Chief Science Correspondent
Gary Paul Nabhan spoke at Ohio University this week on fostering diversity - both culturally and biologically - in local food industries. Nabhan is an ethnobotonist, meaning he studies the relationship between people and plants. He has partnered with organizations across the country to reintroduce forgotten crops, particularly those with ties to indigenous cultures, into communities.
Nabhan argued that communities can rescue and re-cultivate wild crops, selecting for traits that will make them more resilient and profitable. He cited the pawpaw (the Ohio state native fruit) as an example of a culturally important fruit that, if marketed correctly, could improve the economic state of the community surrounding OU. Athens County, Oh. is the poorest county in the state, but is also home to one of the state's largest farmers markets.
Nabhan proposed that by financially supporting local markets in their efforts to recultivate unique, underutilized or forgotten crops, communities such as that of Athens County can become stronger financially and culturally.
Nabhan offered six steps for the process: (1) rescue a crop from decline, (2) rescue traditional knowledge of the crop, (3) use genetic selection and re-adaptation to develop the crop, (4) reintroduce the crop, (5) create a new niche for the crop within the market, and (6) revive infrastructural systems supporting the crop, such as bakeries, cideries and breweries.
Nabhan's mission is very honorable and clearly well-intentioned. However, as a scientist I was discouraged to quickly learn of Nabhan's apparent resistance to the use of genetic engineering in cultivating and restoring crops.
Nabhan did not discuss genetically modified organisms (GMOs) extensively or significantly during his lecture. He highlighted a grant that allowed a family to cultivate and sell non-GMO corn. Later in the talk, Nabhan expressed concerns of ecological contamination by GMO salmon and trees.
Following the talk, I asked Nabhan whether he thought it may be possible for scientists to partner with local farmers in cultivating neglected wild crops, and if perhaps introducing certain genes would help them to thrive in adverse environments. Nabhan focuses much of his efforts on crop cultivation in desert regions.
He did not directly answer the question, saying that there is a place for "appropriate technologies at the right scale...(because) there's no single way that will work for all (plants.)"
I'm not certain why he didn't give me a straight answer. In fact, most of Nabhan's on-record statements regarding GMOs that I could find have been ambiguous, with an implication that he believes the technology is inherently dangerous. On the one hand, Nabhan doesn't seem to promote the ideological "GMO hysteria" that is ever prevalent in our culture. Nabhan doesn't strike me as an anti-GMO activist. But he certainly doesn't endorse the technology.
Nabhan, like many others, seems to be afraid of GMOs. And a healthy amount of caution and skepticism is always warranted. However, excessive public fear has the potential to destroy the enormous potential of GM technology. It would have been refreshing to see Nabhan, a person who has dedicated his life to the potential of crop cultivation, be more open to the potential of this technology.
"You have to listen to people with ideas different from your own," Nabhan said, referring to his partnerships with farmers from various regions across the country.
I am concerned that Nabhan may be ignoring a certain group of people with ideas different from his own: scientists. Specifically, the scientists who have dedicated their lives to developing ways to better manage crops, and their data designed to as accurately as possible assess the environmental and ecological impacts of that technology.
In fact, current data demonstrates that use of GM technology ultimately benefits farmers, even "smaller and resource constrained" farmers. The authors of that same study found that, just as small farmers need community investment to survive, GM crops would be most socially beneficial if the technology received increased private sector investment.
Nabhan's warnings about GMO contamination indicate that he is particularly concerned about the ecological impacts of these crops. And this is an understandable concern. However, scientists have reviewed the existing data, and have found there is "no scientific evidence that the cultivation of presently commercialized GM crops has caused environmental harm." One study even found that crop biodiversity has actually increased over the past century.
Nabhan seems to prefer old wisdom over innovation, selecting genetic crop traits, as he says, "by hand." However, there is a reason that novels are no longer written by hand, that families no longer cross the country by horse-drawn carriage. The oldest-known way is not always the best way.
Simplicity still has its charm, and traditional agriculture certainly isn't obsolete. But imagine, just for a moment, what the world would be like today if the brightest among us had constantly feared the unknown.