Genetic Engineering Breeding Fragility: A Call for Diversified Agriculture

Sarah Small

Genetic engineering (GE) is the process of manipulating an organism’s genetic material, including adding genes from other species (i.e., transgenic), in an effort to produce desired traits. GE in agriculture began in the 1980s as a technological solution to boosting agricultural yields to “feed the world,” particularly across the United States’ Corn Belt and other commodity producing regions. Yet, after more than 20 years of these technologies, our agroecosystems are arguably more fragile and vulnerable than ever before – and there is little evidence that these technologies are in fact feeding the world.

The purpose of this article is to: (1) comment on the importance of critiquing all science, including GE, as a necessary and valid part of the scientific process, (2) highlight parallels between two systems deemed “too big to fail”: our agroecosystem and our financial system, (3) provide scientific evidence that GE, while perhaps useful in certain applications, can be a dangerous tool if not adequately coupled with a diversity of agricultural conservation and production practices that diversify our landscape, rather than homogenize it, and (4) present a pathway forward that supports the idea that diversity, in many forms, is critical to building a resilient agroecosystem.

The discussion of the application of technologies in agriculture, particularly GE technologies, has been plagued by critiques of those who question these technologies as “anti-science.” Because this piece is a critical assessment of GE technologies, we would like to address this critique directly: we are not “anti-science.” To the contrary, we both identify as scientists, one as a biophysical scientist and the other as a social scientist. As scientists, we find scientific value in asking questions from the standpoint of multidisciplinary perspectives concerning the use and impacts of technology. Science is not a monolithic construct that is unchanging. Rather, science is a negotiation, a process of understanding, of asking questions and making hypotheses that are grounded in the social world, and therefore, do not exist separate from the lived experiences of those engaged in the scientific enterprise. Consequently, we should be critical of any efforts to frame meaningful, evidence-based evaluations of any scientific or technological enterprise, including GE technology, as nonscientific.

The homogeneity of the industrial agroecosystem in the U.S. has been scrutinized, largely because of shared characteristics with other systems similarly deemed ‘too big to fail.’ Earlier this year, an article titled, “Another ‘Too Big to Fail’ System in G.M.O.s” ran in the New York Times. Authors, Mark Spitznagel and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, highlighted parallels from two systems deemed by many to be too big to fail: the financial system and the presently GMO-dominated agroecosystem.

Over the past 50 years, the financial system and the industrial agroecosystem have increasingly operated on a series of predictions and assumptions designed to meet a singular goal of increased profitability. These predictions and assumptions have led to pro-risk behavior, namely the rapid investment in and adoption of technologies for which the long-term consequences are ill-understood and potentially devastating. Consider the investment in and adoption of GE technologies in the agroecosystem. The so-called ‘big three’ agrochemical companies (Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer, and Syngenta) have collectively invested an estimated US$1.6 billion per year in GE seed research and development, aggressively concentrating and consolidating the commercial seed market. Today, less than 20 years from when GE crops were first commercially planted, over 90 percent of the planted acres of corn, soybeans, and cotton are GE crops. Despite the rhetoric about GE helping to “feed the world,” the majority of production has focused on boosting yields and profitability for commodity crops not directly consumed by humans.

Important gaps remain in understanding systemic consequences on human health, the environment, and rural agricultural communities from the hasty adoption of these technologies.  

The unfettered promotion of GE technologies facilitated the development of an increasingly homogeneous agroecosystem that has bred ecological, social, and economic fragility. The dominant ecosystem on the Corn Belt landscape lacks diversity at all levels of biological organization (genetic, species, and community), and has perpetuated declining diversity once associated with vibrant rural communities. GE technologies have resulted in fewer genetic varieties in fields, and because farmers purchase GE seed rather than selecting seeds through traditional breeding, opportunities for localized in situ adaptation are limited. Over 90 percent of the iconic Corn Belt state of Iowa is covered in just two GE crops, corn (Zea mays) and soybeans (Glycine max), which are managed with pesticides designed to simplify the management of these crops. In turn, these chemicals have effects on the biotic community, from weed to insect resistance, which has further reduced species diversity. This homogeneity is dangerous because it increases the probability of system failure to expected change (e.g., climate change, pest pressures, volatile markets, etc.) and could lead to its demise given unexpected, black swan events (e.g., catastrophic unforeseen feedback loops).

The financial system deemed by experts as ‘too big to fail’ failed, costing Americans over US$700 billion to repair. The fate of our agroecosystem remains to be seen; yet, the writing on the wall paints a compelling picture that indicates that our increasingly homogeneous  agroecosystem is fragile to perturbations, especially given climate change projections that describe increased severity of storm and drought events leading to changes in pest and disease pressures

What lessons from the financial system’s failure and subsequent reorganization might be applied to the present agroecosystem? Diversify. Diversification of the present agroecosystem at all levels of biological organization (genetic, species, and community) will provide a more heterogeneous, resilient agroecosystem that maintains valuable productivity, while minimizing damaging environmental impacts. Diversity - allowing for increased heterogeneity at the genetic level, the coexistence of multiple species, and variability in management regimes - enhances the resilience of ecosystems, and provides a diverse buffer, or insurance policy, against environmental fluctuations (e.g., climate change), leading to more consistent, predictable, and multifunctional ecosystem properties through time. Calls for the importance of diversification in our agroecosystem are not new or few, yet investment in research and technology that promote homogeneity, and reinforce the status quo, has remained.

Encouraging investment in and adoption of a more multifunctional, diversified agroecosystem, particularly across the U.S. Corn Belt, will not occur overnight. Indeed, this “too big to fail” system has been supported by policies, subsidies, and private investment for decades, driving greater market and landscape scale homogeneity. Nonetheless, within the public, scientific, and policy communities, we need to pursue thoughtful, and likely challenging, conversations about the potential benefits and the very real dangers associated with technologies, such as GE, while being focused on the overarching goal of enhanced public goods provision (e.g., clean water, nutritious and healthful food, improved soil health, etc.) and the reduction of ecological, social, and economic harm. And, importantly, we need to do more than just talk about it: we need to create pathways for purposeful, science-based action that creates more resilient, multifunctional agroecosystems.

One path forward has been proposed by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Olivier DeSchutter, and Ricardo Salvador, who have called on the U.S. government to build a National Food Policy that provides a holistic, coordinated approach to cultivating more diverse agroecosystems that promote healthy landscapes, communities, and economies. Advancing a National Food Policy is an important first step in fostering greater diversity, not only of cropping systems but of ideas, technologies, and solutions that can breed productive and resilient agroecosystems.

Indeed, Maya Angelou articulated this well with regard to human communities: “in diversity there is beauty, and there is strength;” yet it translates well in the context of socio-ecological systems such as the agroecosystem. In diversity, there is beauty, strength, and resiliency.