With cc to the entire list, in my capacity as /agente provacateuse/.
> I am not so frightened of genetically-engineered food products as
> Greenpeace and many of the Sanet correspondents. I do not
> consider the products of genetic engineering to be fundamentally
> different from triticale or donkeys or any of a number of
> transpecific hybrids which have been produced by more conventional
Bob, you mean mules?
Where sexual reproduction is the method, nature does genetic
engineering experiments on a whole-genome basis, as is the case in
the examples you cite here. That seems pretty different to me than
snipping out a sequence and jamming it into another kind of DNA.
However, whether the "products" of genetic engineering are
ontologically different than those of sexual or other kinds of
reproduction isn't what concerns me; my concern is what stream of
potential effects a particular type of genetic engineering can
butterfly-effect in the longer run.
I'm thinking, for example, about non-human-intervention recombinant
evolutionary experiments, like gene-sequence-exchange in nature. I'm
thinking of Barbara McClintock's discovery of transposons in maize,
Joshua Lederberg's discovery that bacteria can move DNA sequences to
engineer antibiotic resistance for themselves, and the complex
activities of retroviruses. Put these events into a global
epidemiological context, and...well...here's what Laurie Garrett
wrote in 1994; she's the Pulitzer-winning journalist who wrote /The
"Many insect-borne viruses were thought to have originally been plant
microbes that, thousands of millions of years ago, infected insects
as they fed on plant nectar. in the 1990s, amid evidence of rising
rates of genetic change in many plant microbes, concern was expressed
about the possible emergence of new species that might be absorbed by
insects. In such a scenario, a microbe that was genuinely new, to
which humans had no natural immunity, might quite suddenly emerge.
Genetic change in plant microbes was accelerating due to agricultural
practices that exerted strong selection pressures on the microbes; to
changing geography of plant growth due to international trading of
plant seeds and breeding practices; and to the deliberate release of
laboratory genetically altered plant viruses that were intended to
offer agricultural crops protection against pests.
"To minimize use of toxic pesticides, and to prevent incurable viral
diseases in plants, scientists in the 1990s were developing ingenious
genetic means to protect plants. Using crippled viruses to carry
genes that would help vital food crops fend off dangerous pathogens,
researchers were breeding plants that could withstand a range of
types of infections. There was a catch, however. Studies showed
that, in nature, plants such as corn, wheat, and tomatoes were
commonly co-infected with up to five different viruses, and those
viruses could exchange genetic material. A review of 125 plant
strains produced through such laboratory manipulation showed that 3
percent of the time the crippled virus that was used to carry such
genes into plant cells could swap genes with other viruses in the
plants, producing active, pathogenic--/new/--viral species.
"'Microbes are masters at genetic engineering,' wrote Canadian
microbiologist Julian Davies. He was referring to mechanisms
bacteria use to become resistant to antibiotics, but Davies's comment
could just as well apply to viruses in an insect's midgut, malarial
parasites responding to chloroquine, or influenza cyclically
reinventing itself. That recognition prompted many virologists in
the late 1980s to ask, 'What is the likelihood that a truly new virus
capable of causing human disease will emerge?'" (/The Coming
Plague/, pp. 577-78)
This sounds sensationalist taken out of context, but the Garrett book
is precisely not that; this passage is embedded in a 750-page,
acclaimed, and well balanced chunk of science writing. But it
illustrates my point better than anything I can come up with with my
It seems to me that the genetic engineering folks have been
successful in getting people to think in a reductionist manner about
their gene gunnery...without taking into account that experiments in
agriculture are experiments in evolution. Are there any gene jockeys
thinking about global epidemiology, for example? About the larger
context(s) of their activities? Gives a whole new spin to "think
globally, act locally," but then I have kinda a bioregional/biolocal
tendency, myself.... Not much on buying or selling in the mass
market. Nor economies of scale. Et cetera.
> I consider genetic engineering techniques to be a valuable tool if
> we are to try to keep up with demand for foodstuffs and reduce
> chemical inputs dramatically.
What if the essential and challenging human problems need to be
rethought...like reducing both chemical inputs *and* demand for
foodstuffs in accord with the land's carrying capacity? What if
there's a new set of evaluations--like how well nourished the
existing population is--and efforts to keep that in line with what
land can provide *without* pfutzing with genes in order to support a
burgeoning and unregulated human population? What about looking for
the evolutionarily *simplest* solutions? What about addressing the
conditions that make the problems rather than coming up with
Why *are* people so reluctant to talk about reducing human
reproduction, by the way? (Thirty nations have reached population
stability...not including the U.S. I sure would like to see more
talk about balancing the current generation's reproductive rights
with the survival rights of the next...and of other species as well.)
> Pests evolve too fast to foresake this technique for developing
> resistance (I call it breeding for the impatient). Still, I'm not
> completely starry-eyed about the technology -- I'm just not
> terrified by it.
Then one might also say that pests evolve too fast to *rely on* this
technique for developing resistance. Spending a lot of money on
technical fixes and the research that supports that is one approach.
Another is to do the basic field science that is being short changed
for the more glitzy approaches.
I think it's fine to keep an open mind about genetic engineering...so
long as the mind is kept WIDE open...and to the possibility that the
quick fix to the immediate problem might bring about more problems.
> I'm not even terribly upset by the notion that the corporations
> involved in this type of work are in it for profit. I do believe
> in consumer choice, however.
As soon as you have a profit motive, you have a marketplace where
producers of goods or services are trying to influence and indeed
restrict consumer choice. Making a sale means influencing consumer
choice...but perhaps this sort of thing looks a bit more structurally
sinister (i.e., an outcome of the rules/features of the system
rather than a conspiracy) to somebody like me, who comes out of
communications research (market research, "persuasion," "cultivation
analysis," etc.) and knows that it is indeed possible for
manufacturers to get people to buy things they might not otherwise.
> I find it amusing that these big corporations -- purportedly
> bastions of the free enterprise system -- are fearful of allowing
> their products to be exposed to the forces of the marketplace by
> allowing labelling.
As I wrote above, I'd suggest they less *want* consumer choice than
they want consumers to buy *their* products. If corporations wanted
consumer choice, they'd be setting up more and more competing
products with truly different qualities, and measuring their success
in terms of something other than the bottom line and stockholder
profits...but again...I digress. "Free" enterprise among the
corporate types I know tends to mean *their* freedom to act
unfettered in the marketplace.
> I admit that there could be some expense associated with
> establishing parallel marketing channels (as would be needed to
> keep genetically-engineered products separate), but, given consumer
> concerns, this likely should be done despite the cost.
A bigger problem in my eyes is the amount of leverage corporations
can create to keep this sort of parallel system from emerging OR the
sheer economic oomph it takes to create the economies of scale
necessary to make a parallel system work.
One example is this very rBST issue that we've been discussing.
Swiss Valley Farms, an Iowa dairy cooperative, got nailed hard by
Monsanto for simply trying to disseminate *information* about their
alternative or parallel product/market--rBST-free dairy foods.
McDonald's has spent an incredible amount of money trying to silence
a couple of raggedy activists in England who have had the temerity
to suggest that Mickey D don't do good nutrition. The increasing
power of intellectual property law and lawyers...the commodification
of information systems...the privatization of Extension...all of
these trends appear to me to point in the same direction:
constructing a consumer class whose only creative function is to
consume, in mass numbers, and whereas we all used to rely on
information and knowledge as a way to maintain the balance, even the
communication function is being bought out...but now I've *really*
digressed, even though this stuff all goes together....
Nevertheless, creating an alternative/parallel food system is one of
the things we're investigating here in Wisconsin. Diversity good.
Monoculture bad. Me Jane. Late Friday afternoon. Hope these
thoughts come across rather clearer than I'm feeling, folks, and
thanks for the listen.
Michele Gale-Sinex, communications manager
Center for Integrated Ag Systems
UW-Madison College of Ag and Life Sciences
Voice: (608) 262-8018 FAX: (608) 265-3020
Dreams and nightmares are made of the same material.
But this nightmare purports to be the only dream
we're allowed: a development model that scorns life
and idealizes things. --Eduardo Galeano