The door of the contagion chamber opened into a large, light-filled room, where Ronald guided me through an antiseptic wilderness of sterilized glassware, centrifuges and fume hoods. The machines rumbled and sputtered and whirred as scientists hunched over their beakers and flasks and test tubes of clear and yellow liquids. To my left, one of a dozen lab researchers and students labored next to a small white box of clear plastic containers labeled "Transformants," while gazing every so often at a document that possessed an arresting single-word title: "Mutant." Here was the act of genetic alteration at its most basic level: the collection and analysis of unprocessed data.
Ronald and her colleagues have deconstructed the genetic code that could prevent Xanthomonas and other pathogens from unleashing havoc on the world's food supply, just as they have crunched the molecular numbers to reveal which rice genes will allow a crop to survive catastrophic flooding. In a world beset by drought and hurricane, disease and soil erosion, the science of fighting hunger is becoming an information science, ever less bounded by material limits. If the first green revolution depended on billions of tons of raw materials, the second green revolution will depend on billions of gigabytes of raw data.
Not everyone is welcoming this development. A loose grouping of activists—the local-food movement, the slow-food movement, the family-farm movement, the organic-food movement—perceives genetically altered crops as its nemesis, the embodiment of a corporate agribusiness model that will sweep away our planet's biodiversity, engender a death spiral of environmental degradation, and increase health risks for consumers at the same time as the largest players in a transnational food cartel use patent law to stash away untold millions of dollars, euros and yuan.
Rather unsurprisingly, research scientists have returned the food activists' scorn with counter-accusations of arrogance, ignorance and elitism. And the entrenched opposition between biologist and foodie has led to the dead end of dichotomy: the widely held notion that a hungry world will have to choose between organic or conventional crops, the past or the future, whole foods or molecules.
Ronald grew up in Northern California, where her hobbies included skiing in the Sierras and cloning her mother's African violets. She has no interest in picking sides. "There are a lot of great ways to minimize the ecological damage done by agricultural systems," she said. "But not all of them are implemented when needed." She showed me a book, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World (based, as it happened, on an article that originally ran in Popular Science in 2005). "One hundred million people in East Africa alone rely on bananas for their nutritional needs," she said, but since by far most edible bananas are cloned, the fruit possesses a very limited gene pool, which makes the global banana supply susceptible to obliteration by a single contagion.
Many anti-GMO activists had raised alarms about this very problem, and now a banana-killing bacterial disease was making its way through eastern Africa. But Ronald pointed out that her own genetic investigations could be useful in fighting that blight. "Rice is distantly related to the banana," she said, "and our hypothesis is that the same rice gene that gives rice immunity to Xanthomonas will function in the banana."
I mentioned the import bans on GM crops that had kept grain from entering Zambia and Zimbabwe even as their citizens suffered through the drought of 2002–3. Would the technology that could create a GM banana also prove to be its downfall? "You want the most appropriate technology for any particular situation," Ronald said. "Everything we care about is embedded in these plant genomes. We would be foolish not to use this information for the public good."