by with less moisture, perhaps by switching into water-preserving modes at earlier signs of trouble. But greater advances
will be required to confront the growing
challenges ahead, and drought tolerance
is a tricky problem. The trait generally
involves various genes and cellular communication pathways. It’s crucial that any
improvements not come at the expense
of yield, taste, and other qualities important to farmers and consumers. And there
would seem to be hard limits on how
much can ever be achieved, as all plants
On an overcast Saturday in late April,
Ronald stood on stage at a brick plaza on
the edge of the San Francisco Bay, addressing a sign-wielding crowd gathered for the
March for Science. “Science is based on
data, not on alternative facts,” she said,
pausing for applause at the end of most
sentences. “Science is not a buffet where
people can pick and choose the parts they
like, and throw out the rest.” But people
do, of course. The weakest applause line
of her speech before the crowd, gathered
largely to protest the Trump administration’s denial of climate science, came
when she said that science had improved
California’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
In other words, when she acknowledged
a field that could help address some of the
problems arising from a changing climate.
It was typical of Ronald, who’s determined to say where she believes the science leads, whoever the audience may be.
Genetically modified crops have become
incredibly contentious, widely portrayed
as reckless attempts to tinker with Mother
Nature for the sole benefit of seed conglomerates. But the body of science
shows they’ve been both safe and beneficial, Ronald argues. She publicly sparred
with the Union of Concerned Scientists on
these issues, suggested that Greenpeace
was “misinterpreting data,” and criticized
Vermont’s GMO labeling laws.
Ronald’s research highlights the
promise for genetic alterations. Sub1
rice sidestepped any anti-GMO backlash
because, while the tools of modern genetics were necessary to isolate and express
the gene, it doesn’t carry any non-rice
DNA. The trait from one rice variety was
added to others through modern breeding methods, accelerated by analyzing the
DNA of offspring to avoid false paths.
Ronald notes that every major food
crop has been altered by human hands
in one way or another. And some of the
most important advances in the future, to
improve yields, nutrition, or environmental tolerance, may be possible only with
genetic engineering and powerful gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR.
What should matter to lawmakers, regula-
tors, or critics isn’t which implement was
pulled from the ever-advancing genetic
toolbox, but whether it produced a posi-
tive or negative impact on human health
or the environment. At this point, we have
a four-decade track record of genetic engi-
neering in plants, medicine, and cheese,
with no evidence of harm, Ronald says.
The danger is that unfounded fears could
prevent us from easing real human suffer-
ing—for example, if misguided regulations
slow down the science, or protests prevent
seeds and crops from reaching the farm-
ers and consumers who need them most.
For Ronald, the real goal should be sus-
tainability in the broadest sense, apply-
ing whatever combination of breeding,
organic farming, and genetic technology
helps us feed a growing population with-
out exacting a higher environmental cost.
“We need to make policy based on evi-
dence, and based on a broader under-
standing of agriculture,” she says. “There
are real challenges for farmers, and we
need to be united in using all appropriate
technologies to tackle these challenges.”
with a rice plant.