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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Pass the Frankenjuice

A lengthy article on the front page of today's Times discusses the efforts of scientists and the citrus industry to rescue Florida's orange crops from the effects of citrus greening--an incurable plant disease destroying large swaths of the state's crops.  The "hero" of the story is Ricke Kress, the president of Southern Gardens Citrus, a massive orange-growing concern that supplies product for the likes of Tropicana and other major juice companies.  Kress has enlisted plant geneticists in the battle against greening, and over the last several years, these scientists have attempted various interventions with greater or lesser degrees of success.  At the moment, the most promising experiment involves introducing a spinach gene into the orange crops, which in testing has significantly increased the orange trees' resistance to greening.

In addition to the considerable scientific barriers that Kress and others are confronting, though, there are major concerns about the "marketability" of the products that result from these efforts, should these efforts be successful.  Genetically modified organisms (GMO's) like these hybrid oranges are, in some circles, about as popular as Hitler: "If various polls were to be believed, a third to half of Americans would refuse to eat any transgenic crop."

Now, despite the fact that there have not, to my knowledge, been any definitive studies showing GMO's to be harmful to humans, I can understand people's reluctance to eat certain transgenic foods.  One potential solution to the citrus-greening problem involved inserting a gene retrieved from a virus, and even though--from a scientific perspective--there may be nothing wrong with this, there is undeniably a certain "ick" factor; similarly, I can imagine insurmountable psychological barriers to oranges fortified with pig DNA (another proposed intervention).  Ultimately, however--and call me a bad liberal, if you must--I just can't get myself too worked up about the prospect of eating GMO's.

Don't get me wrong: I have a problem with the practices of some big agribusinesses.  Monsanto, of course, is infamous for selling seeds that are genetically modified to be resistant to the effects of Roundup weed killer--another Monsanto product.  I object to this not out of some moral objection to "Frankenfoods."  I object to genetic modification done not in the interest of product improvement but simply in an attempt to increase corporate profits--profits that increase at the expense of farmers who find themselves effectively held hostage by Monsanto once they begin using these seeds.

But we're not talking about Monsanto here.  We're not talking about a corporate behemoth trying to manipulate the building blocks of nature in an attempt to plump up already overstuffed coffers.  We're talking about--basically--farmers trying to save a crop upon which thousands of jobs--and millions of breakfasts--depend.  More to the point, we're talking about scientists trying to find a way to cure a disease.  And why should genetic modification be off limits when it comes to curing a disease?

People who worry about GMO's seem sometimes to forget that "genetic modification" has been a standard part of agriculture since. . . . well, since agriculture.  Farmers have always tried to increase productivity or improve taste by cross-breeding crops to maximize the prevalence of desired characteristics.  One could argue that sexual reproduction itself is a form of genetic manipulation--the mixing and matching of genes to produce something new (and in my case at least, superb).  Again, I understand the concern about "man-made" (i.e., laboratory created) genetic material: We've all seen "Jurassic Park."  But ultimately what the orange growers are doing is nothing more radical than what has been done for thousands of years, albeit with a greater degree of technological sophistication.

As one scientist says in the article,  “People are either going to drink transgenic orange juice or they’re going to drink apple juice.” I, for one, do not want to see it come to that!

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