Lisa H. Weasel is a molecular biologist, an associate professor of biology at Portland State University, and the author of Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food. This 5-part interview was conducted in February of 2010, and predates last month’s decision by the USDA to deregulate the production of roundup ready alfalfa; the recent lifting of the restriction on GM sugar beets; and now, the approval of an industrial GM corn for bioethanol production.
Can you explain the basic science at play behind GM food?Part 3; The basic science goes back to the recombinant DNA technologies — taking advantage of bacterial enzymes that cut DNA very precisely and allow us to isolate genes from any species. With some of the genetically modified crops they’ve used that technique to get the foreign DNA into crop plants. They’ve used agrobacterium as a vector. It infects the plant and transfers the foreign gene into the plant. There’s also biobalistics. The original technology was actually a real gun. Biobalistics uses a projectile at a very high speed for the DNA that’s on gold particles. They inject that into the plant cells and then the plants uptake that DNA and incorporate it into their genome.
The ability to isolate genes using restriction enzymes from bacteria was very important – that’s the recombinant DNA technology from the ’70s. Then the use of agrobacterium to transform plants (a naturally occurring infective agent to get DNA into the plants) and biobalistics are important as well.
The basic biology is to identify the gene of interest with the genetically modified crops that are out there now. Genes in bacteria that allow that bacteria to resist the affects of an herbicide are what we’ve used and what we’ve found in the waste pools from Monsanto’s manufacturing facility. Evolutionally speaking those bacteria developed a mutation that allowed them to survive so they then studied those bacteria. They took the gene out of those bacteria that had that particular mutation and put it into the crop plant.
It takes quite a lot of fine tuning, including determining where that gene is integrated into the genome, how many copies are necessary, what kind of on and off switches there are, and then all of the regulatory regions that accompany it. All of that has to be fine tuned to get the plants to actually express this foreign protein because the plant is not naturally going to want to make this protein that doesn’t relate to its own life cycle. We have to apply the selective pressure.
With the BT traits that was the soil bacteria. The BT spores of those bacteria have been used in organic agriculture for a long time. The biotech step was taking those bacteria that had been used in organic agriculture – looking at their DNA -finding the specific gene that is the toxin gene, cutting it out, and putting it into the crop plant.
So it’s two main traits – herbicide tolerance and resistance of weed killers, and then insecticide traits.
Have you used all of these techniques personally?
Yes. My whole training is in recombinant DNA technology – cutting out genes and gluing them back together in bacteria, fruit flies, human cells.
Are there any techniques that are on the horizon that are close to being used commercially?
An important technique that’s being used is marker assisted breeding, sometimes called marker assisted selection or molecular breeding where you’re able to use the techniques of molecular biology to identify genes or regions of the DNA that are associated with the traits that you like in a plant. By using these molecular tools early on you can select which seeds, and which seedlings, are likely to have those traits. It speeds up the conventional breeding process by providing that molecular window into what’s going on at the DNA level and connecting that with the kind of traits you want.
I think that that’s a really useful and important technology because it allows farmers to identify plants that are better adapted to their local conditions. This conventional GM technology that’s out there right now is not really adapted to local conditions. It’s usually one gene in a proprietary context with a patent on it. The varieties that are genetically modified and patented are usually not adapted to local conditions.
And then you’ve got the flip side with the eggplant situation in India where they’re providing BT open pollinated varieties with the BT gene. Well, then you’ve got farmers managing the BT trait. The consistency of that trait and the spread of that trait is going to be hard to contain.
Marker assisted breeding is a tool — it doesn’t necessarily lead to singular products — that can be used to speed up conventional breeding and better identify seeds that are adapted to local conditions. It is a part of biotechnology that gets neglected because there’s so much focus on these single gene GM traits.
Marker assisted breeding technology is being used on products that are on shelves in supermarkets?
It’s less individual products and more of a tool that can be used to identify better adapted traits and strains. And yes, it is being used commercially. Monsanto uses marker assisted breeding in a lot of their research. It’s more of a research tool but it has a heavy application whereas transgenic technology because of the context it’s been developed in this proprietary context by large for-profit multi-national corporations. That technology is more applicable to producing products that can then be patented whereas marker assisted breeding can be used to identify and develop those products as well but it has a much broader application.
Last spring  you were working on a grant submission for the National Science Foundation to do more research into consensus policies surrounding sustainable agriculture, are you still working on that?
I’ve had another project kind of supersede that one. I submitted a grant to look at ethics and values in scientific literacy – how they intersect in the youth climate change movement. There are a lot of parallels in the debates surrounding genetically modified food and climate change. Right now there’s this huge focus on what constitutes good science and is climate change science biased. Today the issue is that there’s this error about the Himalayan glaciers and is that bad science? Was that manipulation? There’s this idea that there is this pool of scientists out there who are completely unbiased.
An issue like climate change — well, it impacts us. Who is out there that doesn’t have a view especially if you’re spending your whole life doing research on it? I think that there are some similar questions in terms of genetically modified food. Is this biased science because it’s done by Monsanto? It seems very hard to believe that we accept experiments done by Monsanto whose marketing genetically modified food as safety data. Yet we say this IPCC is biased because someone is receiving consulting money that they’re giving to a non-profit for research.
I’m really interested in identifying the factors that motivate young people to take action on climate change and how that intersects with their scientific literacy. There’s this knowledge deficit model of scientific literacy that says that people make bad decisions if they’re uninformed about the science and that if we can get people’s knowledge of the science up to a certain level then they will make good decisions.
And that’s not the case?
Not always, no. The knowledge deficit model has been critiqued in terms of genetically modified foods and climate change. At some point more knowledge doesn’t lead to acceptance — it leads to more critical stances. It’s not just a matter of knowing the science in order to change your actions it’s that intersection of your ethics and values and how you view it. It may be that people are willing to take action on climate change even if they’re not scientifically informed and if they get more science at some point that may not lead to more action.
With the consensus policies in sustainable agriculture it’s a really thorny problem to tackle and in some ways writing this book makes it challenging to get objective stakeholder involvement. I’m very interested in achieving some kind of consensus in using this delphi tool which is an interesting methodological tool to gain consensus but I think that I need to rethink who that target audience is.
The terminology of sustainable agriculture has been diluted in my view over the past couple of years. It’s been susceptible to marketing and now you have Silk soymilk that used to use organic soybeans and now they’ve changed their label to “natural soybeans,” which means they don’t have to be organic. There’s this diluting of the term “sustainability” and it’s always been difficult to define but we have more companies that are confusing the term — even Monsanto is marketing itself and its GM seeds as “sustainable technology.”
Liz Crain writes about Pacific Northwest food and drink for various print and online publications. Her book Food Lover’s Guide to Portland was published by Sasquatch Books in July 2010. She is also a fiction writer and editor at Hawthorne Books.