Biologically speaking, a papaya is a berry. That’s something I didn’t know yesterday. Also I didn’t know that 90% of the papayas we find in our markets are genetically engineered. This bit of news came via Pamela Ronald, plant geneticist at UC Davis in the course of a presentation Tuesday night at Fort Mason, entitled: “Organically Grow and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future.” The papaya engineering was in response to something called the ringspot virus. Why, in 1950, it nearly killed the entire crop! “It would have been the end of cheap papaya,” Ronald said.
The large auditorium was at near capacity. Food is the hot topic, but the placidity of the audience was such I wondered if a little genetic engineering hadn’t been a requirement for attendance and I missed the news. Weren’t we in San Francisco? Maybe everyone was numbed out by the delivery, bland as freshman biology. Picture Ward and June Cleaver as geneticists. Raoul Adamchak, the co-presenter began with an overview. The Future of Agriculture? (slide: two blonde kids, smiling). He and Ms. Ronald were advocating “a new system of sustainable agriculture” that embraces the genetically modified as well as the organic (in its place.) The criteria for “sustainable” were 10. I won’t bore you, except for the last: Improve the lives of the poor and malnourished, which will soon increase by 3 billion (slide: a mass of black kids.) (Or, as someone else I heard described them, “future mouths.”) Like seeds suspended by umbilici in a papaya, moments of deep irritation peppered my reaction to this squishy pulp. Wasn’t the “green revolution” of the 60s, a revolution predicated on pesticides, inorganic fertilizer and high water consumption, sold as a panacea for the benighted poor? Incidentally, that type of agriculture Adamchak and Ronald labeled “conventional.”
I wasn’t the only heretic in the audience. There were cards passed out for questions, which were then culled and read by Stewart Brand, who hosted the talk. False, one card read, there have been cases of people sickened by GMOs. Brand read the card as if a hysteric had written it, but Ronald admitted, yes, maybe some workers got a rash, but that was it. “You have nothing to worry about,” she said referring to concerns about safety in consumption. Another question brought up the role corporations play in this, and yes, Adamchak acknowledged, corporations have a hand in it but all the testing of GMOs makes them so expensive, and corporations are the only ones who can afford to sponsor the research. Brand offered that resistance to GMOs is already positively quaint, like favoring the Cuban embargo, considering he recently talked to folks who are putting together ‘bio-bricks.” What these are I didn’t find out. I couldn’t stomach more. Walking out I heard Ronald say how it is those “on the left” putting up the fuss about GMOs.
One of my presumably lefty clients, Denise Caruso, gave me a book she recently wrote called Intervention; Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet. Sample chapters: “What if the Experts are Wrong?” and “Our Appointed Arbiters of Risk.” Why is it that I don’t know any gardeners who are gung-ho about genetic engineering?
The fog was thick outside, the wind brisk and, after the staleness inside, refreshing. The upper half of the bridge was obscured. It was freezing and July. Apparently this was San Francisco.