FEATURES • Fall 2001

By Jeanne Erdmann

One of the hallmarks of a Washington University education is the availability of cross-disciplinary offerings, and with the College of Arts & Sciences implementing its new curriculum this fall, many new courses are available to undergraduates.

Last spring, Glenn Stone, associate professor of anthropology, taught one such course with Ralph Quatrano, the Spencer T. Olin Professor and chair of the biology department, focusing on one of the hottest topics in society today—genetic engineering. Blending the physical and social sciences, the class—Brave New Crops: Ecology and Politics of Genetic Modification—examined the major issues surrounding the development and use of genetically engineered foods: the myths and realities, the health issues, and the political pressure. Presenting all sides of the emotionally charged topic, Brave New Crops was designed to help students move beyond any polarized debate so they might develop informed opinions.

The next time you take a Sunday road trip through farmland and drive past those amber waves of grain, and perhaps stop on the way home for dinner and a cold beer, think about this: You have crossed a world where food, science, and politics intersect. The crops you passed might have been modified by genetic technology; your beer most certainly was. Industry claims genetic modification of crops has already increased production, decreased use of pesticides, and is just the ticket for helping malnourished populations in the developing world. Critics claim that genetic modification of crops benefits corporations rather than consumers, allowing a small number of "gene giants" to seize control of the world's crops without improving the disparities in food distribution.

Genetic modification is definitely a controversial topic, and an illustration on the Web site for the new University course on genetic technology in agriculture also suggests so. The drawing shows a lemon, or to be precise, the bottom half of a lemon. The top half has been replaced with a hand grenade; the DNA double helix winds through the finger ring for the pin. The undergraduate course, Brave New Crops: Ecology and Politics of Genetic Modification, is the invention of Glenn Stone, associate professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences, who studies farmers in developing countries. He recently has begun anthropological fieldwork in an area of India that is one of the front lines of the global debate on genetic modification.

"There has been an epidemic of suicides among cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh, and both the biotech companies and their critics claim the deaths support their position," Stone says. "This reflects an international debate in which both sides are guilty of misleading and oversimplifying."

 
Brave New Crops examined the pros and cons of genetically modified crops. Glenn Stone (seated), associate professor of anthropology, organized the course for students like Elizabeth Stoll (center), and he asked Ralph Quatrano (right), chair of the biology department, and colleagues to assist in teaching plant biology.

One of the reasons Stone developed the course was to involve Washington University students in the debate.

"Genetically modified [GM] agriculture is a complex topic of profound importance," he says, "and it is a particularly important topic for students here to delve into because there is such intense interest in environmental issues on this campus." After all, St. Louis not only is in the country's agricultural heartland, but also is home to Monsanto, which is the world's largest producer of GM crops; the Missouri Botanical Garden; the new Donald Danforth Plant Science Center; and the renowned plant biologists of the Washington University Department of Biology.

The title for Stone's class is a play on Aldous Huxley's book Brave New World. The title can be read as either positive or negative, reflecting the open-minded approach of the course, which reaches beyond a discussion of genetically modified crops. Stone describes the inaugural offering of the course as experimental. He used the Web site to post a syllabus, links to many articles and related Web sites, and discussion questions. Stone also opened the podium to guest lecturers who had a variety of backgrounds and opinions. They included a scientist who built Monsanto's biotechnology division, a biologist modifying subsistence crops for poor countries, a legal scholar specializing in intellectual property rights, a leading environmental journalist, an Illinois grain farmer, and a professor of environmental ethics. Students learned about Stone's current research in India, and they heard from the head of a campaign fighting corporate control of crops in India.

Food for Thought

Brave New Crops was not designed to condemn or condone the ongoing spread of GM crops, but to show how the issue lies at the intersection of significant change in many areas. "The main aim of the course was to look at the larger pictures," says Stone. "It is important to consider the troubled condition of agriculture worldwide, the ongoing scramble to patent nature, and the new era of green activism, as well as the dramatic developments in genetics."

Dennis Doody, Class of '02, an environmental studies major and an anthropology minor, says he learned a lot from the class. Although he remains skeptical of many aspects of GM crops, he says, "I was not aware that GM technology could potentially reduce pesticide use or improve subsistence crops such as cassava."

Doody's favorite speaker was Randy Ziegenhorn, an Illinois soybean farmer and economic anthropologist who studies the seed industry. Ziegenhorn spoke about his use of Monsanto soybeans genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto's Roundup® herbicide. Although the new seeds make weed control much easier, they also brought with them new issues regarding ownership—issues that forced Ziegenhorn to abandon his seed-cleaning business.

When companies like Monsanto spend millions of dollars to develop a new technology, they want to recoup their investment. Elizabeth Stoll, Class of '03, a biology major from central Illinois, knows about the effort that goes into developing new crops. Her dad is a grain farmer who, like Ziegenhorn, uses GM soybeans and corn. Because of her background working in the cornfields of Dekalb, she wants to pursue a master's degree in crop sciences, so she can study ways to improve corn and soybeans.

When she saw the course listing, Stoll knew Brave New Crops was made for her. "This class was exactly the introduction to what I'm interested in," she says. The course made Stoll aware of some pressing social issues connected to the new technology: While American consumers have been receptive to GM foods, Europeans have been much more hostile. But few questions loom larger than the future of GM crops in the developing world.

Genetic Revolution

Glenn Stone's own field research on agricultural sustainability over the past 18 years has shown the importance of social aspects of farming in developing countries. "Our own country used to be a nation of farmers, but today full-time farmers make up less than 1 percent of the population," he told the class in a discussion on exporting new technology. "Technological change has helped us squeeze out small farmers. Squeezing out the farmer in India and Africa would be catastrophic. As we debate the effects of crop biotechnology on developing countries, we have to look beyond simple productivity to consider the effects on the sustainability of small farms. India actually has a food glut but widespread malnutrition."

This controversy comes in the middle of a biological revolution. The human genome—often called the book of life—has been sequenced, and the coming decade could bring an understanding of how diseases are caused. The first plant genome, Arabidopsis thaliana, has been sequenced, as well. And because plants get sick too, GM technology could be used to make them hardier and more disease resistant.

To help students, especially those without a science background, understand the manipulation of DNA within plants, Stone enlisted Ralph Quatrano, the Spencer T. Olin Professor and chair of the Department of Biology. Quatrano and his colleague David Ho, professor of biology, presented lectures, specifically on plant biology, and anthropology graduate student Angela Gordon served as a teaching assistant. Their efforts provided inventive explanations of complicated science. For some students, these lectures served as a review; others struggled with the basic concepts.

"From the beginning, the biology related to these issues put a huge challenge in front of us," says Quatrano. "How might we get across the following topics: What are genes? How do you manipulate genes? How do you put genes into plants? How do you regulate genes that you put into plants? What are the traits that you can put into plants via this technology? I think we gave them an appreciation of the situation."

Although anthropology major Alix Borrok, A.B. '01, struggled with the biology, she already has put her newfound knowledge to work. When listening to a recent show about GM crops on National Public Radio, Borrok says she could tell that one of the guests was exaggerating to make a point.

Helping students like Borrok develop informed opinions is Stone's goal. "I don't care what position they take as long as it is based on an informed consideration of the issues," he says. "And they have been wonderful. It has been a truly exciting course because of the students' openness to different perspectives. I would feel a lot more confident in society's ability to work out these vital questions if more people were as thoughtful as these students."

Jeanne Erdmann is a free-lance writer based in Wentzville, Missouri.

 


"It is important to consider the troubled condition of agriculture worldwide, the ongoing scramble to patent nature, and the new era of green activism, as well as the dramatic developments in genetics," says Associate Professor Glenn Stone.