This is part 4 of plants in popular culture! In this one, I’m going to talk about several episodes of the show which center on plants and the biotech industry. There is more information in the included links, but see also my friend Johnna’s New Under The Sun blog for a good primer on GM technology.
‘Leverage’ is one of a genre of shows with a Robin Hood theme (I can imagine why that’s appealing these days); con artists become good guys to steal from the rich & powerful and help those without means get justice (that isn’t attainable through usual channels for various reasons). If you haven’t watched it, it’s a really fun show. They have a light touch, some tense and involved plots, and I am a huge shipper for Pardison or Harker (the couple of Parker & Hardison— if someone as weird as Parker can learn to love, maybe there’s hope for me too).
I recently powered through the series on Netflix and was struck by not only one, but two, episodes where they con two different large plant biotech firms (or people working at them, more accurately).
There’s a lot of opinion out there about Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and whether they’re safe or not. Like any technology, GM is neutral. It is how it’s used on a case-by-case basis that determines whether it’s actually bad or not. There are some real upsides to GM plants. But of course we have to be circumspect in our use of them. They aren’t silver bullets that will solve all the world’s problems. But there are some uses that are indeed completely worthwhile; if a GM crop increases the nutritional value of a crop or it uses up less space/input to grow the same amount, or it’s a super-biofuel source those are good things for the world.
In S3:E3 of the show, the Leverage crew take down Wakefield Inc., a plant biotech firm with an impressive security system. And a firm that’s on shaky financial footing. Biotech is expensive. Or more specifically they take down a scientist and the colluding head of security that are trying to save the company in a rather radical way; the scientist has stored away a strain of the fungus Ug99 (a very real plant pathogen that is devastating to non-resistant wheat, which is currently most wheat grown in Africa/Asia). The scientist has spent billions developing a strain of wheat that can resist the deadly Ug99 strain that no one else has (such a strain of wheat does apparently exist). And then she was going to just release the pathogen and sell the Wakefield resistant wheat to farmers who wanted to protect their crop. A plant pathogen is potentially a devastating weapon.
Is the Ug99 strain the intellectual property of the company? Or should it be widely shared so many minds can work on finding a solution? My personal answer is that when it’s something that potentially devastating, sharing is the better policy; but it does mean potential competition from other companies as they race for a solution (this happens to some degree now; there are several very large plant biotech/Ag firms producing seeds and pesticides to sell to farmers).
I don’t think they ever explicitly bring up GMO technology; the resistant wheat could have been bred with traditional genetics (itself a form of genetic modification) assuming a naturally occurring resistance gene could be found (which may not exist in every case).
In S4:E5 the Leverage crew takes on Verd Agriculture, a pretty clear stand in for Monsanto. They’ve stolen an “open source” potato developed by a small farmer with a possibly flimsy claim that she has used Verd seeds in the development of the potato. So how can they keep us out of there? Modern agriculture owes a lot to small farmers selecting desirable traits over time and slowly bringing them together. The scientific revolution has brought a new twist on old methods that traditional breeding can’t hold a candle to.
Modern genetics began in the 19th century with Gregor Mendel and his observing the physical appearance (the phenotype) of traits that vary in pea plants (like round vs. wrinkled seeds or short vs. tall plants) and showing that they’re inherited in very specific patterns– particularly when tracking multiple traits at one time. Nearly a century later, the double helix of DNA was proposed and it’s mechanisms of coding information deciphered. Note: I just related a huge part of the history of science in a few brief sentences. The obvious connection between the DNA sequence (and the specific organization of the 4 bases that make up DNA into genes– the genotype) and the phenotype that scientists almost take for granted now did not exist. In fact, the genotype-phenotype question is still a very open one when it comes to what are known as complex traits (where more than one gene contributes to that particular trait). And even more recently thrown into the mix is the field of epigenetics; that can also affect how genes are expressed and therefore physical traits. There is a lot of complexity in biology to say the least.
Modern high throughput technologies, more basic knowledge than ever about how plants work, and knowing what genes underlie specific traits are being applied to the world’s food supply. For many plants (ones that have a level of genetic/DNA sequence information in a database), there are detectable genetic markers (a specific DNA sequence or even a single DNA base pair) that associate with specific traits can be probed in an individual seed (like overall biomass, for instance). Seeds with the most desirable combination of markers/traits can now be selected without even having to grow the plant (though in a lot of cases, combining traits is a long term experimental process involving growing thousands of plants and tossing out most of them)! The other big tool that modern molecular biologists have is the ability to find a gene that will confer a trait (e.g. herbivore resistance, like the Bt toxin that targets specific species of butterflies/moths that eat crop plants) to a plant via genetic modification; in this case it means inserting a gene into the genome; usually a random process, but there are some new technologies that enable plant scientists to target where that genetic modification lands. Of course, these new technologies are resource intensive and on a commercial scale, only the giant companies like Monsanto can viably do them (in fact, I think the seed genotyping technology is proprietary to Monsanto).
All of the above is by way of saying that a small farmer breeding a super-potato is a little far fetched, though not impossible if it’s a very well funded small farmer with a lab. So called bio-hacking is happening now– there was a funded kickstarter to create a visible light producing tree to replace street lamps (that I just don’t think will ever work), for instance. If a super-plant is created through natural breeding, is it any less engineered than a GMO? Another thing the corrupt CEO of Verd talks about is being able to distribute the super-potato globally. It’s true that a large company can distribute things a lot more widely than a single farmer ever could; even if she just gave it away as she did after the Leverage team steal it back (sprouting is a key trait in this episode as they only rescued a small part of the tuber; see my post on Tomacco for more on this).
So are big biotech seed companies evil? One reason companies make good targets is that they’re big and feed into a much larger industrialized system where we get a lot of our food here in the US. And of course size means that there are things that can fall through the cracks and lapses might occur (any organization has these problems). There are also instances where companies meet the minimal legal standard to operate/release a product, which can be insufficient in some cases (it might be legal, but from a human perspective or environmental one, it’s plainly insufficient). Companies that have intellectual property like Monsanto also really lock down their information and aren’t very transparent about their products. In Monsanto’s case, they are opening up a bit more with generalities of their technology and starting to talk to the end users of their products (not the farmers who buy their seeds, but to the people who end up eating the food those farmers produce). That is good to see. Another question to keep in mind is whether or not the issue is biotech specific or just a feature of agriculture generally; agriculture is disruptive, no matter what. The same is true of intellectual property issues; a lot of those are not biotech specific, but are broader problems with the patent system.
As for product safety, Monsanto knows that if they put out a truly dangerous product, they’re in a lot of trouble. I would hope any company would realize this and want to provide a service that helps consumers, employees, the company itself, and shareholders all without destroying the planet. But then I am an idealist. Nathanael Johnson on Grist did a fantastic series about GMO technology that is worth taking a look at if you’d like to know more about them. It’s not all good or all bad; it’s messy and complicated. GM can do some real good in the world, but is not a panacea– I think even a big biotech firm would admit that. Use the right tool for the right situation, which won’t always be the GMO (even if that runs counter to a company’s interest; science ideally provides robust answers to questions…it’s not always an answer you or a company will like, however).
In the end, ‘Leverage’ (which has a lot more food/plant centered episodes too) gets a few things right, but is best understood as getting back at ‘The Man’ and helping the little guy, which of course is really satisfying for most of us. No one likes a bully or feeling crushed under the enormous weight of a company, Government or other large institution. There is risk to any new technology, but just doing without it is also not the best option either. Mindfulness is becoming all the rage these days and in my opinion, mindful use of any technology makes good sense.