Rice dystopia

Why genetically modified rice running amok is the least of our worries

Published August 29, 2006 6:29PM (EDT)

Rice farmers in six American states are suing Bayer CropScience, alleging that an unsanctioned strain of genetically modified rice made by the company has contaminated America's long-grain rice crop. Their gripe is economic. After the news broke in mid-August of the mysterious contamination -- this particular strain of rice supposedly hasn't been grown for five years -- Japan immediately banned imports of U.S. long-grain rice, and the E.U. is asking for tests to prove that future exports are uncontaminated.

Bayer is in a tough spot. The farmers have every right to sue. And unlike Monsanto, which requires that all purchasers of its G.M. seeds agree that Monsanto won't be liable for any contamination of their neighbors' crops, Bayer can't hide behind a weasel-worded contract. Rice exports will be hammered, rice futures have already plunged in response to the news, and someone's going to pay.

The debacle brings to mind the controversial ruling earlier this spring by a World Trade Organization arbitration panel that declared that the European Union's ban on imports of genetically modified crops could not stand because there was no "scientific" basis for blocking G.M. crops. But even though Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns is swearing on a stack of Bibles that "there are no human health, food safety, or environmental concerns associated with this genetically engineered rice," the news of the new contamination is only likely to strengthen consumer resistance to G.M. crops. As is patently obvious, contamination is inevitable. Logic demands that sooner or later, something nasty will get out.

What will it be? The possibilities are endless. On Aug. 18, SciDev.Net reported that researchers in Mexico had developed a form of G.M. corn that contained an "edible vaccine" against Newcastle disease, a major killer of chickens in developing countries. There are hundreds of similar research efforts underway in laboratories all over the world -- the sheer variety and inventiveness of humankind's ongoing reinvention of life are dazzling.

The inevitability that something, somewhere will go very wrong would seem to militate that scientists proceed with great care, if they even proceed at all. But it's equally likely that future economic and health pressures will force our hand in the opposite direction.

Take for instance, the ever-present problem of ensuring an adequate supply of energy for the world's burgeoning billions. Last month, the Department of Energy released an ambitious 200-page report on the technological advances necessary to achieve a commercially viable method for manufacturing cellulosic ethanol: "Breaking the Biological Barriers to Cellulosic Ethanol: A Joint Research Agenda."

Anyone who has ever picked twigs out of a compost pile understands the challenge faced by those who want to make biofuels out of switch grass or poplar trees or leftover sawmill scraps. The woody, fibrous stuff just doesn't want to break down. After eons of evolution, plant cell walls have gotten pretty tough. As the DOE report delicately phrases it, plants have developed a "natural recalcitrance" to assaults from the microbial and animal kingdoms.

Well, they ain't seen nothing yet. The human kingdom specializes in breaking down all recalcitrance. We won't take no for an answer. Those plant walls are coming down. Using the full prowess of our extraordinarily advancing understanding of the genetic structure of life, we not only are hard at work designing new enzymes that will break down plant cell walls but will also design new plants with especially weak cellular structures, so as to be more easily demolished.

The obstacles are huge, and there are those who will argue that we can't overcome them. I have my doubts about the doubters, though. The record of scientific progress over the past 200 years is mind-boggling, and anyone who is paying attention to the sheer breadth of research that has occurred in just the last 10 years knows that our understanding of the world is only accelerating.

In any energy-constrained future, the pressures to redesign nature so as to support our way of life will be immense. Each tick upward of the price of a barrel of oil will ratchet up the enthusiasm, the funding and the desperation of researchers determined to find a way out. It might be more sensible for the world to conserve, to become more energy efficient, to be, for want of a better word, sane in our gallop into the future. But since when has that ever been humanity's modus operandi? From sea to shining sea, our plains will be filled with genetically modified energy crops and all other manner of marvels. Surviving the results of our own ingenuity will be a daunting test.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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