Even with today’s technological approaches, on average, people lose 30-40% of key food crops, such as wheat, maize (corn), rice, and potatoes. Insects cause about 1/3 of those losses. These figures are impressive, but for subsistence farmers the situation is more complicated than simple numbers reveal. Many insects and pathogens have unpredictable outbreaks that can devastate farmers’ fields and destabilize their lives. Because of this, agricultural pests are more than just a biological problem.
Our 2014 IGERT fellows in Genetic Engineering and Society have examined the many social and scientific issues associated with the genetic modification of agricultural pests. What is the relationship between agriculture, pests and the global environment? What counts as food security? How do current crop losses affect small-scale and large-scale farmers differently? How might genetic modification affect the very complicated landscape of farmers, agribusinesses, and state policy-makers? Answering these questions requires tackling a wide array of issues, including (but not restricted to) food inequality, the role of scientific literacy and local expertise in subsistence and industrial agricultures, ideals of food autonomy, and the concept of food origin as a way to combat mass production.
These questions do not have easy answers, and our IGERT fellows explored them in light of new technologies in genetic engineering. What does it mean to genetically engineer a pest species and what methods are used? Are there situations that justify the use of transgenic strains of a pest to manage native pest populations, or are there ecologically, economically, and socially appropriate alternatives?
As the technology of genetic pest management develops, agricultural enterprises are likely to invest in research aimed at applying this technology to pests of global economic importance. These efforts are likely to generate public debate. Our IGERT students are prepared to engage in these debates.
N.C. State University has a long history of excellence in quantitative and molecular genetics. In the past decade, research on genetic engineering of plants and animals has featured prominently in departments ranging from Crop Science to Veterinary Medicine. In the past 4 years, two new faculty, Max Scott and Marce Lorenzen, were hired to specifically work in the area of modern genetic pest management. Both have developed strong programs funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Agriculture, and the NC Biotechnology Center.
Marce Lorenzen’s major focus has been on flour beetles (Tribolium) that are pests of stored grain. She has investigated one particular selfish genetic element, Medea, that could be used to spread beneficial genes or suppress pest population growth. Beyond the flour beetles, Marce has worked on developing new technologies for genetically engineering other beetles as well as caterpillar pests.
Max Scott came to us from New Zealand where he was working on engineering the sheep blowfly that is currently controlled by use of chemical insecticides and some cultural practices that have met with public concerns for animal welfare. At NCSU, Max’s major efforts have been with developing strains of the screwworm fly that produce only male offspring under specific conditions and that could dramatically decrease the cost of sterile insect release programs. He has been working with the UN International Atomic Energy Agency and the US-Panama screwworm program that both have a strong interest in his work. Max has recently begun work on the spotted wing fruit fly, an invasive pest that is causing losses to berry crops, especially those of organic producers.
Other faculty bring complimentary expertise in population genetics, developmental genetics, and quantitative genomics.
N.C. State University has a large, internationally recognized faculty engaged in ecological research ranging from theoretical to empirical, and from very basic to applied. A substantial subset of these faculty members are associated with the IGERT program (see people). Within our Entomology Department, which has been ranked fifth in the nation, the majority of the faculty conduct ecological research in agricultural systems. Our Biology and Biomathematics faculty are at the cutting edge of basic ecological research. These faculty have been engaged with the previous two IGERT student cohorts and are eagerly working with the 2014 cohort addressing agricultural pests.
A number of critical issues must be addressed at the ecological levels before any transgenic strain is tested beyond a secure laboratory setting. Over and above tests to ensure that such a construct will not move into other species or negatively impact the environment, there is a need for population biologists to determine if the engineered traits will actually suppress the targeted pest populations under field conditions. Assessing these impacts before the actual release of the insects requires the use of mathematical modeling and creative ecological experiments.
The Social Sciences and Humanities lie at the core of Genetic Engineering and Society framework. Our History faculty place new technologies in a temporal context. What did past societies see as the potential and problems of insecticides, biological control agents, and green revolution crop varieties when these new technologies were first being introduced? Our Anthropology and Economics faculty provide in-depth knowledge of diverse cultural understandings of farming, household economies, and the environment. Our Communication, Public Policy, and Political Science explore the complex relationships among lab work, fieldwork, and state authority. Along with professors in Philosophy and Religion, the Social Science and Humanities faculty ask deeper questions about the deeper ethical meanings associated with Genetic Engineering.
Societal issues make apparent the complexity and uncertainty associated with new technology. Although careful consideration of these factors can make inaction attractive or lead to intellectual paralysis, choices must be made, and our goal is to prepare students to make choices in the complex real world.
An Interdisciplinary Approach
Questions of genetic pest management are technical and scientific, but also deeply social. We believe students must acquire both an understanding of the technologies underpinning genetic pest management as well as an understanding of the social context in which those tools might be used. Because no single student can master all these complexities, we have sponsored an academically and culturally diverse group of seven students since Fall 2014. With roughly equal representation of students seeking degrees in humanities/social sciences and mathematics/natural sciences, IGERT fellows in Genetic Engineering and Society have used their combined expertise to address specific agricultural pest systems that they choose with help of faculty mentors. In working together, students gain from each other broader insights about global challenges than they would in a program focused on a single academic discipline.
We pride ourselves in bringing together the cultures of diverse academic disciplines. Our faculty and students come with very different views of global issues and, in particular, different views on the use of genetic engineering. We encourage this diversity and have developed the GES Statement on Productive, Inclusive and Ethical Communication to ensure respectful debate of the issues.
Download PDF – GES Statement on Productive, Inclusive and Ethical Communication
A Hands-On Approach
The first academic experience of the 2014 students was a four week summer course, mostly held in Mexico, so students can gain first-hand experience.
Of all Latin American countries, Mexico has had the most direct intersection between its subsistence agricultural base and the commercial development of genetically engineered crops. The introduction of genetically modified corn has been felt keenly in a country proud of its heritage as the culture that developed hundreds of maize varieties. When genes from genetically engineered maize unintentionally moved into traditional Mexican maize varieties, Mexico’s federal agencies structured regulatory committees to govern all genetically engineered organisms. These federal regulations stand alongside common-property institutions (ejidos) that are often home to subsistence farmers and whose members govern access to their communities. Any future work in Mexico on genetic pest management will need to recognize that citizen responses to it will be influences by their perception of past and current efforts to commercialize transgenic crops.
The course began with one week at N. C. State to give students a grounding in the literature about Mexican history and culture that is relevant to debates about use of GM crops and GM pests. Students then traveled to Mexico City where they spent a week interacting with regulatory officials, NGOs, companies, an international research institute (CIMMYT), and faculty/students at universities. In the final two weeks of the course, students were housed in a rural area of Mexico where they had the opportunity to do surveys of pest problems on small farms and interview the farmers about their perspectives.
Students in the 2014 cohort focusing on Agricultural Pests may affiliate with any IGERT faculty member. Here is a list of faculty who have a specific interest in this topic.
- Andrew Binder, Communication
- Matthew Booker, History
- Hannah Burrack, Entomology
- Yasmin Cardoza, Entomology
- Jason Delborne, Forestry and Environmental Resources
- Jim Gilliam, Biology
- John Godwin, Biology
- Kevin Gross, Biomath
- Nick Haddad, Biology
- Nora Haenn, Anthropology
- Jennifer Kuzma, Public and International Affairs
- Alun Lloyd, Biomath
- Marce Lorenzen, Entomology
- Michael Roe, Entomology
- Michael Schulman, Family and Consumer Sciences
- Max Scott, Genetics