Friday, January 28, 2011

This looks like progress...

To me, anyway.  Consider two news items that did not stir much reaction.

First, the decision on RR alfalfa:
Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa will be granted non-regulated status under a decision USDA announced Thursday. This follows weeks of debate in a host of areas over USDA's potential decision.

"After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "All of the alfalfa production stakeholders involved in this issue have stressed their willingness to work together to find solutions. We greatly appreciate and value the work they've done so far and will continue to provide support to the wide variety of sectors that make American agriculture successful."
But the decision won't end the legal issues for this matter. The Center for Food Safety has pledged to seek a court order to reverse and void USDA's decision. "We will be back in court representing the interest of farmers, preservation of the environment and consumer choice," said the group's Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell. [More]
OK, opposition will continue but it looks like the stuff will get planted, which has tended to be a fat-lady-singing sign of eventual debate closure.  In fact, deployment starts the building of a mountain of real world data. At the same time bad things aren't happening, public interest wanes.

This one could be trickier, however.
As carriers for diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever, mosquitoes are the deadliest creatures on the planet, responsible for millions of human deaths every year. And as the planet warms, the insects are broadly expanding their turf and bringing their diseases with them; thousands of cases of dengue, a tropical disease, have appeared in the U.S. in the past five years. DDT was long used to control the mosquito population, but it is now widely banned, and in any case, many scientists believe that mosquitoes quickly build up a resistance to the insecticide. That, in part, is why the battle against mosquitoes has gone genetic.
Generally speaking, the goal of gene-based mosquito-control projects is either to kill the insects or make them benign. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University, for example, are studying mosquitoes that were made malaria-resistant through the activation of a gene responsible for a protein that blocks the infection. And the British company Oxitec has engineered a strain of mosquito that cannot survive without regular doses of tetracycline; in the wild, these mosquitoes would survive just long enough to mate and pass on their tetracycline-junkie genes to their doomed offspring. In a trial in the Cayman Islands last year, Oxitec-modified mosquitoes were able to cut the overall population by 80 percent in just six months. [More]
I'll agree it's a different puzzle dealing with fauna compared to flora, but the results are impressive. An 80% reduction isn't chicken feed.

There will be some risks, and some too great to face, but I have growing confidence researchers themselves will issue the vetoes on such new ideas when necessary. We now know more weaknesses to look for and possible problems from previous efforts.

I simply have yet to see the killer prob among the growing list of GM projects that are pushing the acceptance of this technology forward.


Unknown said...

Are the same people who are "worried" about the polar bears disappearing going to be worried about mosquitoes being eradicated? Sounds to me there could be some unintended consequences..

Anonymous said...

Nothing wrong with this kind of biotechnology provided it comes from the land grants and other public institutions like the open domain biotechnology movement. However if it comes from the corporate thugs like roundup ready technology, then it is used exclusively for corporate control and power. That is the dilemma we face with biotechnology. Irresponsible corporate control for the benefit of the few or public control for the benefit of all. We did quite well with 50 years of hybrid corn development in the public domain and then things took a turn for the worse with several foolish Supreme Court decisions regarding biotechnology. Ever sense technology advancement in agriculture has become very narrowly focused and overall is actually stagnating just when we need large productivity advances. But what else can we expect from old guys in black robes who can't spell DNA.

CJW said...

My concern with the proliferation of genetically altered crops isn't the hysterical frankenfood garp. Rather, it is all of the unintended cross-breeding that is occurring in the field.
Reason suggests that resistant weed strains are evolving in the field. The rapid appearance of these resistant strains of old ‘foes’ coincides with the introduction of genetically blended seed. The introduction of traits to seed was done to achieve narrow goals. Broader considerations were not taken. Commercial concerns sought a means to protect their seed from, among other things, the very useful chemicals they and their partners produced. Other possible consequences to the introduction of traits were not considered. It wasn’t in the purview of the biologists & botanist employed by the several companies. As the English would say, that wasn’t part of their brief.
Modern production agriculture demands the use chemical adjuncts. As the weed control chemicals became stronger & more effective, they began to also form a serious threat to the plants they were developed to protect. And so the search for a means to protect the crops from the herbicides began.
I know, familiar territory, what’s my point?
For a variety of now familiar reasons, the suppliers sought to develop the resistant crop strains using in-house R&D personnel. They shunned a public course using the research facilities of public institutions of higher education. The value of public development isn’t that “the public” knows all about it – the average US suburbanite only cares that the food shows up at the market and costs less than 5% of his paycheck (yes I know we pay about 10%, but if you listen to the average suburbanite they are being gouged by the producers for twice the price the food is worth). Instead, it is the scrutiny and critiquing of the research on an ongoing basis that comes from utilizing the intellect & creativity of the scientific public. As we all know from experience, you can get a lot of insight from a pair – or two – of fresh eyes.
So, back to the opening statements. The resistant weeds came from somewhere. Their parent weeds sat in fields with crops that had resistance bred into them. Right next to or maybe a little below the flowers of the resistant crops. Flowers visited by bees and other insects. Critters that are known, m& in fact treasured, for their ability to spread and encourage plant fertility.
As so my point: continued introduction of additional genetically altered crops will solve some short term problems. However, they are already creating a new and larger set of problems. Even if the collateral problem of resistant weeds had not developed, they came with a built in collateral problem. The tremendous cost of development drove up the basic cost of using the enhanced seed. This drove up the cost of producing the crop. In turn, this drives the price the producer needs to sell at a reasonable profit, etc., etc. down the line. So in truth, there are 2 veins of collateral problems.
The problems need to be tackled, and they shall be. This time though, it needs to be done in the open with all the eyes of the scientific public reviewing the work as it goes. What are needed are several generous grants going to a couple dozen grand students. The preliminary work will occupy a number of MScs and PhDs. Not to mention a concomitant number of post-doctoral projects.
Rushing the use of additional genetically altered crops merely adds to the long term costs of the program. It is time to pause and let the new generation of plant biology & botany students stop and do the necessary peer-reviewed & vetted research. The pause will pay off greatly in the end. We will get better quality traits in the seed and the plants won’t accidentally contribute to the vicious cycle of resistant weeds.