Gene Logsdon and Friends

Organic GMOs?

In Gene's Weekly Posts on August 7, 2013 at 6:02 am

oFrom GENE LOGSDON

A very challenging disease is occurring in the plant world that is making the debate over genetically modified organisms also very challenging. A bacterium that infects orange trees prevents the fruit from ripening properly and eventually can kill the tree. It is fittingly called “greening disease.” It is spread by winged insects, Asiatic citrus psyllids. It’s been around for a century, but only recently reached Florida where it threatens the multi-billion dollar orange juice industry.  No orange tree has been found anywhere in the world that has natural immunity to the disease and so could be used to develop an immune variety. Right now, the only defense is toxic chemical spraying, and the amount of sprays is continually being increased. (There’s a great front page article on this problem in the New York Times of July 28.

Would not genetic modification be a whole lot more organic than toxic sprays? That’s the argument that defenders of GMOs are making and they have a point. The most effective gene they have found so far to give orange trees some immunity to greening disease is one from spinach. How could a gene from so healthful a plant cause problems?

From there, the debate can go off into any number of directions. It is quite possible that a tree with natural immunity could be found tomorrow. Or it could take years. Or not at all. A way to control the psyllid other than toxic spraying, which isn’t very effective anyway, might be discovered. The fact that the disease was around a hundred years ago in China and the orange tree is still with us would seem to mitigate the gloom and doom view. And although the orange juice industry believes that the public will accept GMOs before it would give up orange juice, we could easily live without it.

Those are some of the arguments. I would not want to be the pope of environmental science who had to make the decision about whether or not to save the orange tree by putting genes from spinach into it. Other foreign genes have been tried, including one from a pig and one from a fish which didn’t work out. The scientists even experimented with an artificial gene, whatever that means— sounds alarming to me. The GMO industry argues that good science can control the experiments and arrive at something that is safe by all known standards before being put on the market. But when is science “good” or not so “good.”

I am on record in that documentary making the rounds right now, Jeremy Seifert’s GMO-OMG, as being opposed to the idea of genetic modification using genes not found naturally in the host plant or animal, but my argument is not so much about whether GMOs make dangerous food or not. I don’t know and don’t think anyone else does either. What rankles me is the way agribusiness companies like Monsanto are trying to protect their genetic concoctions with patents that in effect give them proprietary control over genetic material that occurs naturally. Seems to me they are trying to patent nature. The scientists working on GMO solutions to greening disease have had to “work around” Monsanto patents, as the New York Times puts it, which is just my point. But the company funding the GMO effort to control greening disease (Southern Garden Citrus) is pouring millions of dollars into the effort. If they develop an orange tree immune to the disease, I can see why they would want to protect their product in the marketplace.

I think back to the simpler times when orchardists willingly shared with each other naturally-occurring new varieties or “sports” that they discovered. They figured nature belongs to everybody. I wonder who is right.
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  1. One word Gene, capitalism.

  2. I have talked with many farmers on the subject of GMO seed. Unfortunately, many have told me that planting and spraying roundup is so easy and fast they choose this due to lack of help either from their own family or hired help. This is only accelerating the demise of any grain farmer with less than 3000 acres to farm.

    Personally I dislike the idea of GMO crops and I think acceptance should be slow with much more testing.

    I also think patents were not made for biological organisms. That is a slippery slope we are going down. It reminds me of the time long ago when the “experts” thought Multifora Rose was a good idea because the seed would not germinate. (They did not realize after it passes through a bird it will germinate)

    On the subject of GMO trees, another area of interest is splicing BT genes in ash trees to make them tolerate the emerald ash borer. We are on track to loose every ash tree in the country in the next 10 years. This would be a case of a GMO none food crop that might make more sense than a food crop. ( I say this knowing full well we have no comprehension of all of the interrelated ecology associated with this and we might never know for another 50 years or more.)

    Ken

  3. To have one and only one God, which is to say one and only one answer, is to live one’s one and only one life fully blind.

  4. Ken, I was just about to invoke the memory of the introduction of the multiflora, the scourge of SE Ohio and more…. “the living fence” they called it. And Charlotte is right on as well. It seems that the science isn’t done first… properly, with common sense. Monsanto’s policies, in my mind, are more dangerous to the human race than, well, just about anything else other than the water supply. War can’t compare to famine can it? To expand the idea, the deep gas wells that are populating my area scare me… I just can’t believe that you can punch that many holes, frack all ’round, pull out the gas and not have consequences. Not to mention the ‘harmless’ fracking fluid. OH! I just remembered the Chinese ladybugs who have now replaced the good old fashioned natives around here. I loved the documentary “I Am”… give it a try. Old Momma Nature … in my humble dirty garden hands opinion, is going to develop her fever and shake us off like the flu. And we deserve it. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Sir Francis Bacon

    • frackers call their ‘proprietary’ -protected from EPA rules by federal law– solutions ‘saline’. they are full of such good stuff as benzene, a sure cause of cancer.

      even if you refuse fracking on your land -and look for the government to eminent-domain you!– the water table doesn’t care and your wells and your animals will all be polluted.
      there is no taking it back.
      here in ohio, dep’t. natural resources is actively promoting fracking on public lands!!

      deb harvey

  5. Sorry! In my tirade I neglected to mention that Gene has made many valid points in these particular cases. Sticky wicket, eh?

  6. Is anyone trying a natural solution?

    Biological Controls

    There are some predators that will attack the Asian citrus psyllid. They include lacewings, lady beetles (also known as ladybugs), spiders, hover flies and predatory bugs.

    http://treesandshrubs.about.com/od/diseaseandpestmanagement/ss/Causes-And-Control-Of-Citrus-Greening-Asian-Citrus-Psyllid.htm

  7. Well I wouldn’t put all GMOs in the same basket. As Gene says, there are cisgenic and transgenic GMOs (using genes from another plant of the same species, or from a different species), there are also GMOs that produce toxins such as Bt to kill pests of a certain kind, and those that produce a protein that make them tolerant to Roundup. The latter should not contaminate your non-GMO crops via cross-pollination if you don’t even use Roundup.

    I think organic farming and GMOs are not incompatible. The problem with orange groves is real, so it may come to a choice between organic oranges or no organic oranges at all. The world is now global, and pests from the opposite side of the word may be infecting traditional plants or animals that haven’t grown tolerance or resistance to them. Replacing them with exotic varieties that learned through millennia to tolerate these pests may not always be an option or recommended. Besides, organic orchards are very susceptible to such pests which could not only compromise the current crop, but the plant itself, and therefore a decade or two of crops to come, so there are already some chemicals authorized even in organic production and it’s not “pure” organic. And of course, genetic engineering should not be the first standard response to a problem, there are many other avenues to investigate before it comes to that, or even in parallel.

    Trees are also impossible to improve on the speed required by the progression of the disease using traditional selection, as you need several generations to stabilize the new trait or erase down the undesired traits. Remember, when hybridizing a pest-resistant plant with another one, you don’t get just the pest-resistant gene, you get half the genes of both plants in the new one, which makes the new plant very different from the cultivar you want. Genetic engineering makes introducing a single gene and respecting the original gene pool incredibly safer than conventional selection. After decades of conventional selection, you may have a tree and a fruit that looks like the original, but it may not taste the same or have the same nutritional value. With GE, you get the exact same plant, plus the extra pest-tolerant gene, nothing more.

    Monsanto should be able to get its invested money back and some profit too, but yeah, gene patenting seems an inappropriate way of doing so. Public schools should also not be able to “sell” such genes to private companies as they’ve been doing, whatever has been developed with public funding or in public schools should stay public domain. I would actually like to see public agencies such as the USDA perform their own research and produce their own GM cultivars rather than private companies, but I guess that’s socialism, incompatible with the sacrosanct doctrine of free private market and capitalism.

    • Glad you pointed out the difference between different genetic engineering approaches. One university in the Netherlands added wild potato gene for blight resistance to a commercial variety and had their field destroyed, this is despite the fact that they were prepared to give permission for different growers to grow it for seed potatoes, so no one company had a monopoly. Not all genetic engineering is equal, in some it is a way of reducing the time taken for traditional methods of crossing plants which as pointed out can take a long time for some it is the more worrying, to my mind, of cross species transfers.

      It is certainly good to be discussing these things though and educating ourselves on the issue, otherwise we will either surrender to the corporate giants and end up with such a minimal gene pool for our crops that we are in danger of one disease wiping out a whole crop across the world or blindly dismiss the type of genetic engineering that might actually help us, whilst maintaining the gene pool necessary to face future risks.

  8. Gene…orchardists, hobbyists and fruit growers still share their finds and improvements. North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX http://www.nafex.org) is one. Of course, instead of sending a handwritten round robin letter around to all members as we did in “simpler” times, now we use email, facebook, PDFs, and an online listserv :D

    • Deb, yes indeedy. In earlier days, NAFEX was the only organization I ever willingly joined. I’m glad to know it is still around. Gene

  9. We’re still not smart enough to solve nature’s problems without creating worse ones. There are too many variables and interactions that we are unaware of. I see this in my fence rows of multiflora rose and privet, not to mention the kudzu just up the road marching my way. All “solutions” to some perceived problem.

  10. Good points here. At least in wheat, it takes at least 7 generations from an original cross to a pure variety, so in the timeline of trees, if we have to give each generation say 15 years to be able to make good observation and selections, that would take 105 years, which I doubt we have. There are a lot of arguments in the puzzle, but GM techniques basically give breeders the ability to make their crosses purely, although they still often need at least one generation of observation to make sure they got what they were looking for. It’s a slippery slope though, as you say. In farming, we all know sometimes you either have to accept techniques you don’t like or lose your crop completely, and this may be the case with oranges and ash trees (Bt ash trees don’t sound too appealing to me), the trick is to make the right decision on the fly, when the problem confronts you. Unfortunately, human history is ripe with wrong on-the-fly decisions. Good thoughts, Gene.

    P.S. When is the next book coming out?

    • John, the next book is in production it will be out in the spring. It’s about how farming and gardening teach us so much about death and dying… and staying alive longer than we might otherwise. Gene

  11. Many species of plants and animals have come and gone over the life of the planet. If someone had been around to save all of them from extinction I think our environment would be an amazing mess. The planet evolves, ecosystems change. Maybe the time of elm and orange trees is over.

  12. if it’s so controllable why have subsistence farmers’ corn crops in the back of beyond been found to be contaminated by gmo corn genes? one of the apologists for gmo’s said the poor farmers should pay monsanto for the use of the genes!!

    read russia warns obama: monsanto

    from may 28, 2013 at The Top Information Post

  13. One thing people forget, both creationists and evolutionists, is that climates planets and organisms, including plants and animals, are changing on a regular basis. For example it is thought that the current outbreaks of E. coli are attributable to a certain strain which causes the illness and in some cases death of humans. Some scientists are of the opinion that the E. coli strain picked up the dangerous gene from another bacteria, Shigella , which is known to cause dysentery and other damage in susceptible humans. Yes they are both bacterium , but not from the same species of bacteria. This was a natural mutation, an exchange of matgeentic material from “UNRELATED SPECIES” but far more dangerous than any GMO mutation.

    The problem with defining what is a GMO and a non-GMO stems from, in part the concept of species. The Bible speaks of similar animals(E.g. horses and possibly Donkeys and Zebras and similar creatures as:”its kind” , yet croses between and among them such as a Zebra and a horse, (“Zorse”) or a donkey and horse (“Mules”) are certainly not rare.

    In contrast Creationists go considerably further in speaking of relationships amopng species when they speak of everything evolving from primordial ooze.Yet, I’ve heard it said as a mantra by non-GMO enthusiasts that: “crosses between different kinds of organisms don’t occur in nature.” I would have to reply “Oh really?”.

    If it’s true that everything evolved from the primordial ooze then how is something such as an orange really all that different from other fruits or for that matter the fly that is causing the problem. So it seems that if a plant “naturally appears” with immunity to whatever the disease or pest of the day happens to be then that is natural, so it’s okay, but if a scientist injects an immunity gene into said plants using laboratory methods then that is :”Evil”.

    Seems to me like it is essentially an attack on scientists attempting to develop something to feed hungry humanity. The author of the “Green Revolution stated it best, : Technology is not the enemy; starvation is. Furthermore, some folks at Monsanto do such terrible things as helping developing nations fight plant disease and pests with GMO crop seeds so that people won’t be starving or nearly so. Is that evil? Similar GMO efforts are aimed at heavily consumed crops in developing countries such as rice and bananas which contain more proteins and vitamin A precursors so children won’t be suffering from lack of quality proteins and Vitamin A, in other words so they won’t be malnourished and blind; is that also evil? In our own country, genetic manipulation in the laboratory managed to splice out gene sequences that cause tomato fruits to start the process toward over ripeness and rotting. This means that tomato fruits can be picked when truly ripe and more flavorful and nutritious and reach market with more of the taste and nutritional value a tomato should have. Is that also evil?

    Also think about the possibilities of GMO research leading to a restoration of the American Chestnut. Natural processes and human crossbreeding have been attempting the same project for some time now with some success, but I doubt they will repopulate eastern USA forest with great groves of American Chestnuts anytime soon.

    So I think the question should really be :Do people fear or fight the GMO concept from: 1) a distrust of science; (as in GMO products are not well enough regulated) , or 2) from ignorance (don’t know what the scientist do to create GMO’s and don’t like it in any case) ; or 3) simply because they don’t like Monsanto and corporate agribusiness.

    Note that distrusting and bashing science has long been a popular human activity such as the prime example of (going back a few hundred years) persecuting those who thought the world was a globe instead of a flat plane.

    Certainly GMO products should be well regulated, as in approving the current movement to label such products in the market place then letting the market decide. But that is a different agenda compared to bashing all GMO researchers and product providers by branding them as : “EVIL”. Please remember the saying :”Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water!” It may come to pass that ,organic issues notwithstanding, GMO’s are all that stands between us and starvation in the not too distant future.

    And yes in case you wonder, I still save my own open pollinated seed, but I don’t view it as more sacred or righteous than a GMO seed that feeds a poor child who would otherwise suffer from malnutrition.

    • Well said, Mr. Thomas.

    • I don’t like GM food, but not for any of the reasons you list. I work in the biotech industry. I see GM animals almost every day. The one thing I quickly learned was that the scientists don’t always know what is going to happen when they add/subtract a gene. I have seen more than one scientist scratch their head and go back to the drawing board, because of the un-anticipated results.
      So, no, I don’t think GM food is the way to go. And Bt oranges will stop the bugs for a couple of years, then they will develop resistance, and come back with a vengence. Look at Bt resistant corn worms, for example.

    • Agreed. Genetics is a tool that can be used either thoughtfully or without consideration for consequences. Genes should not be patented, they are already in nature and plants commonly cross easily with each other or survive mutations or doubling of chromosomes, having very plastic metabolisms. The results should be regulated. If a poison is added, such as the GMO corn, then common sense should put it under regulation as a new unknown additive to food. If the immunity to a disease can be added without adding new strange chemicals to the food itself, then perhaps not a problem? Monsanto has created a monster out of what could be a very useful technology.

  14. It’s the “unintended consequences” I worry about…

    James, you make some good points. The problem I see is that we wouldn’t need GMOs in many cases if we just took better care of the land and our plants. If we didn’t try to ship tomatoes thousands of miles, which means we pick them before they are ripe, we wouldn’t need to tinker with the ripening/rotting process by using GMOs. If we didn’t try to grow thousands of acres of monocrops of a hybrid seed that are all susceptible to a disease, we wouldn’t have had the Southern Corn Leaf Blight in the 1970s. If someone had paid attention to the fact that the Quarter Horse stallion Impressive had a congenital condition that preventing him from doing what Quarter horses are bred to do — perform — he would not have introduced another serious and often fatal congenital condition (HYPP) into the Quarter Horse, Appaloosa and Paint breeds.

  15. GMOs are a great way to control the masses by having food grown from plants that the average person can’t grow by planting the seed from that plant and can only grow food from seeds that must be gotten from some enity like a corporation or worse some Gov’t that has decided to ‘takeover’ the seed industry because its ‘too important’ to let private folks control it the potential for corruption and control is unlimited.The need for food pretty much touches everyone.Also with GMOs the human existance all eggs are being put in pretty much one basket.Say for some reason that Nature could easily come up with all GMO corn were to fail one year the consquences would be severe and dramatic.For those that want personal freedom and want to keep a decentralized food supply then diversified plants and plants that can be reproduced from seed by the grower is vital.

    • I agree with you Gary. GMO Corn? Fine, if feeding the masses means inedible corn until it’s processed in high fructose corn syrup for cold drinks and processed food. Is that really “food”?

  16. I just checked back to see additional comments and saw there will be a new book coming out in the spring. Congratulations. I will be looking for it. I do have a question for you Gene. Do you ever do book signings. Since I am a recent convert I have not seen anything concerning book signings or talks you might give. Please update your fans.

    Thanks,

    • Ken, I will be signing books at Jandy’s Garlic Festival near Bellefontaine, Ohio on August 18. I will be signing on Aug. 14, in the evening, at the Beehive book store in Delaware Ohio, I think. At least I plan to be there with the writer Mike Perry, I always attend the OEFFA conference in February in Grandville, Ohio, and the Buckeye Book Fair in Wooster usually on the first Saturday in November. Gene

  17. I am not big on the GMO thing and not very fond of spraying chemicals. However, could the ability to manipulate genes be part of humans natural evolution? In other words GMO may be part of our evolutionary process as evolution has delivered humans to the point we can do it.

  18. Large scale, monoculture production systems (corn, oranges,pigs -take your pick) pit humanity in an arms race against the natural order.

    There will be a whole number of critters out there that would love nothing better than to munch on Asiatic citrus psyllids…what type of environment do they need to be happy and thrive? -clearly not chemical drenched orange orchards.

    GMO’s may be a solution but I think the answer lies in the way we farm.

    Gene, your blog is a joy to read.

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