Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Clover It

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  • Sacha,

    an ethical vacuum

    To be fair, there would have been independent ethics committee approval. Admittedly that probably doesn't affect how any utterances from management come across. And it doesn't resolve any bigger questions about ends and means.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19688 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    your monkey's paw is in the post, use it wisely...

    Heh, the funny thing about monkey's paws is that in reality the only people who do actually use them are the ones advising against using them.

    Edit: Oh and they seem to get a lot more than 3 goes out of it.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10641 posts Report Reply

  • andin,

    It's also very strongly based in church philosophy.

    So they are going to miraculously turn that money into loaves and fishes?

    It's got big support from people like Michael Jones and Inga Va'aiga Tuigamala, who people say want to get into Parliament."

    Being an ex-All Black and a christian is the worst qualification I can think of for parliament. I'd rather a wanker got the job.

    raglan • Since Mar 2007 • 1882 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    Excellent discussion - I agree and disagree with nearly everyone at some point.

    Ben - algorithms and heuristics are all very well within incredibly small, finite parameters, . Some of my best friends are computational molecular biologists - but the number of variables they are dealing with are comparatively small. For instance, they're looking at the probabilities of how certain proteins might fold in solutions. Even then they only get a long, long list of probabilities and educated guesses of which avenue of research to pursue. But I don't see how you can possibly apply those models to something like evolution when you can't predict what the effects of natural selection - or unnatural selection are going to be. No one has any idea of the interconnectedness of various life forms, and it's only when they are disrupted that we begin to look. Frantically.

    The number of disciplines, the sheer effort of research and the massive incentive to find the counterintuitive and far-fetched chain of events that led to the outbreak of the Machupo virus for instance, is a good example of how little we can predict about what effect - like cash crops instead of subsistence crops - or the use of DDT will have on the collective health or financial welfare of a population.

    GE is constantly referred to as "science" and while I agree to work in the field you need a background in science, but you must agree, as Lewis Wolpert points out in his book book The Unnatural Nature of Science "science produces ideas, while technology produces usable products." Research of GE in agriculture is, by definition food technology, not science.

    increasingly GM crops are for the poor.

    Bart, which poor would these be? Because as someone has already pointed out in this conversation, the problems in the developing world are not food shortages but food distribution. Brazil is one of the biggest exporters of food on earth and 20% of their population go hungry. During the terrible crop failures, dust storms and food shortages of the 1930s that saw hugely prosperous countries like Canada and the USA scrambling to feed their starving poor, gargantuan quantities of milk, grain and produce were dumped into the sea. As David Suzuki has pointed out, the old 'think of the poor" argument is offensive with respect to the increasing industrialisation of agriculture.

    Whether GE is safe or not in our food supply is not the point. The point is that GE is merely a commodity and it's not a particularly desired one at that.

    Manipulation of genes is wonderful in the context of monoclonal antibodies or human hormones from e-coli, but the idea that we can "solve" problems in either agriculture or the eco system by adjusting this facet or that facet of one tiny variable in an equation with more variables than anyone can possibly imagine is just silly. You say we know more than we used to. Oh really? That's what we thought 30 years ago, 40 years ago, 140 years ago. And it was true each of those times. And we remain surprised by every subsequent realisation.

    Unlikely agents such as flies, bears and trees (out of countless other variables) are essential in unlikely ways to the salmon industry in British Columbia. The use of DDT and the move to cash crops brought about the outbreak of the Machupo virus, in an equally unlikely and counterintuitively related chain of events.

    In the case of GE food, what right has industry to foist their products on their unwilling customers? Why should the public submit itself to uncertain risks? Personally I'm not unwilling to eat GE foods and am pretty convinced they're harmless and I never, ever bother to buy anything organic unless it just tastes better. But lots of other peole don't want to eat GE food, and why should this product be foisted on them? Why should farmers have no recourse when their crops suffer GE contamination?

    With respect to Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian farmer who narrowly lost to Monsanto - he has been awarded the "Right Livliehood Prize" or "Alternative Nobel" that former PM David Lange was given a few years back. His battle and subsequent battles (as he is now suing Monsanto) are being watched with great interest by farmers around the world.

    Percy Schmeiser Awarded Alternative Nobel

    GE, Percy Schmeiser - from the International Environmental Law Research Centre

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • ChrisW,

    Nature didn't discover the "efficient optimisation algorithm" - that algorithm, aka natural selection, just is. It's an integral part of nature. Discovered to be so by Darwin.

    Not really sure if you're disagreeing with me here.

    Sorry Ben for mis-reference to Bart there, I really appreciate the efforts from both of you.

    At one level, the nature-didn't-discover thing is a quibble I agree (that's why I didn't comment first time up) but in the present context, there's a really important aspect.

    Natural selection is so simple and so fundamental to nature that no one seems to have conceived of any alternatives such that 'nature' might have tried them out and eventually settled on natural selection as the best (its products took over the world). So in that sense, nature (even if personified) didn’t discover natural selection, it’s just there as a fundamental property of nature, rather like gravity say.

    On that basis, the key steps humanity has made in manipulating the genetics of the species we depend on were conscious artificial selection and cross-breeding of domesticated plant and animal species, because that was the break from natural selection. (Before that would have been unconscious selection during the domestication process – say in harvesting storing and replanting edible grass seeds – but that was humans operating fully within nature, little different from other species.)

    GE involves other steps away from natural selection, but not necessarily bigger steps than what has gone before I reckon. So whether it’s a good idea or not should be considered case by case after careful investigation, as is being practised by AgResearch, under a tight regulatory regime.

    My thoughts on this from JT while I’m at it -

    GE in farming is just the extention of industrial farming.
    GE has a place in hospitals, but not farms.

    That industrial farming may have adverse effects – agreed. That GE has been used in industrial farming – agreed. But so have tractors which may have adverse environmental effects too. GE has a place in hospitals but not farms (as a general principle applying to all GE) is analogous to saying tractors should not be allowed on farms except perhaps as stationary engines to power chaff-cutters in preparing the horse feed needed.

    Gisborne • Since Apr 2009 • 851 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    Why should the public submit itself to uncertain risks

    Because our current flavour of capitalism is about socialising risk and privatising profit. And GE is about profit, not feeding the world's poor.

    I understand the view from the lab bench is bound to be different but unless the stuff is staying purely in the lab then it seems essential to also consider the bigger picture - and to insist on more certainty.

    tractors should not be allowed on farms except perhaps as stationary engines to power chaff-cutters in preparing the horse feed needed

    If there was a reasonable and unfalsified risk that putting tractors in the field would permanently poison all the grass, then the analogy holds. The danger lies in what could happen in the interaction with the rest of the environment. If the consequences are big and/or irrevocable then so should our caution be.

    I'd personally welcome the prime beneficiaries of GE - the large commercial agriculture/genetic companies - being asked to put up suitably-sized bonds for potential damage, just like BP has been forced to now for their Gulf of Mexico oil gusher.

    Then we could allow more risks in research and development, knowing that society and the environment weren't going to be left holding the can. Of course, that would require quantification of the risk..

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19688 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    What we really need though is probably more hipster geneticists (h/t @badtom)

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19688 posts Report Reply

  • Peter Ashby,

    Sorry for coming late to this party but nature has been doing cross species, cross genera, cross, class, cross order and cross phyla even cross kingdom genetic transfer for aeons without reference to our planning laws or worries about environmental effects.

    Take sea squirts for eg, scientifically known as tunicates because when the adults settle down to a stationary lifestyle from being free swimming chordate larvae they protect themselves by growing a tough leather tunic around themselves. It turns out this tunic is made of cellulose, plant fibre and that it is not produced by an algal symbiont but by the tunicate itself. It half inched the entire cellulose synthesis pathway, several genes from a marine algae, a seaweed, millions of years ago.

    The process is so rampant amongst bacteria that you cannot draw family trees for them as large chunks of their genomes come from disparate places.

    Neither are we immune and examples turn up when you are not even looking for them. I was once in the lab trying to pcr up a chicken gene (3 prime RACE to be precise) and when I threw yet another group of clones off to be sequenced, got the sequences back and the threw them at the online genome database one leapt out at me. It was not what I was after, but what jumped out was that the sequence hit only two other species: Anopheles gambiae-- the malaria mosquito and __Homo sapiens. So two hosts (I got it from a chicken) and a vector. Note that at the time the database had the full mouse genome, countless EST's from lots of species and none of them were even close. Humans have lived both with chickens and mosquitos for a long time.

    So all those who claim the process of moving genes from one species to another is unnatural, you are unfortunately displaying ignorance. To those who say it is unsafe, better sterilise your skin and gut to get rid of all those gene swapping bateria, purge your genome and not reproduce (syncetin an essential gene for placental formation almost certainly came from a virus). Better not eat anything natural either in case you catch a gene from your food like the tunicates did. But it gets worse your cells contain bacteria, they sit there eating our food and making ATP all day long. They are called mitochondria but don't let that fool you, they are bacteria with their own genomes. It gets worse though, whole swathes of mitochondrial genes have migrated into our nuclear genomes over time.

    Do you feel unclean yet?

    Dundee, Scotland • Since May 2007 • 425 posts Report Reply

  • Islander,

    Nah, quite happy Peter A!
    At the glorious intrinsic capacity for creation by life itself on our only -& probably lonely- planet itself.
    Cheers!

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    And to think all that wonderful internal creativity happened without a profit motive

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19688 posts Report Reply

  • Just thinking,

    ChrisW, I had nukes in mind. I'm quite happy for nukes to be used to blast a tumour, but not so much that it's used in war.

    Putaringamotu • Since Apr 2009 • 1158 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    So all those who claim the process of moving genes from one species to another is unnatural, you are unfortunately displaying

    Peter, I couldn't find the quote where someone said GE was unnatural, but if you're referring to Lewis Wolpert's book, The Unnatural Nature of Science you must realise you'd have learned his research in school. He's

    This guy

    Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV for five years, was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.

    I'm not complaining about the science. I'm complaining that the technology is being applied to a product that people don't necessarily want to purchase, yet it's being foisted on them all the same. There is a big difference between science and technology.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • Don Christie,

    Giovanni and Bart

    Don I believe this is theft and so did the Canadian courts. If you want to argue that people should be able to take food when they want from people who have food then that is a different cultural model.

    I was referring to your comment that infringing on a patent was the equivalent of stealing physical seed. It isn't an never will be. It is patent infringement, not grand larceny.

    Patenting living organisms only started in the 1990s when the USA decided to try and make a land grab on ideas. In other words this was a very recent development. Crop and feed research carried on just fine for 100s of years without patents.

    You might think they have the moral high ground on this, I don't.

    Hey Russell, why don't you write an article about this science? A bit boring and mundane but has an impact on our agri-contribution to globale warming.

    http://www.niwa.co.nz/news-and-publications/news/all/niwa-scientists-put-better-nitrogen-management-on-the-farm-to-the-test

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1645 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19688 posts Report Reply

  • ChrisW,

    tractors should not be allowed on farms except perhaps as stationary engines to power chaff-cutters in preparing the horse feed needed

    If there was a reasonable and unfalsified risk that putting tractors in the field would permanently poison all the grass, then the analogy holds.

    But tractors often have been used to poison the grass and more, sometimes long term with persistent poisons if not permanently. Tractors are a tool, what they deliver depends on who/what controls the tractor driver and the regulatory environment they're working in.

    GE isn't a poison. To a first approximation it's a tool, what it delivers depends on who/what is driving the tool in any particular case and the regulatory environment they're working in.

    If GE is driven only by greedy corporates motivated by profit-maximisation, then that's a problem, but it's not something that is inherent in GE. Tractors are made by corporates devoted to profit maximisation too.

    Gisborne • Since Apr 2009 • 851 posts Report Reply

  • ChrisW,

    ChrisW, I had nukes in mind. I'm quite happy for nukes to be used to blast a tumour, but not so much that it's used in war.

    Further to the above, yes ionising radiation, under very tight control, can be a useful tool as in hospitals. But released into the environment at levels way beyond the natural range as by nuclear explosions - it is inherently and inevitably deadly poison long term, not a tool.

    So nukes not like GE then.

    Nuclear technology driven by desire to rule the world etc is one thing, GE and tractors are others, more like each other than nukes.

    Gisborne • Since Apr 2009 • 851 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    People used to hate and fear potatoes:

    While the Phytophthora fungus was devastating Ireland, the Germans had just started getting used to the potato. A hundred years previously the farmers had rejected the new plant. It was regarded as "work of the devil“ because of the bilious-green berries of the potato bush. Eating excessive amounts of potatoes was alleged to lead to consumption, rickets, gripe or even syphilis. In addition, the potato, as a root crop, did not fit the traditional three-field crop rotation system. It was Friedrich II who first imposed potatoes on his subjects. But it was not just the pressure, decrees and the distribution of free seed potatoes that brought the break through, the famines of 1749 and 1770/72 demonstrated the importance of the potato; in times of crisis and war it was often the only edible thing available.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22756 posts Report Reply

  • recordari,

    Patenting living organisms only started in the 1990s when the USA decided to try and make a land grab on ideas. In other words this was a very recent development. Crop and feed research carried on just fine for 100s of years without patents.

    You might think they have the moral high ground on this, I don't.

    If you want an imaginary world where terminator genes, and global crop failures lay waste to much of the planet, and huge sections of society become slum dwellers, scraping calories off the pavement to survive, then try Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl.*

    Yes it's fiction, but proprietary knowledge is not going to make for a pretty future, IMnshO. Some argue it is making for a pretty ugly present. Hmm, this is one of 'those' topics. Better go get my coat.

    * Via Craig R.

    AUCKLAND • Since Dec 2009 • 2607 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    Ben - algorithms and heuristics are all very well within incredibly small, finite parameters,

    Don't I know it, Dyan. I've spent a heck of a lot of time trying to model things with massive numbers of variables, and optimize for them, and these variables are still just a tithe of what could be put in there, but are left out because of intractability. But this does not mean these algorithms are of no use, and/or indicate nothing. Usually there are diminishing returns from increasing the number of variables - the ability to solve some problem does not improve significantly. This is exactly the same for non-computational methods of problem solving.

    Again, my reference to them is for analogy purposes only. They've never been intended to model nature - they're a problem solving tool. It's just interesting how many emergent macroscopic features they seem to mimic from nature.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10641 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    Gene Genius...

    And to think all that wonderful internal creativity happened without a profit motive

    I guess the parasitic economy gene/virus/bacteria was spliced in (or absorbed) much later... yet it may still kill the host - some party, huh!?

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7892 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie,

    People used to hate and fear potatoes:

    And tomatoes. Largely because, as that piece you linked to fails to mention, they were correctly recognised as members of the solanum family, the most common native European form being the deadly nightshade. As it happens, the foliage of both tomatoes and potatoes is pretty toxic, as are the fruit produced by potato plants, and the green skins of tubers that have been exposed to light.

    If you're intending this as some kind of analogy for a widespread irrational fear of GE then I'd suggest that if you dig a little deeper you'll find that it doesn't really hold up. There are just as many early historical examples of potatoes being cultivated for food in Europe and the American colonies as there are about the misguided caution about their toxicity.

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 4591 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    Tuber or not tuber...

    People used to hate and fear potatoes

    I am wary of the way their nightshaded eyes follow ya round the room, those evil underground tuber stations...

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7892 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie,

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 4591 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    Tractors are not self-replicating - and nor do they pose a risk of blending with other farm implements to form new machines

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19688 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie,

    Meanwhile, in Russia:

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 4591 posts Report Reply

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