In the basement of Koshland Hall at the University of California at Berkeley is a trove of seeds with the potential to fix some of agriculture’s most vexing problems.
There are wheat seeds—both hypoallergenic, so more people could eat it, and of a variety able to better withstand unpredictable rainfall—a growing problem because of climate change. UC Berkeley scientists also developed seeds for tomatoes resistant to bacterial spot disease, producing a plant that could combat a pock-marking that leaves the fruit scarred and undesirable. There’s even a fast-germinating barley that could save beer brewers millions of dollars.
Aside from their potential, each of these innovations has something else in common: They’re all the result of genetic modification. And that’s where the problems start.
“None of what we’ve done has made it anywhere,” says Peggy Lemaux, a crop biotechnologist at Berkeley.
From Lemaux’s perspective, loud, anti-GMO sentiment from activists and consumer groups have kept investors away, even when there’s a huge opportunity for benefits—and profit. That speedy barley, for example, was developed at the request of beer giant Coors Brewing Co. (now Molson Coors Brewing Co.) But when it was ready, Lemaux said, Coors no longer wanted it. “By the time we went back to them, they were like, ‘oh no, we’re not doing that.’”
Molson Coors said that while Coors funded research at Berkeley, it wasn’t for “any of the findings to its barley breeding program.” In a statement, the company emphasized, “Molson Coors does not actively pursue GMO research, nor do we use genetically modified barley in our beers.”
The campaign by consumer activists who questioned the health effects of GMO food, and the drumbeat of nations that imposed tough regulations and labeling rules, has had a marked effect. In some quarters, the GMO label has become radioactive. But with the effects of rapidly advancing climate change shifting how and where the world gets its food, such people as Lemaux believe those who oppose genetic modification may want to reconsider. Read more