Friday, May 22, 2015

California, The Drought, and GMOs

I recently had to make a trip to Canada. I love going back to Canada for many reasons, but this trip was a bit rough because it was for a family funeral. We tried to make the most out of the trip, and stayed longer to visit with my parents and siblings. And I promise that this narrative has a point :)

It was great for my son. He got to spend lots of time with his cousins, but he just couldn't wrap his mind around the fact that we were in Canada, because every time we skype with my folks, they show him the snow banks outside; so Canada is synonymous to snow in his young mind (it's actually not too far from the truth :) ). Since we were visiting in April there was no snow, but there was PLENTY of rain. It was probably just as fascinating for the kid, because he seldom sees rain. Several times, I
River in Belleville, ON
caught him with his face pressed up against the glass, just staring at the novelty of rain (and leaving face prints on my sister's windows). 

As you probably know, our home state of California is in the midst of one of its worst droughts on record. There are regulations in place to conserve water and there are many ideas being tossed around on why there's a drought and what can be done or could have been done to deal with the water shortage. Regardless of the reasons, the drought was at the forefront of my mind as I watched the torrential rain pour down, and I admired the brooks and rivers in Belleville, Ontario.

My dad asked me several times if we had thought of moving back to Canada. Of course, he'd love to have all his kids (and more importantly, grandkids) around him, but he was concerned about the future of California and our future living in the state. He explained that if the drought continued as some predict it may, California might become less than hospitable, our home (and a good portion of our investments locked into it) may lose its value, and he suggested that we consider cashing out and moving somewhere more water-rich. There's some logic to his reasoning, but I don't agree. Here's why:

Moving somewhere else to escape a drought implies that the changes in our weather are unique to California, and they're not. Extreme weather patterns, including extreme cold/heat, will become more frequent as we see deepening impacts of climate change. The World Health Organization highlights that with changes in climate come changes in infectious diseases, as well as impacts to our food supply. Even if you don't live in California, you'll be impacted by its drought since so much of America's fresh produce is grown here. So there's no escaping climate change. As apocalyptic as it sounds, there's no safe haven. If it's a drought in one place, it'll be more severe hurricanes in another, or a longer winter, or a harsher summer. 

If you accept the scientific consensus that our climate is changing, you have to admit that providing food is going to be a big problem in the next few decades. Not only that, but there's also going to be more people living on the planet, which makes the problem even worse. Although I've joked on this blog that switching to a career in plant sciences would be awesome (because I want to make a peelable pomegranate), given the gravity of the challenges we'll be facing, it legitimately seems like a future-proof career path.

Anti-GMO advocates argue that GMOs will not be able to feed the world as we start facing these challenges. But as many GMO advocates point out, transgenesis is simply a tool that researchers have at their disposition when developing a crop. There's no doubt in my mind that we will need any and all tools available to deal with the challenge of feeding our population while dealing with the changes in climate that will become more and more apparent as we continue living our lives in the status quo.

Although I started this blog to document my learning about GMOs, I guess I've become more of an advocate for transgenesis, because I think that dealing with climate change will be one of the greater challenges that my generation and that of my son will face. And yes, traditional cross-breeding will probably help develop some drought resistant crops. But in some cases, transgenesis might develop some crops more quickly and more precisely, so why not keep it as an option on the table? (that pun wasn't intended, but it's pretty awesome). A quick search for keywords drought+tolerance+transgenic in the NIH's pubmed database found hundreds of papers, an example of which is this very recent paper where alfalfa was made more drought and salt tolerant by adding a gene from the sweet potato. Let's assume that half of these studies are shown not to be feasible options for product development, but that still leaves us with a couple of dozen transgenic crops that might be viable options for farmers in years of drought. As the people and elected officials in California wag their fingers in disapproval at farmers who grow almonds, rice, or alfalfa, I wonder if many of these people would consider transgenic crops as viable alternatives.

And let me beat you to the punch: growing drought-resistant transgenics will not address the underlying causes of the drought. This all-or-none argument is often invoked by anti-GMO advocates, particularly those who oppose Golden Rice on the basis that it doesn't address the underlying cause of malnutrition. But using that as an excuse to oppose drought/salt/high-temp/low-temp resistant GMOs is a lame-ass excuse? It's like saying that I shouldn't take shorter showers or buy a water-efficient washing machine to reduce my water consumption, because neither one of these activities will address the underlying causes of the drought. Or that I shouldn't compost spoiled veggies/fruit because it doesn't address the issue of food waste.

So that's the long-winded answer to my dad on why I don't think we'll be leaving California. Also, I must admit to all my Canadian relatives and friends: I took long showers while staying at your houses. I'm kinda not sorry :)

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