Whether you call them transgenic, genetically engineered or GMO crops, the fever-pitched debate about Monsanto misses the bigger picture by a long shot, according to Professor Paul Gepts of the University of California, Davis.
As a plant geneticist with a global understanding of seed varieties, Gepts supports public breeding programs and developing new varieties that benefit the public at large. (He does not receive any funding or compensation from private seed companies, including Monsanto.)
We talked to Gepts about the broader implications of innovative plant breeding technologies, from the lab to the soil.
Editor’s note: The following was adapted from an interview with “TechKnow.” It has been edited for length and clarity.
TechKnow: Let’s settle the semantics right off the bat. Is the term “GMO” scientifically correct?
Paul Gepts, professor, UC Davis: I think “genetically modified” is terrible — because we are all genetically modified. Otherwise we would look all alike. I prefer the term “genetically engineered.” Genetic engineering points to a specific and purposeful action done by humans.
Do you think the discussion around genetically engineered crops is too polarized?
Absolutely. I think it's just unbelievable. There is no middle ground. You are either completely for it or completely against it. Way too much energy is wasted on a technique that is useful. But it's by no means the answer to everything.
How did you get into plant breeding?
I've always been interested in plants and nature conservation. I’m originally from Belgium and moved to South America to study crop biodiversity at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. I did my fellowship and Ph.D. studies in plant breeding and plant genetics in the U.S. Then I continued with my post-doc at the University of California, Riverside. That's where I've been ever since.
What exactly is plant breeding? How does this differ from DNA-marker-assisted breeding?
The basic principle of plant breeding is that [a breeder] will make a selection. The breeder will select the best plants and eliminate the bad ones in order to come up with a new variety that has a series of traits like higher yield, a resistance to diseases, improved quality and improved taste. The idea of using DNA markers is that you can select more desired traits and make those selections faster.
By faster, what kind of time frame are we talking about here?
Typically, to get a new seed variety, it’ll take seven to eight years. With marker-assisted breeding, you can shave off one or two years.
How long have scientists been using DNA-marker-assisted breeding techniques to create new breeds?
The idea of using markers started in the early ’80s. But it really began in practice during the early ’90s. That’s when you started seeing individual genes marked and selected. Now we’ve reached a point where every seed variety will be sequenced in some fashion.
Sequencing and gene selection sounds an awful lot like genetic engineering to an average person. How do genetic engineering techniques differ from this DNA-marker-assisted breeding?
Marker-assisted breeding uses the variation that exists within the species or in neighboring species. So there is a tremendous amount of diversity. With transgenics, you take a gene from another, unrelated organism and introduce it in one way or the other into an organism, like a crop plant. The source of DNA is quite different now.
Can you give us an example of a genetically engineered crop?
One main example for large crops is BT, a toxin used by a soil bacterium. The gene for that toxin has been introduced into crops to make them resistant to certain classes of insects. The other one is also a genome of a microorganism that makes the plant resistant to herbicide. A farmer can spray a crop without negative consequences for the crop, and it’ll kill the weeds, theoretically.
Is marker-assisted cross-breeding safer than genetic engineering?
The way to judge any technology is to look at it on a case-by-case basis. Take radioisotopes. They can be used to make bombs, and they are also used in medicine. So the issue is, which application are we talking about?
Are there any concerns about genetic engineering, then?
Let’s take corn that’s genetically engineered for insect resistance with this BT toxin in the U.S. There we decide that it's OK to grow. But what about the same corn variety in Mexico? In Mexico, the difference with the U.S. is that you have wild corn. And you have a possibility of gene flow between domesticated corn, the hybrid corn and these wild populations of corn in Mexico. So the question becomes, is that an issue or not? You will see transgenes being transferred into this wild population.
What happens when transgenic crops and wild crops exchange genes?
It could make the wild corn weedier, because you removed the insect pressure. So you would have to look at what is the effect of this transgene on local insect species. Are they going to be affected or not? Is it going to confer additional resistance of corn against these local species of insects?
Like an invasive species?
Yes, exactly. My concern with the discussion that we have right now over plant genetics and GMOs is that it’s either all bad or all good. There is no in-between. Transgenic crops might be quite useful, especially in those cases where you don't have enough native genetic variation of a species. On the other hand, transgenic approaches are not the answer to everything.
Monsanto’s marker-assisted cross-breeding is a different approach from its transgenic research, which has received a fair amount of bad press. Do you think it's justified?
It is kind of interesting that other companies who engage in genetic engineering haven't received that bad press. So I don't know, maybe Monsanto has a corporate culture that lends itself to criticism. They have been fairly aggressive in enforcing their intellectual property rights over their varieties. I think one of the things that has happened in the last decade is that you can obtain patents. They have been very aggressive suing farmers to enforce those rights, at least in the U.S.
Is Monsanto the only company that protects its seeds as intellectual property, or is it an industry standard among the big seed companies?
In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that living organisms can be patented. In a sense [patenting seed varieties] is part of the normal way of doing things. But it's almost like we have lost balance. We have to get back to what is in the interest of society as a whole in the country. There are issues like, who owns the food production and the agricultural production systems? Is it in the hands of a few large companies? There has been a strong concentration of seeds and seed production that's developed into new varieties. So you have a few large companies that account for maybe 60, 70 percent of varieties. An important issue that I think our society has not really come to grips with is — who owns biodiversity?
By 2050, there will be 9 billion people. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Can both transgenics and marker-assisted cross-breeding help us handle our growing population and changing climate?
There have been tremendous yield increases over the last century. What has caused us to double, triple, so on and really increase yields a lot? Half of the increases can be attributed to improved plant genetics. But the other half comes from other practices which you could call agroecology. You learn how to grow the crop better. You learn how to time the planting and the harvesting much better than we knew. There's definitely going to be a need to increase our agricultural production, but it's not going to depend only on genetics. These are tools. They are not the goal in itself.
Watch “TechKnow” Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT.