There was a trace of mischief in Michael Pollan’s smile as he took the stage of Wheeler Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, last week to introduce a lecture for a course that he co-teaches, with the activist Raj Patel, called Edible Education 101. The auditorium was crammed with seven hundred students, most looking like you might expect young Berkeley food activists to look: wholesome and bright-eyed, visibly eager to help make the global food system “more equitable, healthful and sustainable,” as the course mission states. This group constituted a kind of monoculture, and Pollan was about to introduce an invasive species.
Pamela Ronald, a prominent plant geneticist and a professor at U.C.-Davis, had come, at Pollan’s invitation, to present her perspective on the benefits of genetic engineering—even though Pollan himself has been a vocal skeptic of GMO foods. “If anyone can make the case for this technology, it’s Pam Ronald,” Pollan told the audience.
This was a generous but daunting introduction. It’s not easy for anyone, let alone a plant geneticist who spends 50 hours a week directing a large laboratory, to persuade a crowd of young activists to shift their thinking on one of the most contentious environmental debates of our time. Last year, GMO crops—corn, cotton, and soybeans—were planted on more than a hundred and sixty-seven million acres in America. Seventy percent of processed foods now have at least one genetically engineered ingredient. But anti-GMO activists have worked to mobilize a backlash: food with the “non-GMO” label is today among the fastest-growing categories of product sales in U.S. markets. Meanwhile, the major scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, have concluded that the GMO crops on the market are safe to eat.
Pollan notes that the vast majority of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. have been designed to enhance the productivity of industrial farming, and are only more firmly establishing practices such as monocropping, which he considers problematic. While many such GMO seeds have promised to reduce the overall volume of pesticides sprayed on crops, Pollan says that the technology has backfired in some instances. “The major GMO crops are failing, the public is running away from it, and yet the élite opinion is firmly in the camp of: we need this technology to feed the world,” Pollan told me. “It’s really an interesting situation.”
Ronald strongly disagrees with Pollan’s view that GMO crops, broadly, are failing. She cited examples such as Bt cotton that have cut the amount of chemical insecticides applied to crops globally by millions of pounds a year. She also cited an example of papayas that were genetically engineered to resist ring-spot virus and helped to save the Hawaiian papaya industry. “It’s a shame to demonize an entire technology because of Roundup Ready,” she told Pollan and Patel when they began a debate after she had given an hourlong PowerPoint presentation.
While the Berkeley debate was spiked at times with shrill notes and tension, the tone was generally courteous. Given the protest tactics that anti-GMO activists have used in the past, I had expected at least one Flavr Savr tomato to be hurled at the stage. But Pollan, Patel, and Ronald made more of an effort to agree with each other than to disagree. “I’ll give you the papaya,” Pollan said gamely when Ronald pressed him to name a circumstance in which he felt GMO crops were acceptable.
Despite Ronald’s humanitarian ambitions for GMOs, it was no easy task for Pollan to get her in front of his Berkeley audience. “There were a lot of people on my campus not happy Pam was getting to speak to this group of students; they worried for the students’ education,” Pollan told me. “Pam excites passionate feelings. Then again, so do I.”
Pollan agreed that the technology itself may not fundamentally pose a greater health threat than other forms of plant breeding. “I haven’t read anything to convince me that there are inherent problems with the technology. I think most of the problems arise from the way we’re choosing to apply it, what we’re using it for, and how we’re framing the problems that it is being used to solve,” he said.
At the end of the event, it wasn’t clear how many people Ronald had managed to win over. It was clear, however, that she and Pollan had set an important precedent: they had convened the two sides of a contentious debate in a respectful dialogue.
Read the full, original article: A journalist and a scientist break ground in the G.M.O. debate
Watch the full lecture and dialogue:
- “Video: Hofstra GMO debate highlights science v precautionary fears,” Genetic Literacy Project
- “Why does the debate on GMOs matter?” Genetic Literacy Project