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Clear-Cutting the Last Wilderness Compromising the Genomes of our Major Crops

BY Wes Jackson

In April of 1997, The Economist carried a story entitled “The Green Gene Giant,” featuring Monsanto and its CEO, Robert Shapiro. This well-known St. Louis chemical firm announced that it was about to spin off its central source of income, the chemical division which was then yielding almost a third of its $9 billion in annual sales. Mr. Shapiro wanted to make Monsanto the “main provider of the agricultural biotechnology the world will need if it is to feed itself in the future without despoiling the environment.” The company was already selling genetically altered soybeans, potatoes and cotton. Dozens more genetically altered products were in the works including corn, sugar beets, and strawberries. This was no minor economic venture for, as The Economist reported, “one estimate is that there will be a world market for genetically altered seeds of $7 billion in 2005.” Monsanto had already been called the “Microsoft of genetic engineering.” The price per share at the time of the announcement had risen from $14 in early 1995 to nearly $40. Shapiro and other top managers had “promised to buy a large number of Monsanto shares with an interest-bearing loan from the company.” This means they could owe the firm money if things didn’t pan out.

The faith of Monsanto’s executives is not exactly a blind faith. Productivity in the recent past has come largely from improvements in some form of technology. Realized possibilities in irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, plant breeding and more have combined to give us low-priced food for home use and a commodity for export to help offset our balance of payments deficit. Countless ecological and social costs attend our past successes and cheap food policy, but they are largely ignored and discounted, so few objected to Monsanto’s plans.

It is worth remembering, however, that several other ships of promise in the area of crop improvement have come and gone leaving little of value in their wakes. In the 1930s great hope rested on the possibilities of polyploidy, a reality far more prevalent in plants than animals. A polyploid organism has more than the usual two sets of chromosomes. Early on there was a widespread belief that gigantism accompanied multiple sets of chromosomes. In some early examples that was the case. Available at about the same time was a chemical called colchicine which was discovered to break down the spindle apparatus which pulls the chromosomes to their opposite poles after they have divided but before cell division. Without a spindle, without cell division, a cell would display four sets of chromosomes instead of two. Giant plants were to become the wave of the future. The hopes never really materialized though the idea persisted into the 1940s before it quietly subsided.

Radiation genetics, the rage of the ’40s and early ’50s, came next. Simply stick seeds in a radioactive pile, causing them to mutate, grow out the seeds and wait for a super plant to appear. That era too subsided, came back in vogue in the ’60s for a while, then subsided later. I’ll explain the reason later.

Quantitative genetics came next and with this trend came the increased understanding of the quantitative gene in the ’50s and ’60s. This era offered not a technological fix but a theoretical exercise for modeling the changes in phenotypes through breeding. The ’60s also brought physiology and the importance of hormonal control. Each of these emphases added a wrinkle here and there, but nothing substantive. Finally, the ’80s ushered in the molecular biology and biotechnology era — with a vengeance. In this climate of Gee-Whiz genetics the enthusiasm over the possible positive consequences surged. Thus Monsanto’s stock value tripled from 1995 to 1997.

Some history may be useful here. One could argue that the modern era began in 1944 when Avery, MacLeod and McCarty published their results suggesting that DNA and not protein was the hereditary material. Nine years later Watson and Crick elucidated the molecular structure of DNA, and the world of biology was destined to change. Over the next 30 years we grew in understanding the nature of DNA, RNA, the code and protein synthesis. Public policy was in its infancy, but with more research that, too, was destined to change. A landmark meeting, which featured a physicist who started work as a policy analyst at the Office of Science and Technology Policy and an official from the Rockefeller Institute, took place in June 1982. These two invited a few other people of influence and power to a conference that summer at Winrock in Arkansas. The group concluded that the land grant institutions lagged behind in basic research and therefore desperately needed the new knowledge in biology. Funding was allocated to this new discipline. Biotech companies of various sorts began to pop up here and there. A few university professors began to quit their jobs for private firms. University salaries in these areas rose to compete. Seventeen years have passed since 1982 and our biotech era is fundamentally different from Watson and Crick’s world of 1953. But that different world in biology is still fueled more by promises than it is advanced by demonstration. It is fair to suggest that this is the way of progress. The promotional language is of two types. “New era in biology” trumpets one slogan. The other, a defense elicited when critics challenge biotech as being potentially harmful, claims this is “nothing new!”

So, what is my complaint? An examination of the language used to justify increasing the scale of the new technologies reveals a tone of industrial heroism. Heroic phrases such as “We must feed the world” ring out. The “we-must-feed-the-world” camp has Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug whose award recognized his role in making what the press called the Green Revolution. Dr. Borlaug has openly derided various thoughtful and compassionate thinkers who have concluded differently about hunger, its causes, as well as about the approaches to the problem. These cautionary dissenters, in my view, are erroneously accused of opposing increased crop yields. This charge is unfair in that the cautionary camp mostly argues that the debate should have more to do with agronomic methods that are safe for farmers, farm workers, consumers and the need for a healthy habitat.

No one has toiled deeper and longer in the trenches in this discussion than my long time friend, Friend of The Land and board member, Angus Wright. Angus’ book The Death of Ramon Gonzalez details the worldviews of the two sides. He and many others (such as Deborah Toler and Peter Rosset of Food First, an organization in Oakland, California) have detailed and drawn attention to the social and health problems of Green Revolution technologies, and to the documented fact that these technologies “have lead to decliningcrop yields after prolonged use, in addition to damaging the environment and human health.” When biotechnology is promoted as a way to feed the world it is supposed to quiet the protesters and provide a license for more technology of this sort in the name of humanity. The work of these people illustrates that the battle cry, “We must feed the world,” uttered in the spirit of technological heroism, distracts us from more productive engagement with the problem of hunger and the need for increasing the food supply sustainably.

Harvard Professor Richard Lewontin, one of America’s top geneticists, in a letter to me wrote the following:

All this talk about the billions of people who are hungry and need to be fed is a deliberate confusion of the issue because it really has nothing to do with genetically engineered crops. If one looks at what is actually being done in the genetic engineering of crops and especially in transgenics, which is what we are talking about, the whole industry is not centered [on] increasing yields or resisting pests. What transgenics and other genetically engineered crops are about is introducing specialty properties and qualities into crops for industrial purposes. Palm oils are being put into oil seeds like soybeans and rapeseed. Monsanto has developed very special varieties of potatoes for potato chips that give the so-called “light” potato chip, and genes are being put into crops that resist particular chemicals, especially herbicides. The number of cases where there is an actual attempt to increase the productivity of land, labor and input resources which would benefit the nutrition of people around the world are very few indeed. There is a program to increase methionine in the protein of beans by introducing a gene from the Brazil nut, and I suppose one could say that the introduction of BT gene that gives direct resistance to an insect also would increase production. But aside from these isolated examples, we are really talking about work that is intended to produce a commodity for sale by a pharmaceutical company or a seed company and that will not, in fact, increase yields. The real work done for yield, for reduction in pathogen sensitivity, etc., is still being done by the normal procedures or, at most, by introducing genes from one variety into another even by genetic engineering.

Professor Lewontin also answers the argument that such genetic transfer is necessary because the major crops lack the necessary genetic variation. He writes:

It is simply not true that there is not sufficient genetic variation in crops to produce the kinds of advances in yield and pest resistance that are needed. This is baloney. Virtually nothing is being done to exploit the immense amount of genetic variation present in, for example, local races of corn and soybeans that could be used to select all kinds of properties of plants (and I believe it is probably true in rice, too, although I do not have that information directly). The number of varieties in the world germ banks is now immense, [on] the order of 100,000, and little or nothing is being done to screen these accessions for the kinds of genetic variation that would be required for regular breeding programs or for intraspecific gene transfer.This entire business is a case of deliberately misleading by calling attention to world hunger and then using the techniques which are called for not to solve the problem of world hunger but to solve the problem of profit hunger. We need a strong reply that calls attention to the actual state of transgenics as it really is operating now in the world. We are certain to be greeted by the claim that all kinds of possibilities might exist with transgenics, but it is a lie to say that they are being exploited or [that] anyone is trying.

Please understand that neither Professor Lewontin nor I maintain there is no role for biotechnology, both now and in the future, to help meet humanity’s requirements for food and fiber. Biotechnology can be used to speed up the evaluation of germ plasm. That is being done now and represents a great service to the breeder who still has to do the traditional testing. Even with all of this, the biotechnologist’s role should be as a member of a team which includes the plant breeder and various sorts of ecologists. Biotechnologists should not carry the flag of biotech into the battle to feed humanity for some very good reasons. Of primary importance is the fact that alongside all our micro-technological sophistication there is much naiveté about what we might call the genome’s ecosystem. Many molecular geneticists and molecular breeders actually believe that all one has to do is insert a gene of choice into some elite genotype of any of our major crops. They seem unable to learn or remember the hard lessons from even the recent past. Every conventional breeder knows that when one inserts new material into a genetic line, that line then must be tested against the real world. A few years ago, when corn geneticist and Iowa State University professor Arnel Hallauer suggested to some molecular breeders that they test after insertion of a new gene, the molecular breeders asked “Why?” Apparently they forgot or did not know of the experience with Texas male-sterile cytoplasm and the genetic restorer system developed and used in the 1950s and 1960s. The Texas male-sterile cytoplasm carried a gene outside the nucleus rendering any plant carrying the gene male sterile. Labor to de-tassel corn plants was greatly reduced, and breeders also had genes for restoring the fertility when needed. Yet even with the seductive labor-saving possibilities, corn breeders were cautious as they converted various lines to carry the Texas cytoplasm. They tested extensively to be sure they had the same lines, the same hybrids. The genes that restored fertility were introduced with the same level of conservatism. After conversion came more extensive testing. Well? It all broke down by 1970! The famous corn leaf blight which took nearly a third of the American corn crop, was the result — an episode that should sober any budding gene splicer bent on crop improvement with little or no testing.

What I have just described is a relatively simple example. The reality is far more complicated for most traits. All genes interact to some degree, and the traits that are strongly influenced by several genes working together will stand as a barrier to the gene splicer. Some traits (such as growth rate) are affected by many hormones, including episodal ones that are present for short periods of time in low concentrations. When their existence is known, isolation may begin, but if the genes are from widely divergent organisms, the new host may regulate these hormones in a way that is completely foreign to the implanted gene. For example, the same quantity of a particular hormone produced during development in one creature may yield a very different effect in another.

A gene is often separated into several pieces and located in widely separated places on the chromosome or even on another chromosome. While this is a tricky problem to overcome, it is no more tricky than isolating the various genetic components that regulate a particular gene in question. Once a complete gene and all of its regulators are isolated, there remains the problem of precisely incorporating the entire assembly into the genetic material of the recipient organism.

Let us assume that all these barriers have been overcome. We are now faced with a problem similar to what frustrated geneticists nearly 40 years ago, during the heyday of radiation genetics. The hope was that we could improve crops and speed up evolution by irradiating the germ plasm and then selecting the desirable products. That generation of geneticists and plant breeders soon confronted the same problem that troubled the previousgeneration of geneticists — who had believed that biological wonders could be pulled from the progeny of very wide crosses. The problem in question: how to get rid of all the variation they suddenly found on their hands, and how to reoptimize the desirable traits against such a scrambled genetic background.Even when the background of spliced-in genes is not so scrambled the problem of reoptimization remains. In other words, even if all the steps are successful up to the point where the spliced gene and its regulators from a distant plant family are transferred, an untold amount of breeding work remains before the genetic background is shaken down enough to accommodate the newly introduced trait and its regulators.

Breeding programs require patience, persistence, perseverance, hard work, fortuitous choice of germ plasm, and more. Dramatic yield increases in many of our major crops over the last 60 years, particularly in the case of corn as Professor Hallauer notes, have come from “evolutionary breeding methods, not revolutionary ones.” From a conventional breeder’s point of view, what we are seeing and hearing now are some more-or-less instant experts telling plant breeders how to conduct their work.

Worse, we find ourselves in an era when the products of biotechnology are being forced on us — the genetically modified organisms the Europeans are refusing to receive, for example. Professor Hallauer’s worries thus are three-fold: (1) forcing-of-product, (2) disparaging comments by some biotech people about conventional breeders who question the efficiency of the new products at the expense of the conventional breeding methods, and (3) the naiveté about the need to test.

Back to The Economist article for a moment. The article states, “So far the vast weight of evidence is that the products of agricultural biotechnology are environmentally sound.” This is a “business risk not a scientific risk.” The “genetically doctored seeds are safe.” These quotes assist in adding point to my advertised topic “Clear-Cutting the Last Wilderness: Compromising the genomes of our major crops.” The public in general is wondering if these genetically altered seeds are safe for humans or livestock consumption. That’s an understandable question but the wrong question for it is a bit like asking if the trees of a planted monoculture forest are safe to make 2 x 4’s for houses.

Monsanto currently anticipates that the population will become increasingly suspicious of the health and safety of their industrial chemicals. Monsanto’s leadership sees the writing on the wall, to speak. They are turning away from the single molecule approach to the single gene approach. But have they learned the lesson of Darwin as they turn to the employment of new biotechnologies? Have they really embraced the Darwinian evolutionary ecological worldview? I suspect that they have not. They have 29,000 employees and on a visit to Monsanto I asked two top ranking officials about their ecologists. No response. I pressed by asking if they had any employed. The question was also met with silence. We should not be surprised. Monsanto is a chemical company and biotechnologists of the modern stripe emerged enamored of chemistry more than biology, let alone evolutionary biology. Now, what is the harm, you may ask, so long as they are good scientists?

The harm from the wholesale employment of the new forms of biotechnology will come in the threat to the very architecture of the genomes of our major crops. I’ll repeat and then I’ll explain.

Monsanto is backing off from chemicals because of the public’s worry about poisonous consequences to people and to ecosystems, especially agro-ecosystems. We should applaud them for this. What is being more or less ignored is that some of the same principles and processes that govern an ecosystem, like a forest or a prairie, also operate with genomes. The genome is a miniature ecosystem. The genes within the genome interact with one another and collectively interact with the environment, all the way from the molecular and cellular level to the ecosystem at large. In other words, the architecture of the genome results from the context of the history of gene-carrying predecessors in times past. At the level we are talking about the world is grossly unknown, indeed unknowable. So much is subtle; so much is small effect. The multicellular life forms that have survived to the present feature gene assemblies with small effects. Large-effect genes represent a minority.

Commercial outfits like Monsanto are unlikely to be interested in selling the small-effect genes. It is a bit like trying to sell the life of the soil. There is nothing easy for sale there, nothing marketable there. How could the mycorrhiza or the soil invertebrates of a forest or prairie be harvested, packaged, and marketed? A company will patent and transfer genes they can readily identify and which will make big differences. Such a company can do that for a while because the “genius of the genomes” is in their design and can handle the various perturbations that come at them, including genes from long evolutionary distances — for a while! A forest can handle selective cutting with little change in the architecture of the forest. The forest can adjust and foresthood will prevail. The genome can absorb the shock of an alien gene even from very unrelated creatures, such as a bacterium or a virus. In fact it happens but at a slow rate. Even so, adapted recombinants must be sorted out over time, time that I suspect on the average for each trait is roughly proportional to the evolutionary distance between the entities and the amount of material being transferred. So absorb the shock it will, but in so doing the genome must adjust to all incoming traffic driven there by the biotechnologist. I use the word “adjust” because a genome doesn’t just bounce like a spring. As that adjustment is made, small compromises are also made. If the human is the agent of change, those compromises will mostly amount to an increased dependency on the agent which induced them, Homo Sapiens.

This is not new to humanity. This is the way we have interacted with our domestic crops beginning with the first few cuts of selection 10,000 years ago. It is the reason that eventually all our crops and livestock became dependent on Homo Sapiens. As the agents of domestication, we created a dependency for humanity. Now Homo Sapiens, variety corpo-technologicus is creating an ever narrower dependency. In such a manner these corporate disrupters of coherent context create problems for which they will sell future bandaid equivalents as solutions to a broader systemic disorder. It is faster treadmill on top of another treadmill. In such a manner capitalism expands its markets.The major threat to the life forms affected by some forms of biotechnology will not visit us in one year or five, but in 20 and 50 years. That threat will come from a created dependency on the need to keep the treadmill going with an assiduousness equal or greater to what agriculture has required of us since its invention eight to ten thousand years ago.

The positioning of most alien genes into a crop’s genome will likely yield only short-term benefits. Dr. Don Duvick, Friend of The Land, a friend of mine, and former Vice President in charge of Research at Pioneer Seed Company, has noted that such genes eventually respond as though “tar has been smeared over them,” which is to say that eventually the background of the genome shifts and effectively isolates and inhibits expression. But in so doing, I think it is safe to say that we are compromising the self-regulating resilience of a nano-ecosystem by forcing that system, meaning the genome, to adjust its architecture.

In forestry, as the value of the products of trees goes up, more and more of the best trees are cut and the criteria for selection is drastically changed. I understand that old-growth redwood is more resilient to decay than new-growth. But with the old-growth gone, new-growth redwood will do. At some point conventional economics dictates that it makes more sense to clear-cut, that is abandon discrimination, and take it all. At this point, in the interest of board feet, the loss of foresthood is complete. The incentive to plant a monoculture of the most commercially desirable trees increases. The fisheries, agriculture, anything downstream in the watershed and elsewhere are now dislodged to some degree from a former set of relationships. The total economic benefits of the former ecosystem in the watershed can never be adequately calculated. In a similar manner the economic benefits of the architecture of the genome can never be calculated.

From Jamestown on, trees on this continent have been understood as assets for building homes and other accommodations for the human enterprise. The ecological benefits which ultimately have economic benefits have been ignored. It is the still-intact wildness of the genomes of our major crops and livestock which stand behind the domestic traits that sustain us.

After the clear-cut of the forest it is not uncommon to see a near-monoculture planted as a replacement. Timber companies stand to make a lot of money in the short run on fast-growing trees, but it is during the ecological unraveling, as we diminish the ecosystem’s services, that we in one way or another say “Uh-oh!”

With recent developments in biotechnology we are dealing more aggressively with evolution at the smallest level on the biological scale. The irony here is acute. Many evolutionary and conservation biologists understand the need to respect ecological/evolutionary processes at the forest or prairie ecosystem level, but they lack adequate appreciation for ecological integrity at the genome level.

§ § §There have been other heydays loaded with promises that went unfulfilled. Our ability to invade and reorder the genome is rooted in technologies developed for specific purposes: to elucidate the nature of the hereditary material and how it works. We have made important strides, but still know only to a very small degree the interaction of DNA with its products and other components within the cell. Therefore, if biotechnology is the flagship commissioned to lead the fleet of other food producing technologies, we are certain to lose the battle to sustainably increase the food supply and not just because the flagship is loaded with genes for industrial oils and light potato chips.

The naiveté of molecular breeders about the need to test, and test, and test some more after genes are introduced will cost more than the company which introduces the genes primarily because those products are being forced on us.

Finally, clear-cutting at the molecular level, the clear-cutting of the genomes of our major crops making them overly dependent on Corpo-technologicus, will force future geneticists to study the exits, none of which are likely to be painless.

There is a better way, a less expensive way, a Darwinian-evolutionary-ecological way: Natural Systems Agriculture, which acknowledges that the cultural and technological realities are one with the biological, especially in agriculture.

I could end my examples here but perhaps you are wondering if biotechnology has a role to play in our research in Natural Systems Agriculture. It does. If we can move the genes for perennialism in wild grasses into the annual crops in that family (for example, corn, wheat, sorghum, and rice), it seems unlikely that the architecture of the genome will be much disturbed. In a certain sense, the grass family can be seen as one big genetic system. With time, patience, and the breeder’s repeated testing, after the biotechnologist’s introduction and using the conventional techniques of the breeder, the technology can be employed more safely than importing genes from another family such as the legumes. According to my friend Dr. Charlie Sing, a professor in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Michigan, we know “that the human genome has a very large amount of genetic material [with] a viral origin. Estimates are that a significant percentage of our genome is simply integrated viral information.” But that integration has happened over millions of years, not over a decade or a century or even a millennium. I am delighted that we humans are part virus, but I would not have wanted us to get that way instantly or even within a few hundred years.

Even so, by endorsing biotechnology at this level are we validating what can easily become a slippery slope? That is something to worry about. But all slopes are not equally steep or evenly greased. This means that we climb the steps with caution, eyeing the slope, the potential slipperiness and opportunities for safe exit. This sort of technological assessment invites numerous questions: How many people are going to be involved? At what level of culture? What are the chances of backing out if things go sour? Who makes most of the money? To what extent is dependency created? And perhaps the most important question of all: What are the potential consequences for both ecosystem and human health? On the other hand, we need to worry about a deeply fundamentalist position of saying “No” to all new brands of biotechnology … for fundamentalism usually takes over where thought leaves off.

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