The May 2014 issue of Scientific American, called Scientific American Classics, looks at “The Birth of the GMO Debate.” It includes reprints of stories dating back to 1899 on the “History of Hybridization”–then a new technique which was widely rejected by environmentalists of that area because it was an ‘unnatural tinkering with nature’.
The introduction is written by Pamela Ronald, crop geneticist at University of California-Davis, who explains that “new” methods” of genetically modifying plants has emerged like clockwork over more than a century–and has always been accompanied by fears and liberal resistance only later to be widely adopted. Does the same fate await GMOs?
The dea of intentionally infecting a plant with a bacterium might seem strange. Just three decades ago, however, researchers discovered that they could use this infection to deliver new and potentially useful genes into crops.
“What has long appeared to be simply the agent of a bothersome plant disease is likely to become a major tool for the genetic manipulation of plants: for putting new genes into plants and thereby giving rise to new varieties with desired traits,” announced acclaimed scientist Mary-Dell Chilton in 1983 in a pioneering article, one of many in this collection from the archives of Scientific American. Today genes introduced this way are yielding some of the most exciting new approaches to food security—as well as a hearty amount of debate.
Just as the excitement surrounding the benefits of genetic engineering paralleled those of our predecessors, so, too, has the fear of plant tinkering technologies persisted over time. Consider the comments of Maxwell T. Masters, president of the International Conference of Hybridization, in his 1899 Scientific American article: “Many worthy people objected to the production of hybrids on the ground that it was an impious interference with the laws of Nature.”
The hybridization described by Masters in 1899 and the genetic engineering detailed by Chilton in 1983 are examples along a continuum of new technologies developed through human endeavor and creativity that have reduced the environmental impacts and increased the productivity of agriculture. Which one of these technologies is truly “appropriate”? There is no simple answer to this question. When the goal is a productive and ecologically based farming system, there are many interwoven nuances.
Read the full, original article: Plant Engineers Sow Debate