Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Science: it's complicated

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  • Ian Dalziel,

    Junk male...

    There is no reason to even remotely believe that
    the “escape” of DNA could cause any harm...

    Just so long as that dangerous human DNA stays imprisoned
    on the planet, but I fear it has galactic ambitions - perhaps it is
    just returning home?

    The Roddenberry Gene has already paved the way...

    ;- )

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 5092 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Roger,

    when pollen from a GE crop blows across to, and pollenates a member of the same type of plant

    or 'escapes' perhaps

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16838 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    Ben Goldacre in his 'bad science' book has an interesting take on the getting-people-to-understand-science.

    He notes that as a medical doctor, when he has to explain things to patients that that directly affect their health in immediate and critical ways (e.g, and crudely speaking: you have cancer and I'll now explain the treatments and side-effects to you), their understanding of the basics, if explained in a reasonably straightforward way, is actually pretty darn good.

    His conclusion is that people aren't dumb, but are usually undermotivated. When sufficiently motivated, people are usually pretty sharp.

    So the question is: how to motivate people appropriately?

    Having said that, if you can understand fourier transforms without having had a maths-heavy degree-level education, you're doing pretty damn well.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2401 posts Report Reply

  • nzlemming, in reply to Joe Wylie,

    Given that there are scientists on both sides of the debate, that sounds like the kind of unfounded folk belief that you find so risible among those horrid anti-GE god botherers

    That is about process of implementation. As Lucy notes, there are issues to be resolved there and care to be taken. But most of the outright opposition to GMOs existing is of the type I mentioned.

    Waikanae • Since Nov 2006 • 2189 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Sacha,

    Again, I don’t follow this closely but isn’t there evidence of gene transfer between GM and non-GM horticultural species?

    Couple of different things going on here.

    First and most likely is cross pollination between the same or related species. Yes it does happen and yes it's real. So yes gene transfer via pollen. It's normal and expected and predictable. It's the issue that Joe's Canadian organic farmers are concerned about.

    Does it do harm? No. The genes have all been approved and been tested to buggery and back. So the issue becomes if you don't want to grow GM crops for some reason you have a problem. But bear in mind it is only a problem because organic farmers have decided that growing GM crops is bad. Given that there is no evidence to support that claim I find it hard to have much empathy for their plight. As for being sued by Monsanto if their crops become contaminated, please bear in mind Monsanto only sues you if you select for the improved quality GM crops and actively try and grow them without having paid Monsanto for the seed. Monsanto have never sued anyone for an accidental contamination. Since GM farmers have no reason to do that ...

    However, there is an issue where you'd like to keep wild species "pure" for whatever reason. In those cases local regulations prohibit using GM crops near native refuges. Unfortunately those are usually in areas where the farmers are incredibly poor and there has been a history of local farmers smuggling in GM seed because it gives them more food. It's not great but it's also hard to be angry with them. It also worth noting that it does not really reduce the genetic diversity of the wild species which is their real value scientifically and environmentally.

    Second gene transfer is via bacteria. So there are bacteria who can take up DNA and incorporate it into their genome and then pass it on to a new plant. As far as we know this is really very rare. We can force it to happen in the lab with some bacteria. And we can show that it has happened in the past several million years by sequencing the genomes of plants and bacteria and fungi. It's almost impossible to estimate real probabilities to this kind of event as there are so many assumptions involved. But in short I'd rather be buying lotto tickets to support my lifestyle than betting on this kind of event happening in my lifetime.

    BUT bacteria do swap DNA between each other quite a bit more frequently. So there is a real finite possibility (still vastly lower than winning lotto) that a gene from a GM organism could make it's way intact into a bacterial community. So the question becomes could that do harm? The answer to that depends on the genes themselves and what they do and that's one of the big factors in deciding whether a gene should be put into a crop or animal.

    TLDR Yes, but it's very limited and no evidence that any harm results.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3434 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    no evidence that any harm results

    I think you're missing the point of the precautionary principle. Once there's evidence of harm in the wild it's way too late.

    "As far as we know" is just not good enough if you want to claim perfect absence of risk of harm. And it's certainly not organic farmers who are responsible for GM gene transfer into their crops - that's victim blaming of the first order.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16838 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Barnes,

    The genes have all been approved and been tested to buggery and back. So the issue becomes if you don’t want to grow GM crops for some reason you have a problem.

    If that gene is the one that renders the seeds infertile then, "Huston, we have a prolm" (sic)
    In the case of corn, if that gene becomes widespread and dominant then we do have a problem. I hope that is impossible, say it ain't so.... Joe, or Bart.

    The wireless north ;-) • Since Dec 2006 • 4941 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie, in reply to Steve Barnes,

    . . . say it ain't so.... Joe, or Bart.

    Bart's the expert here. And while we're on it, I'd like to know this: Is there any way that an organic crop could contaminate a GM crop?

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 3595 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Barnes, in reply to Joe Wylie,

    Is there any way that an organic crop could contaminate a GM crop?

    And make it all Organiky an stuff
    ;-)

    The wireless north ;-) • Since Dec 2006 • 4941 posts Report Reply

  • David Hood, in reply to Joe Wylie,

    I’d like to know this: Is there any way that an organic crop could contaminate a GM crop?

    Homepathically, for sure.

    Dunedin • Since May 2007 • 902 posts Report Reply

  • James Butler, in reply to Steve Barnes,

    If that gene is the one that renders the seeds infertile [...] if that gene becomes widespread and dominant then we do have a problem.

    My degree is in the wrong science, but on the face of it that scenario sounds... improbable. How could a gene become dominant if it codes for infertility?

    Auckland • Since Jan 2009 • 801 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Barnes, in reply to James Butler,

    How could a gene become dominant if it codes for infertility?

    Erm... Magic ;-)

    The wireless north ;-) • Since Dec 2006 • 4941 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to James Butler,

    How could a gene become dominant if it codes for infertility?

    You're right it can't.

    There are cases where alleles with negative traits can be maintained in a population as heterozygotes (you have 2 copies of each gene (alleles) heterozygotes have two different copies homozygotes have two copies the same). So the infertile progeny pops up in a portion of the progeny (1 in 4 in the simplest case).

    But usually it's even more complicated than the simple case and the bad allele is maintained at a low percentage if at all. No real way for it to be able to wipe out a crop.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3434 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Joe Wylie,

    I’d like to know this: Is there any way that an organic crop could contaminate a GM crop?

    Um not really. But yes kinda.

    The reason for the weaselly answer is most organic crops are not elite cultivars for various reasons. Sometimes because for some reason the organic farmers* won't buy the elite cultivars but more usually because they are trying to grow a niche cultivar for a niche market eg heirloom tomatoes. So if pollen from a poorer cultivar "contaminated" a GM field you could see yield reduction.

    There are two BUTs
    But the first: most GM crops are grown from fresh seed each year, usually because they are hybrids made fresh each year by the seed company. So any organic pollen would be irrelevant.

    But the second: all GM crops are grown with strictly enforced non-GM refuges as a percentage of the field. So a GM field will contain 5-10% non-GM plants usually as islands. This is particularly true for insect or disease resistant varieties. The reason is to limit the development of resistant insects/diseases. So any non-GM organic contamination would be irrelevant.

    *it's worth noting that the image of the single organic farmer managing a couple of hectares is not real. Most organic farms are huge enterprises usually owned by the same companies that produce the non-organic crops. Often side by side.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3434 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    ooo I just thought of a way you could wipe out a crop. If you had genes for susceptibility to a disease or pest, that also had some beneficial advantage, then it could spread through the population making the population susceptible to a pest that come later.

    I claim the film rights now.

    Of course that would be a kind of stupid thing to do.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3434 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Sacha,

    I think you’re missing the point of the precautionary principle. Once there’s evidence of harm in the wild it’s way too late.

    No I understand the precautionary principle very well.

    But how about we state it a slightly different way. If we abandon technology then a vast proportion of the world's population dies.

    Now it's all very well to demand no risk from introducing a technology providing you also apply that standard to never using a technology.

    I view proponents of the precautionary principle as luddites. That isn't meant as an insult but it is meant as a description of their narrow view of technology.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3434 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Sacha,

    And it’s certainly not organic farmers who are responsible for GM gene transfer into their crops – that’s victim blaming of the first order.

    No that isn't what I said. Monsanto has never sued anyone for accidentally having GM crops on their fields. However they sued the arse off people who actively selected for the GM seed and collected and then specifically planted it the next year (because it produced better yields!).

    In my view entirely reasonable protection of their IP, but we don't want this to become a copyright thread do we.

    So show me a "victim"?

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3434 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Reeves, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    Something sort of the same... but different....

    Haven't there been instances of the trait "herbicide resistance" moving from your crop (where you want the resistance) into (related?) non-crops ("weeds") where you don't want it?

    And can this cause problems---for example having to escalate the use or "strength" or amount of herbicides?

    Near Donny Park, Hamilton… • Since Apr 2007 • 94 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Sacha,

    Sorry Sasha but you raised several points in one short comment that deserve addressing.

    Once there’s evidence of harm in the wild it’s way too late.

    That's a claim that is often made. But there really is no evidence to back it up. It is made as if these GM corn will sneakily spread throughout the wilds destroying great swathes of ... well it sounds scary but it just doesn't work that way.

    ALL of our modern crops are completely useless competitors in the wild. They all require careful watering and fertilisers and pest control. And even the more robust ones waste ridiculously too much of their energy producing fruit or seeds or stuff we humans want. they simply don't survive in the wild and to pretend that a GM change is going to make them compete against wild plants is the stuff of wellywood.

    By far the more dangerous risk is from the wild plants invading our precious food producing land. All those heirloom crops are much much tougher than our GM varieties.

    If something "escapes" there is no reasonable reason to believe it will do anything other than die. And even if it doesn't die then going our and killing the escapees is not going to be all that hard.

    “As far as we know” is just not good enough if you want to claim perfect absence of risk of harm.

    I don't claim perfect absence of harm. But I also don't believe anyone should be looking for perfect absence of harm. What we have always done and should always continue to do is optimise benefit versus harm. It's why we have modern medicine benefit outweighs harm. That is the rational reasonable discussion.

    Absolutely try and consider all possible harm. Absolutely monitor and assess after you release to see if there is unexpected harm. But zero harm? If you want zero harm we may as well all stop breathing now.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3434 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    No that isn't what I said

    Nothing to do with copyright. You said:

    So the issue becomes if you don't want to grow GM crops for some reason you have a problem. But bear in mind it is only a problem because organic farmers have decided that growing GM crops is bad.

    If an existing organic farmer's crop is rendered un-organic by contamination from a GM neighbour, it's pretty clear to all but the most one-eyed defender of agriscience that there is a victim. And that you are holding them responsible rather than the polluter.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16838 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie, in reply to Sacha,

    In an ideal world they could sue themselves:

    it's worth noting that the image of the single organic farmer managing a couple of hectares is not real. Most organic farms are huge enterprises usually owned by the same companies that produce the non-organic crops. Often side by side.

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 3595 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    no reasonable reason

    That's more responsible language than the absolutes you have been using.

    I'm not pushing for zero harm. However if you want to introduce a new organism that has no solid historic baseline of field evidence about risks then it makes sense to err on the side of caution rather than corporate-profit-fuelled optimism.

    And there does seem to be evidence of contamination.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16838 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Steve Reeves,

    Haven’t there been instances of the trait “herbicide resistance” moving from your crop (where you want the resistance) into (related?) non-crops (“weeds”) where you don’t want it?

    And can this cause problems—for example having to escalate the use or “strength” or amount of herbicides?

    Yup this is an issue. Oilseed rape is very closely related to several weed species. And yes there has been transfer of roundup resistance to weeds documented. The weed species are very very closely related to oilseed and that is the issue here.

    It is a pain in the arse for growers because they have to switch back to herbicides that are nastier than roundup. It's probably one of the best arguments for not making oilseed rape herbicide resistant. It is however a very limited problem and simply puts the growers back into the position they were before GM. Except that it is not a widespread problem so for the vast majority of growers using roundup resistant oilseed rape there is no problem at all. Note the only people who care about those weeds are the oilseed rape growers, nobody else wants to control those weeds.

    Think of it along the lines of a product improvement that only lasted 20 years.

    A bigger problem is the development of roundup resistance naturally in weed species. What that is doing is making roundup not quite as good as it used to be and hence making roundup resistant plants not as good as they used to be.

    The solution is to stack resistance genes, two or three different ones at a time. This applies to herbicide resistance and pest resistance. This seems to work really well.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3434 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    This seems to work really well

    and you'd think science might learn from antibiotic-resistant bacteria..

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16838 posts Report Reply

  • st ephen, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    ALL of our modern crops are completely useless competitors in the wild.

    kiwifruit?

    dunedin • Since Jul 2008 • 204 posts Report Reply

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