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Genetic modification technology benefits smallholder farms

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NOVEMBER 20, 2018

Three letters can quickly turn lackadaisical shoppers at a farmers market, diners at a restaurant or families at dinner tables quite sour: GMO.

When challenged to expand this acronym into its full form, vehement oppositionists to this technology are often found fumbling for the words “genetically modified organism.” What is it about this technological innovation specifically that has incited such a crazed frenzy?

Perhaps it is the charged activism of international groups such as Greenpeace, often found canvassing on campus, or the strong opposition to the business practices of megaseed companies such as Monsanto, frequently referred to as “Monsatan.” Many arguments for the fervent opposition to genetic modification, or GM, technology exist, but few of these arguments consider how this innovation could actually service marginalized groups, namely the smallholder farmer. Smallholder farms are defined as having access to less than 10 hectares of land, with a minimum share of labor coming from the property-holding family. While seemingly distant, your participation in food politics is intimately linked to your role as a consumer of food and information here in Berkeley. We cast ballots every time we shop. Our dollars spent are direct endorsements of ideologies and movements that have the capacity to influence people greatly beyond our purview. As affiliates of UC Berkeley, we are called upon to be thought leaders in an environment teeming with knowledge. We have a responsibility to seek credible information and address the misinformation rampant in modern society. Our roles as responsible consumers and intellectuals become especially pertinent when considering genetically modified foods and their relationship to smallholder farmers.

Genetically modified organisms have the capacity to greatly benefit farmers, consumers and the environment. Genetic modifications to crop plants can reduce the need for pesticide application, improve nutritive aspects of foods and provide ecological services. The genetically modified papaya provides an excellent example of how smallholder farmers have benefitted from GM technology. Plagued by the papaya ringspot virus in the 1990s, the $11 million Hawaiian papaya industry, supported nearly entirely by smallholder farmers of racial and ethnic minorities, was crumbling. Cornell University’s Hawaiian-born scientist Dennis Gonsalves, along with his team, found a solution to this epidemic using genetic engineering to produce the rainbow papaya. Smallholder Hawaiian papaya growers rapidly adopted the improved papaya variety with 1,134 kilograms of seeds distributed at no charge. The use of a genetically modified organism provided an effective solution for smallholders whose livelihoods and lifestyles were deeply threatened. The GM papaya was most rapidly adopted by smallholder farmers. Access to this technology provided an avenue for farmers who needed to abandon papaya cultivation because of the ringspot epidemic to return to their former occupations. In this case, technology that is too frequently belittled preserved the lives of smallholder farmers by allowing them to carry on their lifelong occupations.

Research on technologies associated with genetic modification is essential. Here at UC Berkeley, scientists are continuously striving to produce improved GM crop varieties that enable better livelihoods for smallholder farmers. Jennifer Doudna, a UC Berkeley professor, recently pioneered the CRISPR-Cas9 system that will enable rapid advancement of targeting crop improvements through precise gene editing. Scientists globally are working diligently to promote the livelihoods of smallholder farmers through genetic modifications to crop plants, but their progress is stunted by regulatory hurdles.

As the rate of crop improvement increases, so too does the impetus for our activism in order to enable the widespread adoption of crucial technology. A unilateral dismissal of GM technology is complicity in the continued marginalization of smallholder farmers. It is our civic and ethical responsibility to consider the implications of these improved varieties for individuals less privileged than ourselves. With these things considered, we must take the corresponding actions to support smallholder access to GM tech in ways that are plausible in our current framework.

As consumers, we have the capacity to influence international acceptance of GM technology. Our purchasing power cannot be overstated. Money spent on non-GMO-verified goods endorses campaigns that distance smallholders from empowering technologies. Furthermore, consider your engagement with advocacy groups that are active on campus. Your monetary or signatory endorsement can be harmful if you don’t know exactly what you’re endorsing. Greenpeace, one of the most prolific anti-GM activist groups, is often found soliciting support on Sproul Plaza. Avoid providing signatures or monetary gifts without first understanding what these activist groups are fighting for. Finally, your access to resources and information as an affiliate of UC Berkeley is unparalleled. We have access to brilliant minds, endless literature and spaces for dialogue, among many other invaluable assets. Make use of these resources to become an informed and vocal advocate for those who remain voiceless. It’s important to to engage in honest dialogue with the people around you regarding genetically modified organisms. If someone openly criticizes GMOs, be open to sharing your perspective of how the positive implications of technology have been unjustly dismissed. Your role as an advocate for GM technology in the grocery store, on your walk to class or in a conversation with your friends is key.

The promise that GM technology provides to smallholders is understated. The Rainbow papaya provides a poignant example of how this technology can be applied to provide an accessible resource to growers who would otherwise see their yields and lifestyle decimated. Smallholder farmers all over the world continue to depend on activism, like your own, to make access to life-altering technology possible.

Reminiscent of papayas, Banana Xanthomonas wilt is increasingly affecting bananas in eastern Africa. This fruit serves as a staple crop in nations such as Uganda, where regulatory agencies, emboldened by foreign movements against GMOs, have prevented adoption of resistant GM varieties. The hope for smallholders in these nations is marred by the government’s unwillingness to approve these contentious crops. To wholly oppose GM technology is to empower movements that diminish hopes of improved crop varieties for smallholder farmers. Reject to place your signature on anti-GM campaigns, refuse to purchase GMO-free verified products and take a stand, here in Berkeley, for the global community of smallholder farmers.

Nicholas Karavolias is a doctoral candidate in the Plant and Microbial Biology Department studying Plant Biology.

NOVEMBER 20, 2018