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Pamela Ronald, a professor at the University of California Davis, a world-recognized plant geneticist studying genes that control resistance to disease and tolerance to environmental stress, speaks at the Northern Soybean Expo in Fargo, N.D., on Feb. 7, 2017. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

Scientist: Public science is needed

FARGO, N.D. — Science. Agriculture needs more awareness of it, not less, and we need publicly financed science to help offer positions independent of private research funded by industry.

Pamela Ronald, a professor at the University of California-Davis, spoke Feb. 7 at the Northern Soy Expo in Fargo, N.D. She is a world-recognized plant geneticist, studying genes that control resistance to disease and tolerance to environmental stress. She prefers not to use the term genetically modified organism, or GMO, because she doesn't think it's "very useful."

"The Food and Drug Administration has determined it (GMO) is scientifically meaningless because everything we eat has been genetically altered in some manner," she said.

Alterations include older methods, such as mutation breeding. GMO often refers to "genetic engineering," a technique that has been around for the past 40 years, which means taking a gene from one species and introducing it into another. Other techniques such as "genome editing," where something is simply removed are becoming more popular.

Ronald talked about advances in genetics and new technologies might affect plant breeding into the future. She said processes that used to cost tens of millions of dollars, hundreds of researchers and seven years, now can be accomplished in two minutes for about $99, all because of genome sequencing. She and colleagues are working on rice that is tolerant of longer periods of flooding, and acknowledged the technique could be replicated in corn.

Scientists that use genetic engineering techniques are working with "computational biologists" who are developing tools to identify genes and networks that control valuable agronomic traits. They study not only the rice genome that Ronald studies, but also data from other species like mice or flies, to common linkages. "You might have a gene for drought-tolerance, but that's only one gene, and you want to know what other genes might modulate or control that network," she said. "Most of the functions of genes in plants are unknown. We only know the function of a very few genes."

Scientific skeptics

"I think many of us are concerned with the sort of spread of 'fake news' and belief in conspiracy theories that can often trump evidence-based decision-making," she said. "It's really important to make policy based on science and scientific consensus. This has huge ramifications whether you are a farmer or business person or any global citizen."

Ronald said research should focus on the "goals of sustainable agriculture," including enhancing the ability for farmers and rural communities to thrive and to enhance food security around the world to reduce environmental impacts.

There has not been a "single incidence of harm to human health or the environment" from GMOs but many improvements, including insulin and other drugs, as most U.S. cheeses developed with an enzyme developed through genetic engineering. Most North Dakota soybeans were developed to tolerate a particular herbicide. Elsewhere in the world, papayas for the past 20 years have been developed to withstand an infectious virus. Bangladesh and Cornell scientists have "built on an organic farming technique and have engineered a pesticide used by organic farmers called Bt into eggplant, and have massively reduced the number of insecticide sprays."

For the past 20 years her research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy and other public sources, but some have criticized her for having accepted Monsanto money for research in the past. "

Free discussion

In an interview with Agweek, Ronald acknowledged a "lot of turmoil" in federal agencies since the start of the Donald Trump administration. She said there is concern among scientists about agency web pages being taken down. Such occurrences suggest that "the voice of science may get lost through the political process." She said it's important for citizens to let their elected officials know that "we have the most wonderful scientific enterprise in the world that's brought tremendous benefits to our nation and the globe and we need to continue to support science and not politicize it with opinion and belief."

Ronald's husband, Raoul Adamchak, is a farmer and grows certified organic vegetables at UC-Davis. The couple in 2014 published a book, "Tomorrow's Table — Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food," which discusses how agriculture will need all kinds of tools to meet human food needs.

Federal organic standards prohibit GMOs for organic crops, "so consumers who don't like that particular technique can buy that."She noted that organic farmers can use crops altered through other techniques, such as radiation, mutagenesis or chemical mutagenesis, or mixing two species together.

"From a scientific point of view it's a little arbitrary to pick a single genetic technique out and then ban farmers from using that," she said. She said organic crops standards are not allowed to make claims for food safety or nutritional benefits, and as far as she is aware there is no evidence that there is any nutritional enhancement in an organic vegetable versus another product. "What's important is that you eat your fruits and vegetables," she said.