“If we want to get away from pesticides we need GMO.” I’ve heard this in one form or another for the past half year from biologists working on pest control; extension agents working with farmers and even a book by an organic farmer and his plant pathologist/geneticist wife. Of course not all GMOs are created equally, and it’s an issue I’ve been skating around for years staying away from the controversy for fear of offending organically minded friends, neighbors and readers. But with this current project (how can we reduce our reliance on pesticides and antibiotics), I am stepping out of the comfort zone exploring the good, bad and misunderstandings of GMO.
And so it seemed serendipity tapped me on the shoulder, when I went digging into an old, well-traveled leather suitcase looking for my grandmother’s good china. It had been packed away in the 1970s. Turns out the red, gold and white Noritake had been wrapped in a 1977 issue of the New York Times. One plate was nestled in the editorial: “On Letting the Gene Out of the Bottle.” AKA the biotechnology genie.
It began with a quote from the Mayor of Cambridge, MA, “We wanna make sure nothing comes crawling out of that lab.” This was the dawning of the biotech age and according to the editorial, “Within the scientific community, genetic engineering has produced the widest philosophical debate since the splitting of the atom.” (Only most scientists now feel GMOs are just fine to eat and don’t pose the risk once feared, in contrary to the public — for more about this read the Pew Survey.)
The gist of the editorial was about how best to regulate the science, which I won’t go into right now, but I did come across this gem in reference to a moratorium on gene-splicing and cells with recombinant DNA:
Once released into the world, they might be impossible to control. Science fiction possibilities abound. Bacteria bred to eat oil spills could go on an indiscriminate rampage through useful oil in automobiles and aircraft.
If only. In 1977, global emissions of CO2 was a little over 30 Gtons. Today we release 57, another 40 years from now if climate deniers and just plain ignorant politicians and corporations get their way it could be upwards of 117 Gtons. The atmospheric CO2 has increased from down around 320 ppm at the time of that editorial, to 404 ppm (for more about then, now and the future see here). In another 40 years if we keep on keeping on it will be 908.
As it turns out bacteria eat oil just fine on their own though for better or worse, they’ve never gone on a rampage. But…say some GMO super oil eating bacteria had made their way into the oil tanks of the world? Perhaps I’d be typing with energy sourced by renewables… and Climate Change would be relegated to the world of Science Fiction.