With travel and holiday gatherings out of the picture, I got to spend a chunk of time earlier this winter with my nose in a book and my feet up next to the woodstove. One book I read was a science fiction novel about a planet where — you’ll have to bear with me here — certain insects were infected with a human-created nanovirus that allowed them to evolve over a thousand years into a civilization rivaling and even exceeding humanity in its accomplishments. The dominant species ends up being dog-sized Jumping Spiders who go through a technological revolution utilizing biological concepts and techniques to achieve manufacturing, global communication and even space flight.
The book, called “Children of Time” by Adrian Tchaichovsky, was an entertaining and thought-provoking read, although I wouldn’t recommend it to arachnophobes. Among the intriguing ideas was that of a biologically-based internet, using bio-chemical reactions involving ants to produce electricity.
With some of those ideas still in my head, I practically jumped out of my seat on Sunday when I heard a news item on NPR about a recent MIT experiment in which spinach has been genetically modified with nano-sensors to detect toxic chemicals in the soil and send an alarm signal out to an infrared camera, which then sends an email warning to a designated address. As one of the study’s authors stated, “This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier.”
This is not the gene-modification of the 1990s, whereby chemical companies engineered crops that would help them sell more pesticides ala “Roundup Ready Corn”.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are currently not allowed in organic production. But this experiment offers a glimpse of the true potential of biotechnology in the agriculture of the future. What if plants could actually tell us when they need more water, or fertilizer? Or when they are being attacked by bugs or mildew?
One of the most promising current uses of genetic engineering in agriculture is the development of citrus varieties that are resistant to the deadly, incurable virus (HLB) that is killing citrus trees by the millions and has essentially destroyed the Florida orange industry. Organic orchards are particularly susceptible, because the virus is transmitted by an invasive beetle that cannot be controlled organically. Genetically modified crop varieties could hold the promise of conferring resistance to dozens of plant diseases that, combined, require the use of hundreds of millions of pounds of pesticides. Like the Covid vaccine, but for plants.
I have always understood the decision to disallow GMOs in organic production. But I have also always been concerned that a simple blanket prohibition on genetic engineering would eventually put organic agriculture at a huge disadvantage. At some point in the future, if organic food is to remain a viable food source, there will have to be a careful re-examination of genetic modification. Some forms may have such a net benefit to organic farmers and consumers that the rules might need to be rewritten. Spinach with nanosensors may not make the cut, but virus-resistance citrus might.
Maybe now that most human beings will be allowing a genetically modified organism — the Covid vaccine — into their bodies, the organic industry will start to take a second look at the absolute ban of their use in organic farming. The possibility of pest- and disease-proof crops grown organically should not be considered as far-fetched as intelligent giant spiders in spaceships.