Friday, August 12, 2005

Please give me some delicious FrankenRice!

Two interesting and seemingly unconnected news stories appeared this week, both to do with plants and genetics.

First, scientists with the Rice Genome Project have successfully decoded the complete genome of rice, the world's single most important food crop. This is actually far more important in the short term than decoding the human genome. Messing around with human genetics is both difficult and ethically dodgy, depending on what you want to do. Rice is just rice.

Unless it's... a Frankenfood! Oh no, we're all going to die! Evil, evil scientists are going to put weird GENES in our foods, and contaminate our crops, and we'll have weird allergic reactions and immune system failures and the Frankenfoods will run rampant, destroying the ecosystem and killing baby seals and selling crack to preschoolers!

Oh, and the second important news story? Apparently, the most famous "genetic disaster" ever, never even happened.

According to the National Post (yeah, I know they suck, but this is just a simple story) the infestation by man-made genes into Mexican corn crops has turned out to be a myth. One of the major fears of genetic engineering opponents has been that new genes will be cross pollinated from modified plants into neighbouring, unmodified plants, or possibly into completely different species. A paper in Nature apparently showed it had happened.

Now, a new Ohio State University study has found exactly nothing. From Science Daily:

Over the two-year study, the researchers gathered more than 153,000 seeds from 870 maize plants in 125 fields in Oaxaca . They sent these seeds to two commercial companies in the United States that can test for very low concentrations of transgenic material in maize seeds.

The researchers were looking for traces of two key transgenes – one or both of which are found in all GM maize crops. Test results showed no evidence of the presence of either transgene from any of the seeds.

So where did they go?

Transgenes that were present in Oaxaca prior to this study simply may not have survived, Snow said. Modern GM varieties may not be very hardy in Oaxaca, even if they can mate with local plants and gain a degree of hardiness that way.

Or they weren't there in the first place. Nature has apparently disowned the study that first showed the transgenes were there, and other studies showed transgenes, but haven't been published.

But watch if anyone ever admits to this. I fully expect the Oaxaca "transgene disaster" to crop up again and again Frankenfood literature for decades. Also note what is not present in any of these stories: a threat to human health. There is no mention that the genes harmed anyone who consumed the corn, even while they were allegedly present in the crops.

This is one of the few areas where the modern left and I really part company. I love science. I don't fear genetic engineering. Many people do, and for completely irrational reasons. There are a lot of ways we could screw things up with genetic engineering, but putting genes for drought resistance or extra vitamins in crops isn't one of them. In fact, genetic engineering could be one of the best ways to help the world's poor and malnourished, by boosting crop yields. If we made subsistence farming just 20 per cent easier, it would affect the lives of billions of people. We could start by preventing people from going blind with golden rice 2.

Even if we completely banned genetic engineering (which would be deeply stupid) we could still use the genome sequencing of rice to improve crop varieties. We could use it to identify and breed for specific genetic traits, and then clone large numbers of super-successful plants that include already existing genes for things like sumbergence tolerance or high yields. Even this, the Luddites will likely oppose. Because it has to do with genes, and genes should be left alone.


Genes are just another tool we are learning how to use. We will, hopefully, learn to use it responsibly, as we have so many of our other tools. If we don't, it won't be the fault of science, but of human fallibility.


Dmytri Kleiner said...

"This is one of the few areas where the modern left and I really part company. I love science."

Well, perhaps I could present a different point of view. If you love science, you must therefore abhor bad science amd psuedo science.

What credibility do organisations such as Monsanto have regarding a love of sciecne? Ask yourself is it science they love, or will they take any excuse to make as much money as they can regardless of the quality of their "science."

The Capitalist regime, particularily the Banking Monopoly and Intellectual Property law, create an environment where science does not compete, bad science does not need to overcome good science before it wins the marketplace, it only needs to be profitable to the Capitalist elite to be inflicted on society. And this class has demonstrated over and over again that they are perfectly willing to
put the the public good in danger for their own gain.

In a society without a Banking Monopoly making questionable allocations of investment to researchers and an intellectual property regime working against motivations to engage in openness and peer review and other practices of good science, I could see genetic modification in a positive light, however to allow organizations such as Monsanto to meddle with our food security buy pushing their non-transparent, bad science on us in rigged, closed markets seems like a bad idea.

Democratise research funding and eliminate intellectual property and you might have a point. As it is, no frankenfood in my food supply please.


Matthew said...

Of course I'm not a big fan of Monsanto, who have mainly been using genetic engineering as a side project of their chemical industry, ie making crops that are genetically resistant to Monsanto-owned weed killers. That, of course, means more complex, artificial chemicals in our food, not less. Wheras other firms and researchers have created plants which use natural insect-resistance genes, and therefore require less chemical intervention.

Monsanto have also been the world leaders in patent-related assholishness when it comes to dealing with farmers. They have sued anyone who dares to replant their modified seed rather than repurchase it - which, if upheld consistently, could eventually create two classes of farmers: rich ones who take full part in the genetic revolution, and poor ones using chemicals - if they can afford them.

There are a few things we can do in the here and now, including the encouragement of Creative Commons licenses for modified seeds and on the techniques used to create simple modifications. Democratizing the industry through Open Source techniques would also be a great help.

More than anything, we should listen to the farmers, and let them have the tools and the power in this new world.

By the way, thanks for dropping by. Have you written anything at greater length recently about venture communism?

Dmytri Kleiner said...

right Mathew, I think we basicly agree on Monsanto, and as long as companies like Monsanto exist and can manipulate unfree markets to force their bad science on us, I can not see being against Geneticaly Modified foods as being anti-science, quite the other way around, I insist on good science in a free market, and therefore opose the promoters of geneticaly modified foods and the bad science and bad politics that comes along with it.

Regarding Venture Communism, I made a page on the Transitioner website that links a few articles and several discussions.