Producer Commentary

PROGRAM: Designing the Garden

AUTHOR: Elizabeth Culotta

January 30, 2007: Genetically Modified Food for Thought

Lead producer Julie Grant stops by and we snack on pistachios and lycii berries--a hunter-gatherer snack if ever there was one--and talk about food. We’ve been reading—and reading and reading—about genetically modified food in articles and books. We’ve read "What to Eat” (by consumer advocate Marion Nestle) and “The Way We Eat” (by philosopher Peter Singer) and "Challenging Nature” (by biotech advocate Lee Silver) and "The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (by journalist Michael Pollan).

As we talk, I realize that our conversation is part of a larger national conversation about food. For the first in time in years, it seems, people want to know where their food comes from. Hence the slew of books. Today it takes an investigative journalist like Pollan to trace the origin of food, and a marketing expert like Nestle to deconstruct their labels.

Authors leery of genetically modified food often find it “unnatural.” But the more I learn about where most of our food comes from, the more “unnatural” the current American agricultural system seems, never mind any futuristic biotech modifications. The standard large American farm, where clones of plants stand in crowded rows and are fed with fertilizer, watered, and doused with pesticide and herbicide, bears little resemblance to the bucolic picture we have in our heads. I wonder, when it comes to farming, what is “natural”?

In fact, is farming itself “natural”? Almost everything we eat is the product of human modification--we have selected for the plants we want. An ear of corn looks nothing like its ancestor, teosinte. If you wanted to eat a completely unmodified food, you’d probably end up with some tough leaf or bitter berry, something so unappetizing that our ancestors ignored it.

We’ve been farming for about 10,000 years. Is that long enough for agriculture to qualify as “natural?” It may not be long enough for our bodies to have completely adjusted evolutionarily to the grain diet, except for a few key genes like the one that lets some of us drink milk as adults. And yet billions of us have lived well on the agrarian diet. Natural or not, we’re not going back to hunting and gathering. Even the pistachios and berries Julie and I are munching have been selectively bred.

So if farming by definition bends nature to our will, is GM farming that much different? That’s our question. Is putting a bacterial gene into a soybean plant the same thing as breeding soybean plants selectively? The biotech people point out that they are only changing one or a few genes, while in nature there is wholesale geneswapping when plants reproduce. But in reproduction the swapping follows certain rules, so that bananas, for example, wouldn’t usually acquire genes from the hepatitis virus. We can now change the rules, following in the footsteps of the first domesticators 10,000 years ago. And so, I wonder: what are the implications of this?

March 12, 2007: Enviropig

Last Friday I had a great pre-interview with Cecil Forsberg of the University of Guelph, creator of the Enviropig. That’s the pig designed to reduce phosphorus pollution because it has less phosphorus in its poop—they call it “leaving pearls behind swine.”

I called Forsberg without emailing first, and when I introduced myself as a co-producer for a radio documentary called the DNA Files he seemed taken aback at first, and stumbled over his explanations. But I kept asking questions, and by the end of the interview he was excited and eloquent, and I learned a lot. I found out that pigs in the wild often don’t get quite enough phosphate for maximal growth, that researchers are sequencing of the pig genome but aren’t finished yet, and that the classic technique for getting new genes into a chromosome is “a matter of chance”—you don’t know where in the sequence the new genes will end up. More targeted methods are in use now, but Forsberg created the pigs 7 years ago the classic way, by injecting a needleful of genes into a cell’s nucleus.

Throughout the conversation I kept evaluating whether or not we should spend the time and money to go to Guelph, Canada, and interview him and see his 40 pigs in a barn. Ideally, we had wanted to be able to serve a biotech meal, including meat. But the Enviropigs are not yet approved as food. When they die, every bit of their flesh is composted or incinerated as per regulations. No one is eating Enviropork. In fact no one is eating transgenic meat or fish anywhere in the world. So is it worth us going to Canada? Or should we concentrate on salmon, which is a little further along in the regulatory process? I’m going to have to call the salmon producers to find out.

March 14, 2007: Golden Rice

Today I heard back from the Golden Rice project. It’s obvious there’s something different about this project: it’s the first email I’ve sent on GM food that went to a dot-org address. The Golden Rice organization is a nonprofit devoted to getting this transgenic rice, which has an extra boost of vitamin A, to people who lack the vitamin and may go blind because of it.

The Golden Rice people have a great story to tell. But we can’t eat Golden Rice either! We were hoping to cook with it and to get someone to talk about its color, which comes from betacarotenoids, the same compounds that make carrots orange. The coordinator emailed that eating/cooking with the rice requires lengthy regulatory approvals, so they don’t have or send samples. I’m still hoping to at least talk to someone who ate the stuff. But our GM meal is getting sparser. Later today I speak with someone from Monsanto on high omega-3 soybeans, so we’ll see.