I am pleased to welcome to New Zealand  Dr Pamela Ronald, Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis. A distinguished academic and profilic writer, Dr Ronald studies the role that genes play in plants’ responses to their environment. She runs a research laboratory and has, for example, genetically engineered rice to survive flooding and to resist various diseases.

Dr Ronald has been up in Auckland at the New Zealand Bio Conference, talking about how organic farming practices and genetically engineered seeds can contribute to sustainable agriculture and food security.

Pamela with her husband Raoul W. Adamchak. Photo credit Pico van Houtryve, picophotos.com.

Dr Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak.

Her husband, Raoul W. Adamchak, is an organic farmer. The spouses collaborate on interesting joint projects and together authored a book entitled Tomorrow’s Table:  Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. The work was named one of the best books of 2008 by several reviewers and was recommended by Bill Gates for folks interested in the challenges faced by farmers.

Organic farming, genetically engineered crops, and food security are all hot topics at present. They tend to generate vigorous debate, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to ask Dr Ronald a few questions while she’s close at hand.

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Pamela Ronald. Photo credit Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Dr Pamela Ronald.

DH: Dr Ronald, welcome to New Zealand. Thank you for taking time to talk. I know how busy your itinerary is.

PR:  You’re very welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here in Auckland.

DH:  To jump right in … How did you become interested in plant genetics?

PR:  My mother is a gardener and an excellent cook, and her parents were small farmers in Iowa. I became interested in farming and food through her.

I also spent a lot of time out in the wilderness as a child and developed a great love of plants.  When I went to college, I found genetics to be a fascinating subject, especially plant genetics.

DH: How is it that a plant geneticist and an organic farmer can share enough common ground to collaborate on a book?

PR:  It’s surprisingly easy.  We share the same goal – an ecologically-based agriculture. In our conversations with friends, family, and colleagues, many of them asked us if genetically engineered (GE) crops were safe to eat and if organic farming could feed the world.  Our book is a response to those important questions.

In the book we take the reader through the lives of an organic farmer and a geneticist so the reader can learn more about the problems farmers face, how they tackle those challenges, and the importance of improved seed. By using the best science and best farming practices, we can feed the world’s growing population in a sustainable manner.

Pamela during her visit to Fairfield Elementary School in the U.S.

Dr Ronald talks to budding scientists during a school visit.

DH: My understanding has been that coexistence is a significant challenge, particularly if organic food and genetically engineered foods are grown in close proximity. Can you comment on that?

PR:  There are always challenges when two different crops are grown nearby, but it is rare when farmers cannot work together to find a solution.  In California, farmers grow approximately 350 different crops under a variety of farming conditions, often on adjoining fields. Conflicts are usually sorted out quite amicably.

For example, twenty years ago my husband and other organic farmers in our area began growing specialty sunflowers to sell for cut flowers. Although most of the pollen from organic sunflowers does not travel further than three meters, some of it can travel distances of up to 1000 meters, which can cause problems for growers of certified sunflower seed. If stray organic pollen should land on a sunflower grown for seed and hybridize with it, the resulting seed will no longer be purebred, reducing the value of the crop.

The certified seed growers and the organic flower growers came to an agreement. The seed growers gave the organic growers sterile seed that gave rise to flowers with no pollen, thus eliminating the risk of gene flow. This compromise is a good example of how discussions among neighbors can lead to mutual benefits. Good communication and common sense are the keys to peaceful coexistence. Over the last 15 years, GE crops and organic crops have been grown in close proximity in the US.  Both sectors continue to thrive.

Dr Ronald at work.

Dr Ronald at work in one of her fields.

DH: What would you say to a consumer who expresses concern about the safety of genetically engineered crops?

PR:  There is broad scientific consensus that GE crops currently on the market are safe to eat. The National Research Council (NRC), a non-profit institution that provides science, technology, and health policy advice to the US Congress, reports that the process of genetic engineering poses a similar, not a greater, risk of unintended consequences as conventional approaches of genetic alteration that have been employed for hundreds of years. After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of two billion acres planted, GE crops have not caused a single instance of harm to human health or the environment.

DH: We often hear about the benefits of GE crops for farmers. Are there any benefits for consumers other than perhaps cost/price benefits?

PR:  I’ll give you an example. Golden Rice, a rice engineered to produce provitamin A, is expected be released to farmers next year. Consumption of Golden Rice will reduce diseases caused by vitamin A deficiency, saving the lives of thousands of children. Rice is likely to be more cost-effective and sustainable than alternative vitamin A interventions such as food supplementation or fortification. Of course helping farmers learn to grow leafy vegetables, an important source of Vitamin A, will also continue to be important.

Dr Ronald sampling rice.

Dr Ronald sampling her rice.

DH: Let’s get back to environmental impacts. What is your response to arguments that GE crops, whatever their benefits to consumers and farmers, will damage the natural environment.

PR:  GE crops actually provide powerful environmental benefits. Such well-documented benefits include massive reductions in insecticides in the environment, improved soil quality and reduced erosion, prevention of destruction of the Hawaiian papaya industry, proven health benefits to farmers and families growing GE crops as a result of reduced exposure to harsh chemicals, enhanced biodiversity of beneficial insects, and reduction in the number of pest outbreaks on GE farms and neighboring non-GE farms.

GE crops have also dramatically increased crop yields (more than 30%) in many farming communities. Because substantial greenhouse gases are emitted from agricultural systems, and because the net effect of higher yields is a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, development and deployment of such high-yielding varieties will be a critical component of a future sustainable agriculture.

In Africa, where three-quarters of the world’s severe droughts have occurred over the past ten years, the introduction of genetically engineered drought tolerant corn, the most important African staple food crop, is predicted to dramatically increase yields for poor farmers.

Dr Ronald at a village in Bangladesh. Photo credit Gene Hettel, IRRI.

Dr Ronald at a village in Bangladesh.

DH:  Dr Ronald, thank you again for taking time to talk about this interesting bundle of important issues. We’re glad you enjoyed your stay in New Zealand, and we hope to see you back again soon.

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Readers who would like to further explore Dr Ronald’s ideas, research, and writings can take a look at her publications list or browse her award-winning blog.

Let me know what you think, and I’ll pass along any comments or questions.