Eduardo Blumwald’s genetically modified plants don’t look much like “Frankenfood.” Filling four modest greenhouses in a concrete lot behind Blumwald’s laboratory at the University of California, Davis, the tiny seedlings, spiky grasses, alfalfa, and peanut and rice plants in plastic terracotta-colored pots look exactly like the ordinary varieties from which he and his fellow researchers created them. Blumwald’s lab lies just ten miles from Monsanto’s 90,000-square-foot vegetable seed building, a glassy edifice larger than the hangar for a 747. The Monsanto facility is one of the largest centers in the world for plant breeding and genetic engineering. But in the fourteen years that Blumwald, a professor of cell biology, has worked here studying the DNA of crop plants, he has hardly ever spoken to anyone from Monsanto.
Blue-eyed and round-faced, with a lilting Argentinian accent, Blumwald grows exasperated when he talks about the so-called “Big Ag” companies, which he says have been arrogant in dealing with the public, contributing to a distrust of biotech research. But he also doesn’t appreciate the activists who’ve been challenging not only the Monsantos of the world but the entire field of genetic engineering.
“You want to penalize the multinationals; I have no problem with that,” he tells me in his office at the university’s plant biology building. “But because of your political stance against multinationals, you are going to condemn maybe the only viable solution we have for our future? It’s wrong—absolutely wrong.”
Blumwald means the hot future that we expect by 2050—when a world population of 9.5 billion people will scramble to put food on the table, while at least thirty-seven separate countries face extreme water crises. Blumwald thinks that part of the answer is to genetically engineer crops that can better withstand drought, and so he and his researchers are scouring the world for varieties of fruits, vegetables and some basic staples—rice, millet, wheat, maize—that grow well without much water. Then, using a device called a “gene gun,” which inserts DNA on microscopic gold particles, or a soil bacterium capable of changing plant genes, they alter or silence parts of the plant’s genome, adjusting how and when the plant makes the hormones that let it know when to grow and when to wither. The researchers say the methods are more precise and much faster than developing new plant varieties by conventional breeding, which can take decades.
When I tour the rows of rice and peanuts with one of Blumwald’s assistants, a postdoctoral researcher from Madrid, the air in the greenhouse is soupy. About two dozen researchers work in Blumwald’s lab, many of them from hot parts of the world with swelling populations, including Brazil, China and the United Arab Emirates. In the greenhouse, the researchers force the rice to cope with heat and deprive it of water just as it’s about to set seed. So far, the genetically altered rice is outperforming the natural kind—given less moisture, the non-engineered rice browns and wilts, but the new plant survives. Blumwald’s goal is to create crops that won’t keel over as quickly when things get hot, dry and stressful—plants that will improve the odds that a farmer can produce food even in a drought.
In about forty years, relentless dry spells may be more frequent across the Southwest, say climate scientists, and California may have more dry years like this one, in which a drought has crippled the agricultural sector. But the state, one of the most fiercely contested battlegrounds in a worldwide fight over the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), isn’t the most inviting home for research like Blumwald’s. Since the 1980s, activists here have run a series of campaigns to require the labeling of GM products and an outright ban on GMO cultivation. Blumwald says the controversy over GMOs has made it more difficult to pursue his research and obtain funding. And even if his GM plants could be an important part of the solution to climate change, they may never make their way into the hands of commercial farmers. Who will invest in his plants, test them in the field and market them if they attract boycotts, protests and lawsuits that make business difficult and consumers skittish?