Meat of the Matter: The struggle to 'sell' science

With GMOs in the forefront of political and legal battles — Vermont's new mandatory GMO labeling law set to take effect in July — it is interesting to note that Monsanto and other biotech companies are actively pursuing alternatives to "traditional" genetic engineering.

One of the more intriguing methods for enhancing crop viability and performance is what is known as "gene silencing," or RNAi. According to a report in Mother Jones magazine following a lengthy interview with Monsanto executives, the company is positioning RNAi as something quite different from genetic modification, although whether the media and the public buy that line is questionable.

Monsanto has a number of RNAi gene-silencing technologies in the pipeline, including a corn variety undergoing final stages regulatory review by USDA and EPA that contains RNAi material targeting specific insect pests. The company also an RNAi project under development that would silence the genes that allow weeds to withstand glyphosate herbicide, which could address the growing (no pun intended) problem of resistant "superweeds."

In an MIT Technology Review article, the methodology behind RNAi, which earned won a Nobel Prize for the two American researchers who discovered it in 2006, is explained thusly: It destroys specific RNA messages at the cellular level so that specific proteins crucial to a plant or insect's survival cannot be made.

It's a glimpse of some fascinating new technologies that could significantly impact farming and food production. But it would be a mistake to assume that gene silencing or other new techniques, such as "gene-editing," will silence the criticism of what activists have labeled "industrial farming."

A matter of benefits

That's because for every advance in science and technology, there are consequences — some benign, some manageable with new and better technologies, and occasionally some that are formidable, often horrifically so.

Yet for all the eco-active, organic-only, green-to-a-fault enthusiast who believe that we just need to produce food "sustainably" and raise both crops and livestock "naturally" and conduct our most important commercial enterprises "In harmony with Nature," without the very scientific progress and the technological applications that follow from the collective body of research, the lifestyles we moderns take for granted would be themselves unsustainable.

If there is a flaw in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, it is that all too often it's applied almost exclusively to drive efficiencies or support short-term productivity, without regard for longer-term impacts. There is a hubris endemic to the culture of the mega-corporations responsible for the most significant investments in research that justifies innovations in products or processes that deliver to the bottom line — regardless of the consequences that result or the unexpected problems that develop when said innovations are deployed.

The decades-long march to introduce genetically engineered crops throughout global agriculture, for example, has been all about reducing labor and resource inputs, not about adding nutritional value to food crops, supporting sustainability or even elevating yields. Those results, such as they've been, are side effects, collateral benefits, as it were, and not the focal points of the original research. The development and marketing of the products of genetic engineering have proceeded as none of the benefits to consumers really mattered, and that's why activists have so successfully convinced the public that GMOs are dangerous and deadly.

They're not, but science without perspective and research without ethics inevitably fosters a backlash against the very consequences that narrowly focused research projects too often ignore.

That's not to condemn scientists; to even arrive at a position where one has the knowledge and expertise to undertake meaningful research requires — demands — a level of specialization that precludes cultivation of "big-picture" analyses.

We leave that to the politicians and the pundits, with predictably unacceptable results.

The problem with reliance on proprietary research is that consumer benefits are generally secondary to commercial marketability. However, the antidote to that imbalance requires a knowledgeable, scientifically literate public able to separate the research from its applications, to understand that the issue isn't the science itself, nor the men and women dedicated to its advancement, but the ways and means by which the technologies developed scientifically are deployed.

That, I submit, is a bigger challenge than dealing with any of the fallout from the hegemony of modern technology, no matter how or where it's ultimately applied.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator