James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

December 3, 2009

Make Sure Your Voice is Heard

Filed under: agriculture,Campus Life,Feeding the world,Politics — James @ 9:51 pm

Another positive side effect of extending my stay in Iowa for another week (besides having the chance to work from a room with a view), was getting the chance to see the Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak give a presentation on the same themes are their book “Tomorrow’s Table” here on campus (I’ve reviewed the book itself).

Pamela Ronald is actually going to be talking in Berkeley late next month, but, in addition to a sneak peak of the presentation (which was really good) listening the the question session following their talk was a great chance to resample the perspective of the other major group involved in the debate on genetic engineering (besides anti-gmo activists, corporate public relations people, and plant scientists like me), farmers and agronomists.

What Pamela and Raoul advocate, distilled down to a single phrase, is agriculture utilizing “the best technology and the best practices.” The best technology is pretty clearly going to incorporate at least some genetically engineered traits, but the best farming practices will definitely incorporate approaches from organic agriculture. Organic farmers have developed some really innovative and useful practices worthy of praise, but making to sure to show that those innovations are appreciated is also one way of softening the blow while telling the consumers of organic food that many of their fears about genetic engineering are either ungrounded, overblown, or don’t have much to do with the technology one way or the other.

The Q/A session after the talk (one questioner in particular) made clear spending too much time praising organic practices will start making the farmers and agronomists who are already embracing the technology (if not always the companies which are developing many of the traits currently on the market) feel like the contributions of their own practices* aren’t being fully appreciated. I’ve got a theory on why this may be happening, and if so there’s a simple solution.

Like the senators currently battling over health care reform in congress, compromising too much too quickly to win over people in the middle or on the right risks ending up with a compromise no longer acceptable to those on the left. In the senate those on the left are making sure everyone knows their support can’t be taken for granted (which in turn gives them more input into the process).

I’m hoping this talk convinced at least a few more people in the audience to become engaged and raise their voices so they will have a say in the way agriculture will change in the future to deal with an expanding global population, the stresses placed on farming by the global warming, and the desire to not only feed ourselves but make sure our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will be able to do so as well.

We live in a democracy. In theory the views of the majority should be the most influential, but in practice an active and engaged minority is often much more influential even when their views aren’t shared by an apathetic majority. It’s a cliche, but it’s true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

If you read this blog you’re clearly interested in these issues as well (whether or not you share my own views). In the coming years we as a society and as a planet are going to be making decisions about farming and agriculture with long reaching consequences. We’re all going to have to live in the future those decisions create so get educated, get involved, and make some noise!

Pamela and Raoul’s talk itself was excellent. If you ever get the chance to hear them speak I’d definitely recommend jumping on it. My complements also to Anastasia of Genetic Maize and Biofortified who organized the whole thing including getting support and funding from this (ridiculously long) list of organizations:

Department of Agronomy; Bioethics Program; Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture; Council on Sustainability; Department of Genetics, Development, and Cell Biology; Department of Plant Pathology; Center for Plant Responses to Environmental Stresses; Interdepartmental Genetics Program; Plant Sciences Institute; Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Program; Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology; and Committee on Lectures, which is funded by the Government of the Student Body; Student Organic Farm; Graduate Program in Sustainable Agriculture Student Association; Graduate Agronomy Club; Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology Undergraduate Club; and Natural Resource Ecology and Management Graduate Student Organization.

Given how much work organizing this lecture (as well as a whole series of events both today and tomorrow) must have been, I’ve guessing it may be a little while she’ll have time to write up her own thoughts on the experience.

I filled several pages with notes** during the talk, and I’ll try to figure out what to do with them this weekend after returning to Berkeley.

*More controlled and targeted use of nitrogen fertilizer (often using GPS data to specifically fertilize only specific parts of each individual field that can most benefit from it) and the spreading adoption of no-till farming are two great examples of practices in conventional agriculture that are greatly reducing fertilizer run-off and soil erosion, and as a result are improving the water quality of states like Iowa.

**For me taking notes is a choice between using the iPhone (easier to decipher, but looks like I’m spending the whole talk texting) and using pen and paper (which, for me, is still a little faster, but often results in much puzzling over mysterious and undecipherable scrawls if I ever try to read the notes back). Given I was sitting in the second row, I chose cryptic scribbles over looking like obnoxious-text-messaging-guy.


  1. The Long Now has made their seminars free to watch now. You have to register, but then you can watch any of them. And the one on Tomorrow’s Table is available for anyone to see now:


    Comment by Mary — December 4, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

  2. Great resource! I rememeber hearing they would be speaking, but I had some conflict that evening. I will add this to the body of the post once I get back home. (Commenting from my
    phone in the Denver airport, so pease
    forgive any typos).

    Comment by James — December 4, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

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