Earlier this week at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment, I led a conversation about food and agriculture during which a communications executive named David Kalson asked the question: Can organic food and transgenic food be part of the effort to make agriculture more sustainable? I answered “yes, I think so,” and referred him to an excellent book called Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food (Oxford University Press, 2008) by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak.
In the preface to the book, Sir Gordon Conway, the former president of the Rockefeller Foundation, calls Tomorrow’s Table “a tale of two marriages.” The first is the marriage between Pamela, a scientist whose research focuses on the genetic engineering of plants, notably rice, and Raoul, a teacher and lifelong organic farmer. The second is the potential marriage of two techniques: Genetic engineering and organic agriculture, which now cannot work hand-in-hand because, at least in the U.S., rules governing organic farming prohibit genetic engineering of crops.
The conversation at Brainstorm reminded me to post the edited transcript of a (long-ish) interview that I recently conducted with Pamela Ronald, who is a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis. We talked about the book, her work on rice and what her family eats for dinner.
Marc: How and why did you get involved in the genetic engineering of crops?
Pamela: Genetic engineering is not really a discipline. It’s just a tool. I’m a research scientist. I do plant genetics. I became interested in genetics in college. I had a fantastic teacher and I got very interested in understanding how plants and microbes could communicate.
Gunther: Where was this?
Ronald: Reed College. I had spent a lot of time backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains as I was growing up. I’ve always been interested in plant biology. My mother and grandparents were excellent gardeners and small-scale farmers.
Gunther: Well, then, how did your interest evolve into using, as you say, the tool of genetic engineering as opposed to conventional plant breeding?
Ronald: Conventional plant breeding has been carried out for thousands of years, and over that time it has evolved from primitive domestication to sophisticated molecular approaches. Most of the modern approaches are still considered conventional plant breeding, and include techniques such as bringing two species together, as we do with grafting, random mutagenesis, where chemicals or radiation are used to induce changes to the DNA, and other bio-technological approaches.
More recently, now that we have a lot more information about plants, we’re able to more precisely identify and characterize genes and bring them into plants in a new way, which is called genetic engineering. With GE only one to a few genes are introduced directly without the initial pollination step.
Gunther: When did you start working with rice?
Ronald: I completed my PhD. at the University of California, Berkeley in 1990. As I was moving towards my post-doctorate work, I wanted to work on a very important staple crop. That’s why rice attracted me. It’s not only a staple crop but it is an excellent genetic system to understand basic biology, and in particular, how plants and microbes.
Gunther: In your book, you write about work you’re doing to develop rice that’s flood tolerant. Does that remain a focus?
Ronald: I’m working in several areas of research. First, I still work on how plants and microbes communicate. We’ve isolated genes that are important for how the plant resists disease, and in particular we look at a bacterial disease. I also look at stress tolerance in rice, trying to understand what makes the plant tolerant to environmental stresses such as flooding. I’m also very interested in trying to establish new collaborations with computational biologists to use their great tools to really get a whole genome picture, to take systems approach picture to understand how plants respond to different types of stresses. Finally, I’m looking at using rice as a model for studies of switchgrass, which is an important future bio-energy crop.
Gunther: Sounds like a very full agenda! There’s a moment in the book where you plant some modified rice and discover that the strain of rice that you’re working on was able to survive fourteen days of flooding. How far are you from taking that discovery and actually bringing it out into commercial use?
Ronald: My laboratory carried out the molecular genetics and isolated a key gene for submergence tolerance. Since I began this project, I’ve had a fantastic collaborator at the International Rice Research Institute named Dave Mackill. He has now taken the genetic information and carried out precision breeding, which is a modern form of breeding that requires molecular markers. And he has developed varieties for India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, and those are now out in farmers’ fields. I have another excellent collaborator at UC Riverside who has now taken the lead in understanding how a single gene can affect diverse plant responses that allow it to survive flooding.
Gunther: So your work is already having an impact? I recall reading in your book that the value of the rice crop destroyed by flooding was really significant.
Ronald: In India and Bangladesh alone, it’s estimated that four million tons of rice— enough to feed 30 million people—is lost every year to flooding. So the varieties that he has released into those countries should be quite useful.
Gunther: Have the new strains been accepted by farmers?
Ronald: Well, we took a trip to India and Bangladesh that Dave and his group organized — all the collaborators went — about a year and a half ago. We went with the farmers, and the rice is getting a fabulous reception. They said the rice was beautiful and I have a long blog on that trip, more than you probably would ever want to know.
[Editor’s Note: You can read Pam Ronald’s series of seven blog posts about her trip to Bangladesh, beginning with the first post here. Her blog, which is called Tomorrow’s Table, can now be found here.]
Gunther: The rice story is heartwarming, but not well known. I wonder if you think genetically engineered crops have an image problem. The early commercial genetically modified crops—I’m thinking of the Flavr-Savr tomato which wasn’t very flavorful—didn’t provide clear cut environmental benefits or help poor farmers, as I recall.
Ronald: There is no doubt that GE crops have an image problem in Europe and in some parts of the US. Still, much of the plant genetic work is carried out at publicly funded institutions and many of us are working on traits that would benefit poor farmers. We need to continue strong public funding and support for this kind of research. We cannot rely on private corporations to feed the world, that is not their goal.
In addition to Sub1 rice, there have been really fantastic varieties coming out from publicly funded research. So, for example, Dennis Gonsalves, a local Hawaiian, was very concerned about the papaya ringspot virus, which was devastating production on the island of Oahu. He and his group were able to develop papayas resistant to the virus. That virtually saved the papaya industry. The research behind that was all publicly funded.
The job of private companies is to make a profit. They’re going to produce new varieties for very, very large markets. So it doesn’t make sense to rely on private corporations to feed the world. I think that it’s something that public sector science really needs to do.
With that said, I think there should have been more publicity when the first genetically engineered crops came out. For example, with the papaya, or if the public had seen and understood the potential of Golden Rice, that would have had a big impact. But certainly some of the BT crops that have come out have had a tremendously positive environmental impact. They’ve been very helpful to the health of farmers and to the environment. There’s great data available from around the world on the reductions of insecticide.
Gunther: That’s because growers use BT corn and other BT crops as an alternative to spraying insecticides, correct?
Ronald: Yes. The huge reductions in insecticides have come, primarily, from BT cotton. There are excellent peer-reviewed reports from India and China, and they’re not all from industry; some are released by the national laboratories in those countries.
I think the public sees genetic engineering as a tool of corporations, but it’s really a tool for breeding, it’s a tool for biologists, it’s a tool for farmers.
Gunther: Maybe we’ve answered it already but what do you think, so far, has been the most significant benefit that’s been delivered by genetic engineering of crops?
Ronald: The massive reduction in insecticide use is a clear benefit. So is saving the papaya industry. That’s been a clear success story.
Gunther: And as long as we’re on the topic, where do you see the greatest potential, looking ahead?
Ronald: I think we’re going to continue to see benefits in minimizing the amount of land that we use for growing crops, which is critical, because most arable land has already been farmed. We’re going to see reductions in harm to human health as we reduce the use of insecticides. And we are hopefully very soon going to see massive changes in nutrition for very impoverished countries. Again, I’m talking about Golden Rice, which is supposed to be released in a couple years.
Gunther: Could you explain Golden Rice?
Ronald: Golden Rice was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. The idea was to develop rice that had higher levels of pro-vitamin A. The reason is that 500,000 children die each year from vitamin A deficiency disorders.
Golden Rice has been quite a successful project, led by a group in Switzerland. Now the International Rice Research Institute is playing a large role in making those traits available to locally adapted varieties in different parts of the world. I think it’s going to be released in the Philippines first.
Gunther: I want to cover two more topics. The first are concerns some people have about genetic engineering. It might be helpful here to explain how genetic engineering differs from conventional breeding.
Ronald: The process is different than conventional breeding in a couple ways. One, with genetic engineering, you can take a gene from any species and put it into a crop plant; that’s not true with conventional breeding. With conventional breeding, you need two fairly closely related species. The other big difference is that genetic engineering is very precise: you can bring in a single gene.
The National Academy of Sciences has looked at different processes of conventional breeding and different processes of genetic engineering and concluded that each process has some unpredictable consequences. You can’t ever have a process that has no risk. But, interestingly, genetic engineering poses similar risks of unintended consequences as that of many of the types of conventional breeding. And certain types of conventional breeding such as random mutagenesis, where you introduce random mutations throughout the genome, is predicted to have higher levels of unintended consequences than most types of genetic engineering.
Gunther: Why is that?
Ronald: Once you develop a new variety through mutagenesis you can alter the trait you want but there are likely other mutations that get carried along in the new breeding line that are not tracked. In contrast, with GE, you know exactly which gene you are transferring. We have an example of our own work. My collaborator Dave Mackill used a precision breeding approach for introducing the submergence tolerance gene into rice. This is a modern molecular-assisted conventional breeding and is not considered GE. The new varieties were highly tolerant of flooding as we predicted but the grains were a different color. That’s an example of an unpredicted consequence. Most consequences are very simple, and the color change is one the farmers don’t mind at all. They’re just happy they’re getting a three-fold increase in yield under conditions of flooding.
Gunther: Speaking of risks, aren’t there significant risks when countries decide not to use genetic engineering, as some of the Europeans have done?
Ronald: I think the risk is that their food is probably going to get more expensive. Many of these countries are quite wealthy. It’s an interesting question for the future; if many of the large countries — China, the United States, Argentina, Brazil — start producing genetically engineered crops, then it’s going to be difficult for Europe to access food that is not genetically engineered. But even the EU is changing. I think the EU is now allowing member states to make their own decisions on GE.
Gunther: Let’s wrap up by talking about your family dinner table. Like many, if not most, Americans, you eat some foods that are organically grown and others from genetically engineered crops. Could you talk a little bit about how you see organic and GE foods working hand in hand in the future?
Ronald: My husband’s a certified organic farmer so everything we eat from his farm is organic. And we eat genetically engineered tofu from genetically engineered soybeans. We’ll eat tortillas from genetically engineered corn.
Gunther: Do both organics and genetically-engineered crops have a role to play at the American dinner table?
Ronald: I think certainly they do. I don’t think it matters if something is certified organic or if it’s genetically engineered. What matters is whether or not it was grown in a manner that is consistent with principles of sustainability. We need to use all the best tools available when it comes to creating a sustainable agricultural system.
Note: This interview originally appeared on Produce More Conserve More, a website run by Monsanto, which has commissioned me to do a series of interviews on sustainable agriculture.