Chapter One: Mendel's Little Secret
One of the most cherished dreams of plant breeders has been to find a way to transform corn and other cereal grains into super-plants able to reproduce themselves....The term for this type of vegetative miracle is "apomixis."
-- U.S. Department of Agriculture Press Release, 1998
Thinking about how our food is changing at the hands of the genetic engineers leads inevitably to the image of Gregor Mendel, the Moravian monk, breeding peas in his monastery garden a century and a half ago. Dressed always in a black robe, a pair of tweezers in one hand and a camel-hair paintbrush in the other, Mendel bent over rows of peas, cheerfully castrating the flowers by snipping off the pollen-bearing anthers and dusting on a different pollen from another row. He bred round peas with wrinkled peas, peas from yellow pods with peas from green pods, tall plants with dwarf plants, carefully separating each into breeding lines and then crossing and backcrossing them to watch how the traits appeared in future generations.
In time the jolly amateur gardener scooped his fellow nineteenth-century botanists, including Darwin, with his insights into the basic laws of heredity. Mendel was the first to understand that characteristics such as height, color, and shape depend on the presence of determining factors (they were not called genes until much later) and that these factors could be either dominant or recessive. For his work Mendel was posthumously acknowledged to be the father of modern genetics.
This popular image, however, misses another, less well known Mendel who becomes important today in the era of genetic engineering. The other Mendel was not so cheerful, a solitary monk still toiling in the monastery garden, but this time struggling without success to comprehend the strange reproductive processes of a common orange-colored wildflower called hawkweed.
In the hawkweed case, Mendel had accepted a challenge from a German professor of botany to crossbreed varieties of hawkweed and figure out what happened to the plant through successive generations. When he had done this experiment with peas, the offspring had shown different characteristics, allowing him to deduce his law of random assortment of the plant factors. The progeny of hawkweed were strangely different. They were all the same in the first generation and continued to be the same in successive generations, bewilderingly exact replicas of the mother plant. Mendel could not figure out what was happening and died, as far as is known, without making any progress in unraveling hawkweed's puzzling reproductive behavior. After his death, all his personal and scientific papers were burned, possibly by a rival monk, in a huge bonfire in the monastery courtyard where his greenhouse had once stood.
We now have an explanation for hawkweed, even though scientists still don't know how it works. Mendel had witnessed a plant that produces seeds without sex, the biological phenomenon of asexuality, known in plants as apomixis. Hawkweeds do it that way; so do dandelions. Mendel's basic laws applied to peas and most other living things, but they did not account for the odd behavior of hawkweed.
The word apomixis is from the Greek apo, meaning "away from," and mixis, which means "mingling," a quaint conjunction that aptly describes the somewhat haphazard way plants have sex. Typically, a plant releases a shower of pollen grains that are carried on the wind, or by an insect, to the female organ in the quest to fertilize the eggs. In apomictic plants the pollen is infertile, and the egg itself does all the work. The seed from this activity produces a clone, an exact copy of the mother plant. Instead of having a gene pool constantly changing through the mingling of genes during sexual reproduction, the combination of genes in apomictic plants is frozen, in theory, forever.
Asexual reproduction turns out to be the method of choice for a small but diverse group of plants and animals, from roses and orchids to freshwater flatworms. It occurs in 10 percent of the four hundred families of flowering plants but only 1 percent of the forty thousand species that make up those families. The apomicts, as they are called, include several other wildflowers besides hawkweed and dandelions but only a handful of things we eat, such as mango, blackberries, and citrus.
More than a century after Mendel's death, apomixis remains one of the most vigorously investigated botanical mysteries. Researchers in America, Australia, Europe, and Russia are racing to discover which gene, or combination of genes, governs asexual reproduction. They also want to know whether apomictic plants always produce seeds without having sex. The apomictic dandelion once had normal sex and some primitive species behave like regular sexual plants. Why did they evolve this way?
Oddly, although we now have highly sophisticated techniques for swapping genes from one species to another -- powerful laboratory tools and enzymes that snip off the precise pieces of DNA we want to splice -- we still have a lot to learn about the sex life of plants.
The best guess so far is that apomixis is a suppression of normal sexual activity. But basic questions remain unanswered about the courtship of plants -- how the plant cells send signals to each other during fertilization and whether these signals are different in asexual plants than in plants that reproduce with sex -- and what really happens during the formation of the embryo.
Such matters would be of little more than academic interest when it comes to thinking about the future of food except for one important fact. None of the world's major crops is apomictic. When a plant breeder produces a prize variety of, say, corn -- handsome, high-yielding, and resistant to pests and plagues -- and that corn plant has natural sex with its neighbor, the next generation is always slightly different, just as we are each a little different from our parents. The plant breeder yearns for some method of retaining the most desirable combination of genes in his prize variety year after year.
Apomixis could be the answer -- which is why its secrets are known as the Holy Grail of agriculture and why there is a furious international scientific race to solve the mystery. The winner of this scientific trophy could revolutionize agriculture -- and harvest massive profits. Apomixis could be of tremendous benefit to seed companies; it could also help the world's farmers, especially those in undeveloped countries.
Since 1935, when the seed companies started selling hybrid corn that lasted only one season, farmers who plant hybrids have been forced to buy new seed each year or fall behind competitors in their production of grain. If those seeds contained the apomixis genes, a farmer would have no need to buy new seed each year because his plants would do as well in the next and successor generations. He would save seed from his harvest, as farmers once did. Apomixis could offer relief for poor farmers in Asia and Africa who cannot afford to buy seed and who still breed their own varieties. They could fix traits in a prized traditional variety. The seed companies would also benefit. Breeding new varieties is a costly and time-consuming business that could be superseded by apomictic plants that fixed their genomes forever.
There is a catch, of course. This promise comes only if apomixis is unraveled by someone willing to share the discovery. If the secret of asexual plants is patented by a corporation that insists solely on commercial gain, farmers in undeveloped countries and most seed companies would be excluded from such an exclusive agricultural club for twenty years at least, the normal life span of an international patent.
In many ways the race to unravel the mysteries of apomixis poses the central dilemma of biotech agriculture. Until now the focus of protests and of the media has been on the taint of new genetically modified (GM) foods, an issue that arises in rich nations where hunger is rare and such food is a matter more of taste than of necessity. While protesters march against "Frankenfoods" and trample on field tests of GM crops, and while the media raise the alarm about toxic GM potatoes and the possible extinction of the monarch butterfly from eating GM corn pollen, both give short shrift to the larger question: how can the promise of this technology and its life-giving products reach those most in need?
The core issue is the increasing dominance of industrial capital over farming, especially in undeveloped countries. If the keys to the creation of the new miracle plants -- plants that defy pests, or grow well despite droughts or floods, or produce wonder fruits that serve as medicines as well as food -- are locked up in the safe of agribusiness, it's hard to see how poor nations will reap the benefits. If we in the developed world can use a transgenic caffeine-loaded soybean to produce coffee in Minnesota, the coffee workers of Kenya are likely to lose their centuries-old livelihood. If the new technology can help feed the extra three billion people expected on the planet between now and the middle of the century, public funds will have to be set aside to ensure that the technology is available in poor countries. If a new transgenic rice plant can help to cure blindness in those who live on little more than a bowl of rice a day, some new partnership between rich and poor has to be forged so that the intellectual property rights to such a marvelous invention will be shared.
If these inventions are owned by a few international conglomerates, how will these promises be fulfilled? Those who till the world's vast farmlands are in danger of becoming mere contract employees in bailment to a global food processor who supplies the seed with the understanding that the harvest and next year's seed belong to the processor, not the farmer. And we risk having fewer choices even than today in the range of foods we can buy at the local grocery store.
As agricultural science moves relentlessly forward, some enlightened new private and public partnerships are emerging so that these technological advances have a chance of being shared. In theory, the new arrangements take into account the needs of different farming systems in different countries, but will they allow farmers to grow their favorite and traditional crops rather than homogeneous foods for the conveyor belt of industrial agriculture? The fear of those opposed to the new technology is of a "plague of sameness," a vast monoculture organized and guarded by some big brother corporation.
These are not new issues. They have been around for a hundred years, since the application of Mendel's laws of heredity slowly turned crop breeding from a rural art into a science. However, the issues came into sharper focus on the eve of World War II when the yields of the new hybrid corn varieties were outpacing anything that had gone before, and when the means of agricultural production, the seed, began changing hands, from a public resource like air to private ownership. Swarms of John Deere tractors started plowing up the American Midwest and any foreign field where farmers or nations were rich enough to purchase the machines. Tons of artificial fertilizer were spread on those lands, clouds of new powerful insecticides and pesticides were sprayed on the bounty, and the harvest was brought home with mechanical pickers to stock the industrial world's grocery marts.
In 1962 came the counterrevolution. Rachel Carson protested the devastating effects of these chemicals in her book Silent Spring, which led to a new public awareness that forced chemical manufacturers to restructure the formulae of their toxic wares. But the high yields were too important, and industrial agriculture marched on, using different chemicals that helped produce so much food that farmers entered a vicious spiral of overproduction.
In developed countries during the last half of the twentieth century, the average crop yields of wheat, corn, and rice doubled or tripled, the number of tractors in the world rose from seven million to twenty-eight million, and the average annual yield of a milking cow in France increased from fewer than two thousand liters to more than five thousand. The production increases drove down prices paid to farmers, while farmers' costs rose. The loss of the family farm became the sad anthem of rural America as the nation and the rest of the developed world shifted to industrial agriculture.
This farming revolution passed by most of the world's farmers, who, being poor, continued to use manual tools and raise crop plants and animals that benefited little from the intense breeding of improved varieties.7 The gap between the most productive and the least productive farming systems increased twentyfold.
By the 1980s the biotech agricultural revolution was brewing. The application of genetic engineering to crop plants, by allowing a desirable gene from one species to be inserted into another species, offered agribusiness a new method of control. The chemical company that sold powerful, all-embracing new weed killers now also sold seeds that grew into plants especially designed to resist those herbicides. To compete, farmers had to buy both seeds and weed killer. Once again, only those who could afford the new package survived. The improvements never reached the poorest farmers in Africa. The seed companies were not interested in producing pest-resistant cassava for farmers who would not be able to pay for it.
With the appearance of the first genetically engineered whole food -- a tomato that didn't rot on its way to market -- a food war broke out between agribusiness and a diverse group of activists in the developed world. Scientists, doctors, environmentalists, ecologists, farmers, agronomists, sociologists, lawyers, economists, creationists, mystics, latter-day Pre-Raphaelites, and antiglobalists who wanted to bring a halt to this new technology took to the streets to stop agribusiness from tampering with their food.
But the antibiotech forces were not urging scientists and companies to tailor their genetic inventions in ways that could help the millions of hungry people in the world. There were no banners urging "Miracle Seeds for the Poor" or "Gene-Altered Cassava for Dry African Fields." Some protesters demanded nothing less than a halt to the "unnatural," even ungodly, practice of swapping genes between species. Their argument was not that genetic engineering might be put to better use, but that it was of no use. They focused on the scientific possibility that the new foods could be unsafe, that they were an unnecessary experiment perpetrated by scientists without a social conscience and wicked corporations intent only on profit. They worried that transferring genes between species might cause allergies, or worse; alien genes might "escape" into the wild and create "superweeds" and "superpests" that could disrupt the world's ecosystems.
In Europe the British government was reeling from food scandals, the contamination of pork and poultry with dioxins, and the "mad cow" epidemic. The battles reached such a pitch that the Europeans banned imports of the new transgenic grains except for animal feed and demanded that all products containing the new foods be labeled. The Japanese banned imports of the new modified corn. As a result U.S. farmers lost important markets and became uncertain which seed to plant next season. The food industry panicked and, fearing they would be unable to sell their famous brands abroad, demanded that suppliers provide grains free of genetic "contamination." Looking at the agricultural casualty list in 1999, an analyst in the New York office of Deutsche Bank declared, "GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are dead."
The attitude of the agribusiness companies did not help. They were as arrogant about their new "miracle" foods as the nuclear power industry had been about the "peaceful" atom in the 1960s. The biotech scientists in the big universities made the same mistake. They boasted, "We've invented fire. The sky's the limit," an uncomfortable reminder of the forecasts of their atomic colleagues who promised that electricity would soon be clean and risk free.
Governments, scientists, and companies thought that they could rally public support behind the new technology without informing citizens of the true nature of biotechnology. But agriculture is different from other sectors of the economy, such as drugs and cosmetics. Rural life has always held a special place in any nation's cultural heritage, in its cuisine and in its art. Think of the farm scenes of Bruegel and Constable, for instance. Although much of this feeling is a misplaced nostalgia for supposedly idyllic life that is, in fact, quite beastly, farming is not merely a job, it is also a mission. Bringing food to people's tables not only provides for others but also encourages the roots of self-sufficiency and community. The land is where any nation cares for its economic, social, and environmental health, the place where ecosystems, biodiversity, and water quality are nurtured.
In the war over genetic agriculture, the public soon demanded more debate. Prodded by green groups, biotech companies found themselves explaining and defending the right to experiment with complex aspects of genetic engineering that they had imagined were safely secreted in agricultural laboratories. Their view was that the public could not be bothered with and did not really need to know about antibiotic marker genes, the cauliflower mosaic virus, the gene flow in Mexican corn fields, and jumping genes that might under certain circumstances create new allergens and toxins. All these matters were to be avoided as far as possible as the stuff of public discourse. It was a colossal miscalculation, and when the public caught on, the result was widespread confusion and alarm.
Whether it takes twenty months or twenty years before scientists break the genetic code for apomixis, that day will surely come. And then plant breeding will finally enter its next phase. Scientists will have moved beyond the simple transfer of one gene to another to make crop plants short or tall, or to increase a plant's own defenses against insects and pests, or to bestow resistance to cold or heat.
In the year 2000, scientists took a step into that new era. Two German researchers used three alien genes, two from a daffodil and one from a bacterium, to create in rice a substance known as beta-carotene. Under the right conditions, beta-carotene can be converted in the human body to vitamin A, which is missing in the diet of millions of poor people, causing blindness and defective immune systems. The new rice turned yellow, like a daffodil, and was instantly dubbed "golden rice."
This book enters the debate over genetic agriculture at the point when those two German scientists created golden rice, a "miracle" crop by any standard. Golden rice created a possible change in the food supply that Mendel could not have fathomed from his monastery garden, any more than he could comprehend the strange sexuality of hawkweeds and dandelions.
What seemed like a noble humanitarian effort, however, quickly turned into the loudest battle of the biotech wars.
Copyright © 2003 by Peter Pringle