Last week I visited Monsanto in St. Louis with several crop scientists and agronomists where I learned a lot–which isn’t surprising since my last biology class was in 11th grade. I learned to think of the genome as a list of ingredients, not a “blueprint.” I learned that “genetic engineering” is not the exact science I thought it was–they literally used a gun to get genetic material into a cell! And even though genetically modified soybeans have been around since 1996, they just finished sequencing the soybean genome.
As with so many things (everything?), the more I learned, the more I understood that we know very, very little about the way things work. Genetic engineering is just like pharmaceuticals–just keep trying things until something seems to work. “Moving” the Roundup-resistant gene to a different part of the genome “turns on” a yield gene. But is the Roundup-resistent gene responsible, or could there be another gene (a nuisance gene) in that gene complex that interacts with the nearby gene to induce higher yields? And what other interactions are occurring that are too subtle to be observed–especially if they aren’t being looked for?
Before I visited Monsanto, I was unconcerned about GM crops. Now…I think we should proceed with have a little more humility.