Agriculture’s inconvenient truths and the stories that sustain us

As a scientist, I believe in the process of asking nature questions through experimentation and getting objective answers from the results. But as a writer, I know that human beings are all about telling stories and letting those stories serve as metaphors for hard-won truths. A quote about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) from Dan Charles, author of “Lords of the Harvest,” reminded me of this. “The dispute over genetic engineering involves facts, to be sure,” he said. “But its parties disagree far more passionately over the story. They quarrel over the nature of the characters, the plot and over the editing. They also feud over the unknowable: the ending.”

Here’s one story:

About 8,700 years ago in Mexico some perceptive human beings found a grain plant (Teosinte) that produced runty cobs with edible kernels of grain. Through careful breeding for more kernels and bigger, starchier cobs, Teosinte morphed into maize, or corn, a crop that now feeds (directly or indirectly) a significant fraction of over 7 billion people throughout the world. And now, we don’t have to wait nearly 10,000 years to change a handful of genes in one plant. We have the tools to genetically shape not only food crops, but also their animal pests and associates in record time. Moreover, we have an obligation to do so in order to alleviate suffering and malnutrition in an expanding global population.

But here’s another story:

Human beings thrive because they have learned to exploit nature without regard to the consequences. One species (Homo sapiens) co-opts over 60 percent of the energy available for the entire biosphere. Large corporate interests control an economy that is concerned only with money, profit and the pleasures of today. Human technology merely prolongs the suffering of people aspiring to or living a lifestyle that is ultimately unsustainable.

Most of us may not espouse either story completely, but preferentially lean toward either pride or humility when it comes to human behavior — or we admire or place our faith in friends or institutions that favor one story or the other — so we tend to assemble the facts at hand to the narrative of choice.

I recently read an interesting account about the trials and tribulations of corn farmers trying to control the corn rootworm in the March 2017 issue of Scientific American magazine. Here’s the gist of the story:

Corn borers are a beetle that used to munch on maize, squash, and prairie grass until they found corn borer heaven: acres and acres of one yummy plant: corn—especially as grown on American mega farms. Farmers poisoned them with insecticides, which worked until the insects acquired resistance. (And the fallout of insecticides is collateral damage to the entire ecological infrastructure.) Then, farmers rotated corn crops with soy crops. The beetles didn’t like soy, so they died off. That worked for a long time, until some maverick beetles learned to eat soy long enough to lay eggs that hatched into larvae that could gorge on the next crop of corn.

Then geneticists manufactured corn seed with proteins toxic to corn borer larvae. That worked well for about a decade, especially alternating toxins when the beetles evolved resistance. The latest genetic silver bullet involves engineering rootworms that self-destruct with genes that shut down vital metabolic functions. Geneticists get better and better at making bullets that can strike only one target, but they always have to deal with the Jurassic Park truism: “life finds a way.”

Professor Pamela Ronald makes an impassioned case for genetic engineering in her March 2015 TED talk:

Ronald is married to Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer. In their book, “Tomorrow’s Table,” they argue that we shouldn’t focus on how a seed variety is developed, but rather what technological innovation can provide safe, abundant and nutritious food.

Grist magazine has a reputation for printing uncomplimentary stories about GMOs. However, they hired Nathanael Johnson, a journalist they felt could look objectively at technology versus agriculture, although he came from a rather “green” background himself. Johnson ended up creating a 26-article series, some not popular with many Grist readers. He found, not surprisingly, the real story to be much more complicated that any short fiction we might like to fabricate. His summary conclusions can be found here:

He said that, “greens” (and he included himself) “oppose GMOs because we oppose the unsustainable agricultural system they serve.” But he realized that that argument resembled one proposed by those against contraception and sex education: “The argument supposes that you can throttle back an institution you dislike (monoculture, premarital sex) by denying it the technologies that reduce its risks (Bt corn, condoms). But, just as teens are going to keep having sex, our unsustainable food system is going to keep on chugging along whether we allow the use of mitigating technology or not. I think it makes sense to support the GMO uses that give us small environmental improvements. Insisting on abstinence-only farming is a non-starter.”

That doesn’t mean we should stop trying for more sound farming practices. Monocrop farming invites disaster because of its scale and the manner in which it tries to shoehorn biological systems into a flawed industrial template rather than one consistent with three billion years of evolution. But neither does it mean that GMOs are inherently bad. At least scientists are forced to scour the natural world for the time-tested genetic solutions various organisms have devised to solve their survival problems. The trick is to anticipate correctly—and traditional breeders must do this, too — how changes they choose to make operate in today’s world.

My take-away is this: When I feel my passions rising about any issue, it’s time to look closely at motivations. Am I judging this discovery, issue, or problem fairly, based on the facts at hand, or am I just looking for a comfortable story to curl up with—preferably one with a happy ending for me and my kind? If the “my kind” I worry about is the entire human species, then perhaps the conclusions reached will support practices that have survival value.