Monday, 28 May 2012

Comment #2 -- GM food and the raid of Rothamsted Research

On 27th May, 2012, a group called ‘Take The Flour Back’ attempted to raid a research institution in Hertfordshire, UK, called Rothamsted Research, to destroy crops that they say are dangerous, which is why they portray them as “contaminants”

On a purely pedantic note, this can not be true, because the word ‘contaminant’ implies that an object’s presence is un-intentional. The presence of these plants is very intentional indeed – they are there for the purposes of experimentation, so that we can know whether they are dangerous, whether they grow well, and whether they can be used to feed the world’s burgeoning homo sapiens population.

I am going to ignore the fact that their behaviour would be illegal desecration of somebody else’s property – the reason the police were there to keep them out – and concentrate on whether they should have intended to destroy those crops.

This might seem a rather provincial idea to many, but i regard opposition to GMOs (genetically modified organisms) as a superstition-based movement. I shall explain why...

Genetic Modification is defined thusly: Manipulation of the genome of an organismic population to favour particular genetic characteristics.

In no way does this definition require genetic modification to involve pipettes and white lab coats and scary-looking... places where people try to learn about stuff...??

The truth is that genetic modification – manipulation of genomes – has been done for centuries. All breeding processes are genetic modification. If you apply selection pressure to a species, that pressure will cause its genome to modify in response to your demands.

Whenever you see a dog on a lead, whenever you see a horse at a race, whenever you go to the shops and buy some vegetables, you are looking at genetically modified organisms.

A sprinkling of articles referencing genetic modification through history:

What my point is, is that genetic modification and genetic engineering are terms with different meanings. One is a lot vaguer than the other.

The process of chemically cutting short strands of DNA out of one genome, and chemically stitching it into another genome, is a process known as horizontal gene transfer. Most modification exploits vertical gene transfer – from parent to offspring – if the successor carrot is bigger, sweeter, and nicer looking, it gets held back, and the others get thrown to the pigs. This causes the genome of the remaining carrots to augment toward your ideal.

I use the example of carrots because they have changed so dramatically, over the centuries of their cultivation; from a small, yellow, bitter root plant, to a large, orange, sweet vegetable:

Horizontal gene transfer, however, is not new – in fact, it’s even older than vertical gene transfer. Back in the days of the ‘primordial soup’ of yaw, when eukaryotes were only gleams in the DNA strand’s eye, genes were thrown around hither and thither, and the ones that found a permutation encoding for self-replication suddenly exploded in number. (That’s a ‘suddenly’ on a geological timescale, of course). Genetic material is still shared this way, even by complex eukaryotes such as trees:

Horizontal gene transfer:

To reject genetic modification on the basis of its being ‘unnatural’ is perverse, but the method by which the anti-GMO protesters have pursued their cause is indicative, not of a sincerely scientific cause, but of a superstitious one (one not based on evidence).

Just recently, the EU rejected a ban on GM maize by France because there is no evidence that genetic engineering is any more dangerous than the un-engineered modifications that have been done for millennia

By penetrating the site and seizing the plants involved, they will be doing exactly the opposite of what they intend to achieve:

-- They intend to prevent the spread of genes into the wider environment (despite it being already available in other plants/animals), by trashing the plants, and carrying material off on their clothes

-- They claim the pollen will blow beyond the site, and ‘infect’ the surroundings, despite wheat not pollinating that way, and despite the space that’s deliberately left around the crops to prevent any pollen migrating off-site

-- They claim GMOs are dangerous, despite no evidence yet demonstrating this claim, and despite these experiments being the only way of finding such evidence – they’re undermining their own cause

-- They claim GMOs are going to put billions of people's lives in the hands of super-rich agricultural corporations, despite this research being publicly funded, the researchers being forbidden from profiting by the research, and non-engineered organisms already being in the hands of profit-motivated agricultural corporations

GMOs could be the saviour of mankind – giving it crucial time to develop, socially, and control its population size and economy, improving the lives of the billions who live on this planet.

Because of a purely superstitious opposition to a process that they clearly do not understand, this whole pursuit could be wrecked.

Other viewing:

[Video] Sally LePage: What’s all the fuss about GM wheat?

[Audio] A tour of the Rothamsted Research centre, in Hertfordshire, with interviews and explanations

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