Genetic engineering: A technique for emptying minds of thought?

I try not to rant. There are lots of reasons for this but I suppose the most important is that, while a good rant gives satisfaction in the short term, a more measured and better thought through post has more staying power and leads to better things in the future. A bit like sex, really, where a rant is the equivalent of a quick wank.

I’ll make an exception today (OK, stop sniggering) because I have been quite stunned during the course of my background research into genetically engineered plants by the level of sheer, wild-eyed fanaticism on the part of opponents of what amounts to a very promising technique for continuing in our millennia old practice of making things better for ourselves.

Let’s start with a fact. Most, but not all, GE plants are produced with two objectives: resistance to herbicides and resistance to pests, usually lepidoptera (which includes butterflies but they are not the target species). Herbicide resistance is a question of modifying a plants reaction to (usually) glyphosate but insect resistance requires inducing the plant to produce an insecticide within its tissues, in other words, it now contains a new substance which it previously did not; a substance we can ingest when we eat the plant. These two things seem to me to be qualitatively different, with the second being the more troubling.

The problems with herbicide resistance are not insignificant. Resistant strains of weeds are of course being encouraged but this is not a consequence of genetic engineering, it is a consequence of crop monoculture and over reliance on a single method of weed control; lessons we learned as a society many years ago and which were codified by Jethro Tull at the dawn of the English agricultural evolution.

Tweaking plants to produce toxins (even if they are toxic only to specific insects) is different. It might, or it might not, be safe for humans and there are methods to determine this which are not being followed at the moment but the anti ‘GMO’ movement does not recognise this difference from herbicide resistance, or even the distinction between the production of toxins and the production of beneficial substances such as beta carotene. As far as they are concerned, it is all frankenstein science to be opposed with every pitchfork at their disposal.

And to be sure, they have some very impressive pitchforks after several decades of the refinement of misinformation techniques in the style of Carl Rove and his ilk. It is extremely difficult to search online for any information on the topic without falling into a bog composed entirely of self referential articles, all of which sound spookily similar and which promote a very specific extended equation. GMO = Pesticides= Monsanto = Toxins = Cancer. Examples include statements like “GMO crops and the pesticides they require”. “Pesticide promoting GMO crops”, “Cancer Causing GMO foods” none of which have any basis in fact. There was even an attempt to link genetically engineered crops to the recent die-off of bees, which has very complex causes, none of which seem to be linked to GE crops.

It seems to be impossible to get these people to stop and think long enough to understand anything at all about what they are criticising – and there is plenty to criticise! We are in possession of a tremendous knowledge which, like all knowledge, can be used for good or ill and here we have legions of people forming themselves into a peanut gallery chanting ‘Four legs good: two legs bad’ and congratulating themselves that they are vanguard of truth and understanding!

These people do tremendous damage for the very simple reason that the binary internal world they have created for themselves and within which they choose to exist is not the real world in which we all must live. Shades of grey do exist, even in the absence of handcuffs, and we must be able to recognise them in order to make valid judgements.

Enough! More on GE foods later.

This entry was posted in Genetic engineering, palm oil, Rant, soybean oil. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Genetic engineering: A technique for emptying minds of thought?

  1. Nancy Yuen says:

    Fair enough rant.
    Would you care to tie this discussion to the move toward organics?
    I realise this is only tangentially related to your discussion.
    There still appears to be an assumption that organically-produced foods look (and in some cases, taste) inferior to the genetically-modified products with which we have, as a modern First-World Society in the United States, become accustomed.
    I believe one of the tools available to farmers who wish to eliminate the use of petroleum-based fertilizers and pest control chemicals is genetically modified production organisms, which will require fewer inputs and therefore be more economical.
    From how many of these (GMO or organically-cultured) organisms do the natural chemicals of defence end up in (our) food?
    The problem with much “organic” food production is that it gives a lower yield than that which has come to be expected with the development of the “conventionally-grown,” which typically uses large inputs of (both) fertilizers and/or pesticides, even if not (necessarily) using genetically-modified food plants (organisms). Isn’t the reason for the use of GMO’s the desire to utilize fewer inputs and raise yields?
    In order to feed the burgeoning human population, it appears that we require the use of both GM foods and pesticides.
    This situation really points us to the real problem of overpopulation of the Earth by our species, don’t you think?


    • pyjamaslug says:

      Well, for the purpose of this rant, the link to organics is that it’s largely the same people holding the pitchforks in both cases.
      Bt modified corn is one of the GE solutions to insect control that you are referring to, in which the corn is induced to produce that insecticide via genetic modification. It’s an example of the type of mod I am actually concerned about because we potentially eat the resulting protein. Before we even get to that point, though, (and also remembering that no GE corn makes it to the stores as the kind that you toss on the grill) it has already been shown that the corn rootworm has evolved resistance and therefore farmers are having to resort to other pesticides regardless of what type of corn they are planting. Simple economics will take care of that problem as farmers will stop buying the more expensive GE seed but it does represent a failure of this approach and calls into question the use of GE with this sort of objective.
      AFAIK, there are no GE plants which reduce the use of fertiliser or water, and I have seen one study where soybean yields of non herbicide tolerant plants was consistently higher than the GE variety. I don’t think there are any arguments for use of the current types of GE crops other than cost of production.


      • pyjamaslug says:

        Correction to that last statement: there is some more recent data to show that roundup ready soy has a higher yield/acre (by 25%) as well as greater oil content in the seeds, so it looks like the newer varieties are aiming at greater yields after all, which makes perfect sense. I found a similar thing with canola.


      • Nancy Yuen says:

        So is the use of GM plants just (kind of) putting off the inevitable? There’s warfare between farmers and nature’s other animals, called pests, who want to eat the crops, and, from your response, it appears that GM’s represent a failure, then, to fully understand the rate at which evolution can create an insecticide-resistant bug. It appears to me that while these other (more dangerous because they’re less studied?) pesticides are required to maintain pest-free farms (which in itself may be futile), that the organic grower actually has a leg-up if they choose to use a natural pest deterrent, such as using predators of the pest in question (praying mantises?). Do you know of any farmers who use pests’ predators in lieu of chemical deterrents?


    • pyjamaslug says:

      I think the major problem is not the technology, we already know how to not create resistance but it is incompatible with the objectives of the pesticide companies. Not that they want to see species which don’t respond to their products but they do want to hold on to whatever business advantages they have built up and they do want to maximise return and reduce risk of failures. The obvious way to prevent resistance is to prevent the overuse of specific pesticides by, eg: legislating good husbandry practices like not using the same pesticide more than one year in four. Unfortunately, the competitive model we run causes companies like Monsanto, Bayer, etc. to look for that one killer product which will allow them to take over as much of the market as possible and then sell as much of their product as they can. The result is monoculture.

      Organic farms use rotation (they have to, otherwise they would be wiped out) so they also understand the issues but the pressure towards monoculture exists for them, too, since bulk production is more efficient. There are lots of examples of natural predators being used against pests such as encouraging ladybirds to control aphids and organic farmers also use companion planting to discourage pests. For instance, carrot blackfly is discouraged by the presence of marigolds so not only do you get better carrots but you also get a nice bunch of flowers for the table. The problem, as with all organic pest control techniques, is that they work best at a small scale. I’m reaching the conclusion that some sort of regulation of pesticide use will be needed and the application of that to GE plants is that there will be a need for a number of plant varieties with very different characteristics which can be rotated on a four year cycle (I just picked the number based on traditional husbandry). Developing alternatives to roundup (glyphosate) would need to be part of that as would the production of insect resistant varieties which produce something other than Bt.


  2. Pingback: Maybe Rupert Murdoch should just buy Greenpeace now. | ecoscienceblog

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