­po­ra­tions like Mon­san­to and Bay­er with long track-record of pri­or­i­tiz­ing prof­it-max­i­miza­tion is, well, strange. And it’s espe­cial­ly strange when the future biotech tools that we all might need in the future could, if mis­used, also lead to mass calami­ty [79]. As the above arti­cle point­ed out, exist­ing GMO crops have been quite prof­itable, but they haven’t real­ly done much to increase the food sup­ply. It rais­es the ques­tion of whether or not the prof­it-motive is going to be at all ade­quate to incen­tivize the devel­op­ment of tools we’re going to need when that devel­op­ment is con­duct­ed by a hand­ful of prof­it-max­iz­ing giants. And if not, are there oth­er options [69]?:

Let’s Make Genet­i­cal­ly Mod­i­fied Food Open-Source
It will help fight cli­mate change and stick one in Monsanto’s eye.
By Fred­er­ick Kauf­man

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.


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 [80], the new sci­ence can take cred­it for genet­ic inoc­u­la­tions that saved Hawaii’s papaya busi­ness [81]. It’s also led to flood-resis­tant rice [82], 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 [83], 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 [84], “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.

Open-source GMO is a new idea for food jus­tice activists, who have been con­cen­trat­ing their efforts on deplet­ing Mon­san­to’s mar­ket share through con­sumer advo­ca­cy and polit­i­cal reform. Label­ing laws for genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied organ­isms in the retail food­stream are about [85] to land [86] in state­hous­es across the coun­try [87]. But genet­ic mod­i­fi­ca­tion does not equal Mon­san­to and Pio­neer. The time has come to sep­a­rate the dancer from the dance and admit that it is pos­si­ble to be against big-agri­cul­ture and for sci­en­tif­ic advance­ment.

Open-source is the quick­est way to under­mine pro­pri­etary rights to food mol­e­cules, those rights that guar­an­tee prof­it streams for transna­tion­als while con­demn­ing the earth to a mono­cul­tur­al future of agri­cul­ture with no regard for agroe­col­o­gy. For the surest way to sab­o­tage Mon­san­to is not to label but to sap its income. Already, a num­ber of biotech pio­neers have fol­lowed the open-source exam­ples of Apache and Wikipedia. The data­base of the human genome map­ping project has been free since it was pub­lished in 2003. The genet­ic map of rice has been made avail­able at no charge to researchers world­wide. And the Food and Agri­cul­ture Orga­ni­za­tion of the Unit­ed Nations has made its “Access to Glob­al Online Research in Agri­cul­ture” a transna­tion­al par­a­digm of free-flow­ing infor­ma­tion. Agri­cul­tur­al researchers in devel­op­ing coun­tries need not pay a pen­ny to review all the lat­est life sci­ence research pub­lished in more than 3,000 aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals.


Every­one inter­est­ed in glob­al food knows that agri­cul­ture has had a large­ly neg­a­tive impact on glob­al warm­ing, but few have rec­og­nized that legal reform of food-relat­ed intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty laws can help ensure a path to a more eco­log­i­cal­ly secure future. No doubt, bio­log­i­cal “input” is far more com­plex than com­put­er “input,” but the idea of a swarm of bio-hack­ers bring­ing down Mon­san­to and Dow is too delight­ful to dis­miss. Throw cli­mate change into the pic­ture, and the stakes are sim­ply too high for con­tin­u­ing the sta­tus quo of patent­ed food. Nei­ther infor­ma­tion nor lunch may want to be free, but even­tu­al­ly we will need to get around to the busi­ness of sequenc­ing pro­teins that have less to do with quar­ter­ly prof­its and more to do with cen­turies of eco­log­i­cal abuse. And those will be the only inputs that mat­ter when the big heat hits.

Excit­ed for your open source GMO future? Mon­san­to, Dow, and Bay­er prob­a­bly aren’t very excit­ed by the idea. The bees might be if it leads to faster devel­op­ment of bee-friend­ly pest con­trol tech­nolo­gies. But at the end of the day, if we want to ensure that resources are invest­ed into devel­op­ing the kinds of biotech tools that human­i­ty needs — as opposed to the biotech tools that cor­po­ra­tions find most prof­itable — some­thing new is going to have to be tried if human­i­ty wants to avoid hav­ing its gold­en goose [88] cooked in the com­ing decades.

But when we’re swim­ming in a sea of con­fus­ing biotech-spec­u­la­tion and calami­tous prog­nos­ti­ca­tions, let’s keep in mind that there are some very sim­ple solu­tions to ensur­ing glob­al food sup­plies in the future and they most­ly revolve around need­ed less of it. For instance, we could go a long way towards sav­ing the bees (and a lot of hun­gry peo­ple) if we could just stop eat­ing the birds and their four-legged friends [89]. Not [90] inter­est­ed [91] yet [92]? Just wait [93]. Or we could cut down on the total farm­land need­ed by no longer throw­ing so much food away for no good rea­son [94] . Or we could maybe just stop throw­ing sub­stances like neon­i­coti­noids on so many crops and use them only as a last resort [3]. Or all of the above.

And yet, as we’ve seen, seem­ing­ly sim­ple solu­tions like ban­ning neon­i­coti­noids to save some­thing as cru­cial as bees can be a sur­pris­ing­ly com­pli­cat­ed process. Part of this com­pli­ca­tion is due to the fact that answer­ing ques­tions like “how much are neon­i­coti­noids con­tribut­ing bee deaths” is a real­ly hard ques­tion to answer. But anoth­er part of this com­pli­ca­tion is due to the fact that sav­ing the bees often involve help­ing the pests and harm­ing crops. And in the case of Bt corn, it’s a par­tic­u­lar­ly prof­itable crop that’s most­ly used for cat­tle and fuel [76] mak­ing it an awful win-lose sit­u­a­tion with a lot of mon­ey involved. When it comes to sav­ing the bees, Big Ag poten­tial­ly has to make major shifts in how it does what it does and giants like Bay­er and Mon­san­to stand to lose bil­lions if sus­tain­able farm­ing becomes the norm. From a finan­cial stand­point there are heavy prices to be paid by many pow­er­ful pri­vate enti­ties if we achieve the bee-friend­ly future too soon. And yet, from a prof­it stand­point, the last decade has been when Big Ag can most afford [95] to change [96] its [37] ways [97]. And from a biological/ecological stand­point, there might nev­er be a be a bet­ter chance than right now to clean up our food sup­ply and put the plan­et on a sus­tain­able, bee-friend­ly food future — yes, even now [98]because it’s only get­ting worse [99] from here. For the moment, we can still afford to shift to a sus­tain­able, bee-friend­ly world and ditch what­ev­er GMO tech or any oth­er indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture prac­tices that are just not going to be viable going for­ward (no mat­ter how prof­itable they may be). We can still do all that feed our­selves because so much of what we grow is used for things oth­er than food and so much food is wast­ed (which also hap­pens to be much of what gets sprayed with neon­i­coti­noids).

But in the future, as pop­u­la­tions grow and the cli­mate changes, the food-sup­ply flex­i­bil­i­ty of today may no longer exist. Just keep­ing the world fed when using next-gen­er­a­tion high-yield GMO foods could become a prob­lem if cli­mate change is sig­nif­i­cant­ly worse than expect­ed (or about as bad as expect­ed [100]). The short-term costs of ditch­ing Franken-corn and its GMO-food-friends may be sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er under many fea­si­ble future sce­nar­ios so when we’re pon­der­ing “what do we do about the bees?” we should keep in mind that this is one of this sit­u­a­tions where wait­ing and hop­ing for tech­ni­cal advances to fix the prob­lem in the future might be a real­ly bad, and expen­sive approach.

So from a prof­it stand­point, there’s a cor­po­rate prof­it vs bees [101] dynam­ic at the moment. In the long-term, how­ev­er, it’s either the choice of both the bees and human­i­ty liv­ing togeth­er in har­mo­ny of sorts or waaaaaaaaay few­er flow­er­ing species and a big loss of bio­di­ver­si­ty [102]. Life could go on, and the patent­ed domes­tic super-bees [103] would prob­a­bly sur­vive through human inter­ven­tion, but a big swathe of life would dis­ap­pear if the native bees go [101]. The longer we put off shift­ing to a bee-friend­ly agri­cul­tur­al par­a­digm, the more cost­ly and dire those short-term costs are going to be when we do final­ly make the bee-friend­ly shift.

At present, the cur­rent best tech­no­log­i­cal hope for the bees seems to be the ant-mite RNAi sug­ar-water [104]. That’s kind of scary. While we may not want to ban the use of GMO tech­nol­o­gy out­right (because we may not have that option decades from now), it’s a pret­ty big sign of civ­i­liza­tion­al fail­ure if we have to rely on a set of tools that per­pet­u­al­ly cre­ate super-pests just to feed our­selves. That’s insane. It would be like point­less­ly pump­ing cat­tle full of antibi­otics just to cre­ate super-bugs for us to eat. Only a crazy species would do that [105]. So it’s does­n’t bode well or us that RNAi sprays are the new hot thing to fix that prob­lems with the [106] pre­vi­ous [107] new hot things. At least there’s the neon­i­coti­noid ban in the EU now but we’ll see how long it lasts [108]. The ban is cer­tain­ly one of the best signs we’ve seen in while. And maybe the neon­i­coti­noids real­ly are inno­cent [109], or at least not as cul­pa­ble for the bee colony col­laps­es as pre­sumed [110]. As we’ve seen, there are plen­ty of oth­er cul­prits. But regard­less of which com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors is killing the bees, the dis­ap­pear­ance of the bees is some­thing to pre­pare for if this trend con­tin­ues because the bee is the super-canary in the coal mine [111]: if it dies, a whole bunch of oth­er things die too. For­ev­er.

While this may sound grim, keep in mind that there do exist more con­tro­ver­sial solu­tions that ensure our demands for food don’t take col­lapse parts of the bios­phere but, while sim­ple and ele­gant, may not be for every­one: For instance, instead of genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fy­ing the rest of the bios­phere to suit our needs, how about we make a few small tweaks to our­selves? Specif­i­cal­ly, we need to make our hair much more moth and algae-friend­ly. That’s it. No oth­er changes and...din­ner is served [112]! Maybe there’s a nice RNAi sham­poo that can do the trick. No? How about a love­ly hat that feeds you [113]. Still no? Lud­dite. Hmmm... there’s a cer­tain advanced tech­nique that could feed the world and help con­trol pests simul­ta­ne­ous­ly and every­one can play a role in imple­ment­ing this tech­nique. But, real­ly, most of you will prob­a­bly pre­fer the hat [114]. Still no?! Well, there always the meat [42]-lover’s option [115].