Monday, June 3, 2013

The Seeds Of Our Own Destruction


Weeds are always trouble for farmers and gardeners.  Throughout history, the problem has been addressed three ways.  First there was the organic solution:  Pull up your weeds, or live with them.  Then as we learned about plant science we devised an additional holistic solution: Choose or adjust the soil conditions (ph, nitrogen balance, etc) so that your preferred crop has a natural advantage.  Finally, in the past century, chemical manufacturers devised the aggressive commercial solution:  Spray herbicides and kill what you don’t want.

Ultimately, as ugly as it seemed to some, the poison solution was found to be most effective and it was adopted all over.  Poison really took off with the invention of Roundup, and it went to a whole new level with the development of “Roundup Ready” crops.   These were crops grown from seeds that had been genetically modified to resist the poison.

So farmers could spray their fields with the stuff, and it would kill everything but the crop.  Cool.  Or so they thought.

As efficient as it sounded, there was a public outcry.  Genetically modifying seeds to resist Roundup sounded much the same as modifying an animal strain to resist nerve gas, and then using the gas to kill everything else.  Indeed, the two situations are analogous.  The more people thought about it, the less they liked it.

But it made money.   Farm yields rose, so farmers bought in, hoping no one would look too close.  In the Unites States the farmers were helped by a strong chemical lobby who kept the genetic engineering hidden from public view.  Europe, however, followed a more transparent path.  The result:  over 80% of American corn, soy, and cotton is genetically modified, and we lead the world in GMO plant production.

And thanks to the chemical lobby, most Americans have no idea this is happening.  Other countries either require disclosure or ban GMO food outright.  Some call it Frankenfood.  Scientist defend the practice, saying we have genetically engineered food for centuries with selective breeding.  But earlier "natural" engineering is probably inherently safer, because any combination that results comes from natural cross breeding simply mimics what evolves in nature where GMO scientists introduce targeted modifications which could never have originated in nature, and whose side effects are poorly understood. 

So the rest of the world hasn’t been so quick to embrace our chemical giant’s technology.   How do we know it’s safe, they ask?  People remember Jurassic Park, and wonder if we are creating something similar, but with plants instead of animals.  It looks like that day has come.

Roundup is the most successful herbicide ever devised.   It kills everything in its path, except for the special Roundup Ready plants they have engineered.  Unfortunately, nature has proven to be adaptable and resilient in the face of this manmade challenge.  The weeds have evolved to resist this powerful poison, possibly by integrating the manmade Roundup Ready genetic code into their DNA, and possibly by evolving an equivalent on their own..

Either way, we now have Roundup Ready weeds

This is the same scary situation we see in medicine where the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed and elsewhere has led to antibiotic resistant diseases.  Diseases that were treatable with a course of antibiotics a decade ago have the very real prospect of killing us tomorrow, unless new antibiotics are devised.  That's how it works, all the way up the food chain.   Guns were a great deterrent, when everyone else had swords.  Now that we all have guns, the solution becomes the problem.

 Do you remember the scene at the end of Jurassic Park, where "all the dinosaurs had been killed," but somehow, eggs were hatching?   That happened here, with wheat.  Back in 2001, Monsanto developed a Roundup resistant GMO wheat that they thought would be a big hit.  It wasn’t.  The reason:  The big wheat importing countries in Europe and Asia wanted nothing to do with genetically engineered wheat.   Monsanto quietly dropped the project.  The test crops were killed, and the seeds destroyed.

That was 12 years ago.

Now it’s back

A farmer in Oregon found a patch of wheat growing like a weed outside his field.  So he sprayed it with Roundup.  But it didn’t die.  Puzzled, he sent it to the lab.  The results were shocking.   The wheat contained the GMO trait for Roundup resistance.  And it wasn’t the same wheat Monsanto had tested, years before.  That was a spring planted variety, while last month’s wild-caught wheat is is a winter breed.

We are just beginning to see the terrible price humanity may pay for the over-use of antibiotics.  As antibiotic resistant diseases evolve, we have the real possibility of a return to the Dark Ages, where disease kills millions and we have no medicine to stop it.  There are few new developments in antibiotics, but nature is evolving all the time to fight them.  Who’s winning?  The balance may be about to change.

In the plant world the Roundup Ready notion is the exact same thing.  Now that we see how quickly nature adapts, is it time to rethink the use of GMO techniques and poison?  Or is it too late – the genie is already out of the bottle.

The biggest risk is that our genetic engineering will create something that is inadvertently toxic to plants or animals we need (or ourselves), and we will literally sow the seeds of our own destruction.

Has it happened already?

I don’t want to stop the progress of science, but I do think it’s time for a more open and transparent discussion.  Can we step away from PR and spin to consider the real issues rationally, and act while we still can?  I don’t know. 


2 comments:

Sandra Sutherland said...

You always state these things so WELL, John! Thanks for that clarity!

forsythia said...

You are such a good writer--and not just on autism, a topic near and dear to me--but on other subjects as well. And you don't rant or rave. You make your points with reasoned logic. That is why I've wondered where you've been in the past four weeks, so I visited today and found that you've been writing. For some reason, I am not being notified of new posts. Now I'm wondering how many links to other blogs I follow are also broken.