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.