Genetically Modified Crops: The Next Green Revolution?

In 2010, my brother Ted–a PhD biologist–and I had the opportunity to talk briefly to Robert Zeigler, Director General of the International Rice Research Institute.  The IRRI had just been given an award by the Spanish-based BBVA Foundation for their work in improving the world’s food supply.  Zeigler was in Madrid to accept the award.

We were at a post-award cocktail party, and having trouble getting to Zeigler.  But his wife was nice enough to help elbow us in and introduce us.  Zeigler is white-bearded, avuncular, a self-described old lefty, and fierce advocate for biotechnology.

Robert Zeigler, Director General of the International Rice Research Institute

Robert Zeigler, Director General of the International Rice Research Institute

The conversation was friendly and Zeigler was very forthcoming with his opinions.  He feels very strongly that if the world is to feed itself, genetically modified crops are definitely necessary.  They are not the only solution, but an important part of the ultimate answer.

I talked a little about my experiences in Africa.  Zeigler mentioned that he decided on his career after a stint as a science teacher in the Peace Corps in 1972.

When I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I saw a cassava [major crop in sub-Saharan Africa] famine.  That’s what made me become a plant biologist.

The gist of our conversation was nicely captured in a recent article in National Geographic (Oct 2014):

When I [Zeigler] was starting out in the ’60s, a lot of us got into genetic engineering because we thought we could do a lot of good for the world.  We thought these tools were fantastic!

We do feel a bit betrayed by the environmental movement, I can tell you that.  If you want to have a conversation about what the role of large corporations should be in our food supply, we can have that conversation–it’s really important.  But it’s not the same conversation about whether we should use these tools of genetics to improve our crops.  They’re both important but let’s not confound them.

In the second paragraph, Zeigler is alluding to current discussions surrounding companies like Monsanto and what role economic markets should have in the development and use of genetically modified crops.

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