A major advance in genetically modified foods.
July 30, 2001 1:28 PM   Subscribe

A major advance in genetically modified foods. Developed with government funding, and intended eventually to be given away to farmers, there has been a major success in the use of salt water to irrigate crops. They've developed a tomato which grows fine in salt water or on salty soil. Thousands of lives will be saved in parts of the world where fresh water for irrigation is scarce, including up to one third of the arable land in India where salt has been accumulating. Interestingly, these tomatoes are so good at what they do that they remove salt from the soil, improving it. The genetic modification which was done to these tomatoes should be possible with many other crops, including especially rice (on which major effort in Egypt is underway now).
posted by Steven Den Beste (39 comments total)
Interesting and potentially useful research, but I hope they'll try to anticipate all the potential ramifications before transitioning to widespread crop production.

Possible health concerns, for one:

In the Nature Biotechnology article, the authors reported that their tomatoes did have slightly increased levels of sodium and chlorine, which together make salt...

Also, the consequences of releasing salt-leeching hybrids into the environment. I have no idea what effect such plants might have on normal soil balance...do they?
posted by rushmc at 1:37 PM on July 30, 2001

Instead of testing GM foods on Americans, we can now test them on those pesky third-world barbarians. Great!
posted by hijinx at 1:46 PM on July 30, 2001

Bah! Testing? We don't need no stinking testing.

"Feed 'em untested GM crops and let God sort 'em out"
posted by preguicoso at 1:52 PM on July 30, 2001

Lots of the blurb above isn't in the link (as far as I can see). Where does it say it will be given away free (not the same as "No current plans to grow it commercially")? Where does it say lives will be saved?

"There has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy" - Amartya Sen (author of Development as Freedom, Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics).

People don't starve through lack of technology, but through lack of power. GM food is likely to increase the disparity in power as multi-national corporations take control of what were local, self-sufficient processes.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:55 PM on July 30, 2001

Patent food now!

Long Live Sterilized Seeds!

Trademark Fruit!

Copyright Tubers!

This message brought to you by Monsanto...
posted by preguicoso at 1:58 PM on July 30, 2001

I think we should all go back to subsistence farming, no fertilizers or insecticde of any kind, and only farm those foods which are native to our geography. The benefits are staggering - first, the population "explosion" will end, because millions, perhaps billions, of people will get sick and die from malnutrition related disease. Second, the unemployment will go to zero - for one, only the most wealthy will have any job besides "farmer," since they will be the only ones who are able to pay for large amounts of land and workers, and those who are unable to either be wealthy or farm for themselves will die. Thirdly, we will get to enjoy a renewed interest in mother nature, since we will all be a lot closer to her and her caprices, like drought, disease and insect plague. Fourthly, we'll have a lot of extra wood available, since we'll have to clearcut a buttload of forest to make room for more cropland, since the higher GM yields cut down the amount of space needed for farming. Fifthly, since so much more time and effort will have to be taken up with food production, the prices for foodstuffs will greatly increase, and farmers today won't need those subsidies from the government anymore....

I think the anti-GM crowd ought to think about the potential ramifications of their plans, too.
posted by UncleFes at 2:06 PM on July 30, 2001

What a fascinating bit of engineering.
posted by aramaic at 2:07 PM on July 30, 2001

I think the anti-GM crowd ought to think about the potential ramifications of their plans, too.

I agree. It's the knee-jerk rejection (or blind adoption) of technology that turns my stomach.
posted by rushmc at 2:20 PM on July 30, 2001

In another development, they've made a major step towards understanding the symbiotic bacteria which fix nitrogen for legumes. This may lead to modified versions of grains which can do the same. This would vastly decrease the amount of fertilizer needed, a major benefit for the third world.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:24 PM on July 30, 2001

If they can make a pre-salted tomato, I'm all over it. Think how much better and easier tomato sandwiches will be.
posted by anapestic at 2:27 PM on July 30, 2001

*sigh*... once again, straw men are brought out by corporate apologists quick to dismiss as crackpots anyone who is "anti-GM" (convenient label- Orwell would be proud!). If this technology is all its cracked up to be, without negative ramifications part, then super-swell! It could truly be a boon to people living in areas with little arable land. VERY few people disagree with that... but it's the "without negative ramifications" part that has some of us nervous.

Tinkering with the very processes of life could have disastrous effects, since, uh, by definition unforeseen consequences aren't anticipated or expected. Heck, the people working on the bomb at Los Alamos weren't entirely sure what to expect, and realized there was a chance that a nuclear explosion could start a chain reaction destroying the earth. I know few people who disagree with GM in pure theory, any more than they'd disagree with stem-cell research or any other advances in science that have or could have great benefit. Rather, the disagreement is usually with a) the privatization and corporatization of food sources (it sounds like this research is academic, and if developed and made freely available to peoples who need it, that sounds terrific) and b) the lack of testing or tightly controlled quarantine of these GM crops just in case they are more harmful than anticipated, or have negative ecological impact and/or disrupts an ecosystem to the detriment of many other species of plant and animal life.

I mean, sheesh, didn't you people read Jurassic Park?! :) There was a post two threads ago mentioning how marijuana was being grown in abandoned mines, which had the advantage that if used for GE food it would prevent accidental seed spreading. An intriguing idea...
posted by hincandenza at 3:02 PM on July 30, 2001

Making vague allusions to nuclear weapons and disaster movies is always an objective, level-headed, fair way to present a viewpoint, for sure.

Hybridization and tinkering with genetic traits happen all the time, but when you're only taking advantage of heredity and agricultural birth defects it never seems to bother anybody. However, go straight to the drawing board and edit the code directly to achieve a specific goal, and you're a mad scientist itching to release the Man-eating Kudzu from Hell upon the world. I just don't get it.

hincandenza, you say few people are against GM foods in "pure theory," which I assume means that most people are only opposed to specific situations where genetically modified crops have demonstrated some dire unforeseen consequence, but all it ever seems to take to get the anti-GM monkeys excited is the "GM" label itself. Every anti-GM organic fertilizer no-preservatives purist argument i've ever seen revolved around What Ifs and How Do We Know For Sures... It's getting old.
posted by techgnollogic at 3:34 PM on July 30, 2001

Wake me up when Monsanto gets the "Tomacco" to market.
posted by machaus at 3:43 PM on July 30, 2001

techgnollogic it maybe getting old, but it still has its valid points.

In geographically isolated places such as New Zealand, GM is seen as a larger threat to endangered native wildlife as there could be advers effects that havent been factored into the research, a good example of this was a GM trial in England, [I believe, or it could have been Wales], where there was a "2 mile buffer zone" this buffer zone however did not stop birds from flying from "normal" crops to the test field.

Also considering that we as human beings are playing with something that we still don't fully understand GM in its current form is unsafe.

But then I'm just some anti-GM wacko stopping progress, hell most prescription drugs are safe and haven't hurt anyone have they? So why cant GE.
posted by X-00 at 3:48 PM on July 30, 2001

You're right. Us anti-GM wackos just need to bend over and grip the sink and for God's sake, stop whining already.

Because, I mean, it's only the food we eat to survive. No biggie. Forget that most people's diets are shit anyway. Forget the hormone-drenched chicken breasts and the refined sugars and the preservatives. No, let's muck about with the code directly!

Garbage in, garbage out. And I, for one, would like to know that the food that I'm being sold has a reasonable chance of not giving me cancer ten years from now. Y'know, just a small complaint. But I should just shut up and let the food industry, which has unleashed an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and other such food-related illnesses, do whatever they want to. How right you are.

UncleFes, what if population reduction were an admirable goal?
posted by solistrato at 4:24 PM on July 30, 2001

As if ecosystems all over the planet weren't already being overrun and unbalanced by alien species, we make up and introduce new alien species of our own. As if ecosystems all over the planet weren't already under pressure from increasingly desperate farmers spreading onto increasingly marginal land, we make up new plants that will push the margins even farther. As if global megacorporations didn't already own enough of the trade systems on which our lives depend, we allow them to patent and thereby control the very food we eat. What is wrong with us? What can we possibly stand to gain that is worth the risks we're taking?

Even if this tomato does what it promises, doesn't accidentally drive any more native species to extinction, and doesn't spur the cultivation of even more yet-unfarmed land, it doesn't solve the problem it was designed to solve. Salty farmland is the symptom - farming where there isn't enough rainfall to support agriculture is the problem. The ground is becoming salty because we're pushing ecosystems too far. Allowing us to push these ecosystems even farther just delays the problem and does not solve it. Is this an arms race we really want to enter? Do we want to commit our grandchildren to outrunning an even greater environmental disaster than the one we're trying to avoid right now?

At least this tomato was developed by academic researchers and not by Monsanto. Maybe farmers who grow this thing will thus be spared the bizarre legal bullshit perpetrated on those unwise enough to buy "roundup ready" crops. Who exactly thought it was a good idea to commit the long-term health of our planet to organizations fundamentally motivated by short-term profit? And how can anyone justify moving farther in that direction?

As usual, mark me up with the "anti-GM wackos". I want none of this.

posted by Mars Saxman at 4:32 PM on July 30, 2001

[Even if this tomato does what it promises, doesn't accidentally drive any more native species to extinction, and doesn't spur the cultivation of even more yet-unfarmed land, it doesn't solve the problem it was designed to solve. ]

Actually since it removes the excess salt from the land it does solve the problem doesn't it?
posted by revbrian at 4:39 PM on July 30, 2001

Tell me what is there is life that we fully understand? Most of GM stuff is just as well understood as some other sciences. Monsanto is desperate for profit, because there isn't much money in the research. They are bleeding money left and right. I doubt they are going to try and release killer tomatoes.

I don't see why GM foods can't be just as safe as any other food. I don't understand the straight anti-GM line. I'm for more research and testing and less panic.
posted by john at 4:40 PM on July 30, 2001

Here's another one. Large parts of the world suffer from a severe shortage of vitamin A, which causes hundreds of thousands of cases of blindness and results in many child deaths. Scientists have moved genes from daffodils and a bacterium into rice (resulting in something called "Golden rice") which has substantial amounts of beta-carotene (which our bodies can convert to vitamin A). Anti-GM activists are trying to suppress it.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 5:29 PM on July 30, 2001

... or maybe it's not such a simple fix.
posted by spandex at 5:48 PM on July 30, 2001

Mmmm. Gimme that food, I can't wait to mutate.
posted by kindall at 7:18 PM on July 30, 2001

Two points about GM:

1. It's very new so it has risks. No one has yet lived their whole life on a diet of GM food so we don't have the information. This will change but its easy to understand why there is concern, some of it reasoned, some of it based on fear.

2. The privatization of the gene pool, by moving away from natural manipulation of genes through selection there is an acelerating transfer of power from food producers to seed producing companies. Yet another stick for the First World to weild over the Third.

Point 1 can only be addressed by time, research, openness and the protection of the natural food stock from genetic contamination. Alas the contamination is already starting.

Point 2 is harder and says to me that this technology should not be developed and controlled by companies for profit but rather by universities, public institutions and not protected by patent.

Of course this ain't gonna to happen.
posted by lagado at 8:15 PM on July 30, 2001

...at this point I bring up the history of the carrot...
posted by aramaic at 8:19 PM on July 30, 2001


1. Every major vegetable and grain you eat is already heavily genetically modified.

2. The "golden rice" is being developed by non-corporate entities and free licenses have already been granted for all relevant intellectual property, so it can be distributed without royalty -- if only Greenpeace will get out of the way.

3. If you go through life refusing to take any risks at all, you'll never get out of bed. Risk has to be balanced against benefit.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:36 PM on July 30, 2001

You may have misinterpreted what I was saying. My point was that openness and research were important and that I believe that this research should be directed by public institutions rather than corporations. I will go as a far as to say that the products of this research should be in the public domain.

Addressing your points:

1. Genetic modified (GM) food stuffs are still very much in the early stages here in Australia. If you are referring to genetic modification through selection (whether in a lab or in a field) then I have already made mention of that in my previous comment.

There is a fundamental difference between these two kinds of modification, no matter how much the software engineer in us would like to think otherwise. Selection is a process of moving by mutations and cross-breeding across a fitness landscape to find a local optimum. Gene splicing on the other hand is like taking a helicopter over that landscape to somewhere formerly inaccessible. The risks come from the new and unknown byproducts that emerge from these new genetic interactions. All I'm saying is that these products need to be tested for negative effects in an ongoing fashion. Sometimes this takes a lifetime of eating the stuff to be really sure.

2. I'm all in favour of research directed towards the benefit of people. This development does sound positive although please excuse my natural suspicions about their motives.

3. If we are going to resort to motherhood statements, I'd like to add that risks need to be managed properly rather than negligently.
posted by lagado at 11:18 PM on July 30, 2001

GM. Bring it on. Brew the stew. Fiddle and faddle. Roll the dice. Anything to jumpstart this boring plod to mediocrity. Jumble it, scramble it, throw it all up into the air, let it settle and boil, and let the merry miasma sort itself out. I really wish it would rush on - at the current measured rate, I'm gonna miss the party. New life. New lives. New landscapes. New dreams. New nightmares.


posted by Opus Dark at 12:25 AM on July 31, 2001

Opus didn't you hear though, old is the new new, now?
posted by chaz at 2:52 AM on July 31, 2001

Eventually, we will need GM foods. And most of these are probably safe for consumption.
As Thomas R. DeGregori, University of Houston put it:
... quality science and quality scientists in the leading journals of science have overwhelmingly endorsed the safety of bioengineered foodstuffs and have not only indicated the necessity for them and the enormous potential that they offer for a better world for all of us.

That the public opinion in large parts of the world is anti-GM is a problem for further development of useful GM crops. Somewhere along the road of developing GM crops, the involved parties forgot to tell the public about the possible risks (stupid!), so environmentalists could step in and influence them with their opinion.

The past is the past, it cannot be undone, but....
... Some specific steps can be taken by Monsanto that would improve acceptance of plant biotechnology in both the developing and the industrialized worlds:
- label;
disavow gene protection (terminator) systems;
- phase out the use of antibiotic resistance markers;
- agree (with big seed companies) to use the plant variety protection system, rather than patents, in developing countries;
- establish an independently administered fellowship program to train developing-country scientists in crop biotechnology, biosafety, and intellectual property;
- donate useful technologies to developing countries; agree to share financial rewards from intellectual property rights on varieties such as basmati or jasmine rice with the countries of origin;
- and finally, develop a global public dialogue that treats developing-country participants as equal partners.

If we could start with that, maybe the rest will come naturally?
posted by roel at 3:12 AM on July 31, 2001

> ...at this point I bring up the history of the carrot...

Well? Let's hear the fascinating history of the carrot.
posted by pracowity at 3:16 AM on July 31, 2001

chaz writes:
Opus didn't you hear though, old is the new new, now?

I musta missed the memo. Prolly off somewhere on my Harley, bugs in my matted goatee, trying to find a raucous place to roller-blade...
posted by Opus Dark at 3:30 AM on July 31, 2001

In The Botany of Desire, the author underscores a great point in his chapter on GM Foods. He reaches a point in his explorations when he realizes that we're dealing with a "lesser of two evils" situation: Either saturate fields with nasty, nasty chemical pesticides, or grow GM crops.

But the best revelation is that we wouldn't really have to do EITHER if we could STOP MONOCULTURAL FARMING! If farmers rotated crops often and planted MANY DIFFERENT VARIETIES, many problems would be eliminated.

Perhaps we should question the demand that creates monoculture. Think about it the next time you eat one of those long, perfect McDonald's french fries. Mickey D's is one of the largest potato buyers in the world, and, guess what? They only want ONE kind of potato.
posted by preguicoso at 8:04 AM on July 31, 2001

Monoculture farming is more efficient. If you plant one crop per year, ten crops over ten years, your total yield will be higher than if you plant all ten crops every year over that same ten years.

One reason is mechanical harvesting. If you've planted a hundred acres in wheat, you can harvest all of it with a combine harvester. If your wheat is in stripes mixed in with other things, it's a lot harder to harvest.

Nor is there any reason to believe that ending monoculture farming would decrease insect infestations or decrease the need for fertilizer.

Equally, it won't do anything about salt buildup in the soil or inadequate supply of irrigation water.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:14 AM on July 31, 2001

And most of these are probably safe for consumption

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, don't you think?
posted by briank at 8:17 AM on July 31, 2001

If you plant one crop per year, ten crops over ten years, your total yield will be higher than if you plant all ten crops every year over that same ten years.

That is crop rotation, Steven.
posted by snarkout at 8:17 AM on July 31, 2001

Monoculture: you folks are using the term in different ways...
posted by aramaic at 8:23 AM on July 31, 2001

Yah -- crop rotation *IS* done, because it is a cheap way to get past the fertilizer limitations. Some years fields are left fallow, not just because of government subsidies not to plant, but because it is good for the soil.

Agriculture management is decades ahead of what people think. I know, because I worked in the computer side of the field for a little while. It blew my mind.

The problem is getting the farmers to change their time honored practices. Once we got them using a particular pesticide, or fertilizer, they latched onto that success and don't want to let go.

For those that say planting multiple crops is harder than single crops during harvest -- you're right, but the combine thresher was invented to speed harvest. Why not get some of these anti-GM people into inventive science so someone can create the multi-harvester machine (for crops of A, B, and C). Seems a way to make a fortune, and at the same time protect genetic diversity.

Oh, and the story of the carrot is like that of the apple. We used to have lots of different apple varieties, but as people settled on a particular crunch, texture, and sweetness, we quit growing other trees. We now have about eight major varieties, and that's it. What people want is the same McD's french fry at every McD's they visit, without wondering what kind of potato makes that flavor. That's consistency, and that's what the market demands. McD's just delivers. It's the consumer at fault.

But, I'd love to have some sweet-potato fries, with cinnamon-sugar instead of salt... MMmmmmmm
posted by dwivian at 9:06 AM on July 31, 2001

Monoculture farming is more efficient.

In the short run. Until you deplete your soil to the point where fertilizers are a) no longer adequate or b) not cost effective given the yield.
posted by rushmc at 11:30 AM on July 31, 2001

Farming multiple crops means that you have to invest in the equipment needed for all of them. Harvesting potatoes is a lot different than harvesting wheat. If you buy a combine harvester (which is really expensive) then the only way you can afford to own it is to use it every year.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:02 PM on July 31, 2001

I thought we were talking about solving the problems of the Third World where 80% of the population is engaged in agriculture and there is certainly no shortage of farm labour.
posted by lagado at 4:51 PM on July 31, 2001

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