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Dont destroy research! vs Take the flour back!
May 21, 2012 6:56 PM   Subscribe

On 27 May, UK protest group Take The Flour Back intends to destroy an open air GM wheat trial at Rothamsted Research, a public institution. A small attack was made on 20 May. Understandably, scientists involved in this research are concerned about the threat, launching a PR program to explain the research [original ACRE advice recommending the trial] and opening a petition against the protests.
posted by wilful (128 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
i thought wheat had been genetically modified thousands of years ago in the middle east
posted by pyramid termite at 6:57 PM on May 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


Genetically modified is NOT the same thing as selective breeding. that's a weak defence. You cannot introduce entirely novel genes from unrelated plants or animals via selective breeding.
posted by wilful at 6:59 PM on May 21, 2012 [11 favorites]


I want a vegan wheat-beef hybrid.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:02 PM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Forgot to add, twitter hashtags #dontdestroyresearch, #taketheflourback.
posted by wilful at 7:03 PM on May 21, 2012


You cannot introduce entirely novel genes from unrelated plants or animals via selective breeding.

i'm sure that mules would be amused to hear that
posted by pyramid termite at 7:05 PM on May 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


And any living wine grape vine.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:07 PM on May 21, 2012


pyramid termite, are you suggesting that horses and donkeys aren't closely related? maybe check your evolutionary history and understanding of speciation.
posted by wilful at 7:10 PM on May 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm really torn about this stuff. On the one hand, it'd be great if we could improve global food security and agricultural sustainability through genetically modified crops, and do it in a safe and conscientious way. On the other hand, I know how bad a track record we have as far as responsible use of powerful new technologies, and the potential for abuse and misuse seems very high. It's times like this that I wish science had a code of ethics, a sort of Hippocratic Oath for research.

"First, do no harm..."
posted by Scientist at 7:13 PM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Once we grafted the roots of one plant to the stem of a totally different plant. That way we could get the disease resistance of the donor and the delicious fruit of the other. Watch out for the scary apple trees.
posted by humanfont at 7:13 PM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


They bred bread?
posted by hal9k at 7:13 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah! How dare they modify plants! What monsters!

Hang on... "Yes, miss. Could I please have four pounds of bananas. Thanks. I'll wait."

Don't they know that we're on to them and their frankenfoods? We're on to them, yes sir!

Excuse me..."I'm sorry, what? No, I need two bushels of apples. Yeah, two. Thanks."

Ahem. So... Splicing crops! Who are they to play god? Someone needs to stop them!
posted by CarlRossi at 7:14 PM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't assume that snippets of bacterial DNA have never made their way into a plant genome, but comparing GMO and selective breeding is like comparing coal power and nuclear power. It's not the same thing.
posted by snofoam at 7:16 PM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I thought this rang a bell. History repeating itself?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:18 PM on May 21, 2012


Rang a bell pepper, surely?
posted by eriko at 7:20 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


pyramid termite, are you suggesting that horses and donkeys aren't closely related?

i'm suggesting that you need to find a better argument against this than "well, it just isn't natural"

(and the arguments that GM wheat can't be sold throughout the world or that the patents covering them would make corporations more rich and powerful are arguments about importation policies, patent law and corporate power, not the technology itself)
posted by pyramid termite at 7:20 PM on May 21, 2012


Also, we basically use GMO to make crops resistant to herbicide so we can use more herbicide. Developing rice that produces vitamin A or whatever is a huge red herring that is used to obscure what we are actually doing with GMO.

That said, I am not against it theoretically. Having bacteria produce insulin is fine with me.
posted by snofoam at 7:22 PM on May 21, 2012 [12 favorites]


On the one hand, it'd be great if we could improve global food security...

Then deal with the politics of food distribution.
posted by MikeKD at 7:26 PM on May 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


You cannot introduce entirely novel genes from unrelated plants or animals via selective breeding.

Viri have been doing forever, though.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:27 PM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


i'm suggesting that you need to find a better argument against this than "well, it just isn't natural"

I don't need to find an argument at all, I'm pretty agnostic about it all, but to suggest that selective breeding bears any relationship to GM technology, that they're on a continuum, is simply flat out wrong. You are wrong if you believe this, which you seem to indicate you do. GM technology ISN'T natural. You cannot and will not ever naturally get a flounder gene into a tomato, for example.

Whether or not that is an argument against the technology isn't my point. I don't think it is much of an argument either.
posted by wilful at 7:27 PM on May 21, 2012


I'm not opposed to GM crops, but I do find the patent process to be disturbing. And scientific research does have ethical codes like the Hippocratic, the Nuremburg code is an early example but you can find one in just about every country and research institution.
posted by PJLandis at 7:29 PM on May 21, 2012


I don't see why something being natural makes a difference. My computer isn't natural either. On the other hand, plenty of horrible things are natural. Kind of a red herring -- natural and good are orthogonal.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:30 PM on May 21, 2012 [9 favorites]


Scientist: It's times like this that I wish science had a code of ethics, a sort of Hippocratic Oath for research. "First, do no harm..."

A noble concept, and one all scientists should bear in mind, of course... but it immediately leads to recursive logic. "First, research whether the research will cause harm." We have dangerous initial research to thank for so much life-saving, world-improving technology. I agree, it's brain- and heart-breaking to even contemplate where, and how, we should draw the line.
posted by gilrain at 7:30 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, we basically use GMO to make crops resistant to herbicide so we can use more herbicide.

Ironically, the particular wheat field in question was modified to (hypothetically) not need pesticide, because it has genes from other, naturally pest resistant plants spliced in.
posted by Pyry at 7:33 PM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Horizontal gene transfer takes place in nature, too.
posted by anigbrowl at 7:33 PM on May 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sorry, pyramid termite. Although you may personally be the result of the unlikely cross between an ancient Egyptian structure and an insect, the fact remains that only very closely related plants and animals can breed together successfully. More importantly, the fact that we have been able to develop useful food crops through selective breeding doesn't mean that GMO is not unprecedented or not potentially dangerous. wilful was totally correct to point out that your original comment was misinformed and incorrect.

I would agree that not being natural is not an absolute argument against doing things. However, I don't think anyone made that argument. More importantly, when doing things that are new and unnatural, the obligation is to show that they are not dangerous rather than the other way around.
posted by snofoam at 7:34 PM on May 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


wilful, horizontal gene transfer happens all the time in the wild. I don't know about flounders and tomatoes, but you can get genes from fungi into an aphid just through natural selection. Many (though certainly not all) techniques in genetic engineering were actually borrowed from such existing "natural" systems for taking up and integrating foreign bits of DNA.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:34 PM on May 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


GM technology ISN'T natural.

hell, civilization isn't natural

to suggest that selective breeding bears any relationship to GM technology, that they're on a continuum, is simply flat out wrong.

they're on the continuum of mankind's manipulation of his environment - now, we can consider whether this particular manipulation is a good or bad thing, but arguing about whether it's natural when we're doing it through miles of wires and computer chips just doesn't work
posted by pyramid termite at 7:34 PM on May 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


As far as I can see, destroying research crops is pretty well analogous to censorship and destroying free speech. Don't like what the resulting crops do? Worried about spread of GMOs into "natural" systems? Worried about implications for patents, global food distribution, whatever? Fine. Take action on that, in the proper way after we have the information about the costs and benefits, after we've gathered knowledge, not before. Otherwise the only status quo you'll maintain is that of ignorance.
posted by Jimbob at 7:36 PM on May 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


The taketheflourback.org site spells out their primary concerns, which aren't to do with whether GM wheat is "natural" or not and aren't to do with patent law, importation, etc.

1.) They're not convinced this wheat will grow the way researchers have said it will; I can't speak to how legitimate that concern is, but they're first worrying about unpredictable effects of the genetic modification.

2.) They're concerned that pollen from the GM wheat will get carried to farmers' crops in the area, with unpredictable and potentially destructive results, a phenomenon known drift. Hence their emphasis from go on the issue of this being an open-air trial.

I'm all for the potential in genetics to alleviate world food crisis, but, those seem to me like realistic and sane things to worry about with the technology.
posted by poetiscariot at 7:36 PM on May 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


Bah, *phenomenon known as pollen drift.
posted by poetiscariot at 7:37 PM on May 21, 2012


. It's times like this that I wish science had a code of ethics, a sort of Hippocratic Oath for research.

"First, do no harm..."
posted by Scientist at 7:13 PM on May 21 [+] [!]


What about....?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precautionary_principle
posted by Bwithh at 7:40 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not against GMO as a concept or technique, but clearly some people in this thread have no idea what it actually is or how it compares to selective breeding. I am absolutely dumbfounded that multiple people in this thread would compare it to grafting one plant onto another, which requires no recombination of genes.
posted by snofoam at 7:44 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, no GM research to determine if GM crops are dangerous because we don't know if GM crops are dangerous? Great principle.
posted by PJLandis at 7:45 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The argument as to whether or not this could occur in the wild or via selective breeding (plainly it cannot) is really a thread derail. I would have thought there were more interesting aspects to discuss.
posted by wilful at 7:47 PM on May 21, 2012


So, no GM research to determine if GM crops are dangerous because we don't know if GM crops are dangerous?

it's simple - you put a bushel of wheat on one plank and a duck on the other
posted by pyramid termite at 7:47 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


it's simple - you put a bushel of wheat on one plank and a duck on the other
Or is that how you cross breed them?
posted by modernserf at 7:50 PM on May 21, 2012


As far as I can see, destroying research crops is pretty well analogous to censorship and destroying free speech.

So, no GM research to determine if GM crops are dangerous because we don't know if GM crops are dangerous? Great principle.

A better analogy would be to consider a GM crop the way we consider an invasive species. We've seen time and time again how destructive that can be and how unpredictable the consequences are. There is every reason to be incredibly wary about introducing any invasive species into the wild or to do research under conditions where it could get into the wild. The consequences are potentially huge. If research were done under conditions where it was virtually impossible for the organism to escape, then the situation would be different. For example, culturing genetically modified bacteria in a lab.
posted by snofoam at 7:52 PM on May 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


I trusted the scientists when they told me that the LHC wasn't going to create a black hole that would swallow the Earth. Why shouldn't I trust them now with their wheat experiments?
posted by sbutler at 7:54 PM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you are going to test GM crops--I've got no problem with that. What I do have a problem with, is the idea that you are going to grow it out in the open, where pollen drift has the potential to infect other adjacent plants (results of which: unknown).
posted by Chrischris at 7:55 PM on May 21, 2012


Here you go, snofoam: Outcrossing in wheat falls to just 0.03% at a distance of just 2.5m.

It is also disingenuous to talk about "OMG bits of cow in my wheat!". The genetic material is synthetic. Imagine if you sequence a gene, from a cow, that codes for an interesting protein. You get the genetic code. You email it to me. I synthesize that gene and put it in a plant embryo. The plant now produces a novel protein. Just a protein. Not parts of a cow. A protein with a specific purpose.
posted by Jimbob at 7:58 PM on May 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


My personal take on GM generally is that it is a risky technology that deserves very close scrutiny and very careful assessment of the risks. Generally this has been done responsibly, though it's remarkable how many things slip through the cracks around the world.

The corporatisation of agriculture by Monsanto and Bayer does not lead to a more food-secure or just world. Terminator genes and Round-Up Ready haven't done a thing to benefit society or the environment at large.

If you're an organic farmer you can have your livelihood ruined by pollen drift.

People deserve informed consent on what they are consuming - as long as it's properly informed, not based on misplaced fear and ignorance.

I would happily eat GM food all day long, I know my stomach can handle it, but I might still not buy GM food if I don't think the environment can.

On the other hand, this research is by a public institution, ACRE seems to have done a thorough due diligence, and it could reduce the incidence of a lot of pesticide and fungicides, if shown to work. Which only field trials can demonstrate.
posted by wilful at 7:58 PM on May 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


My understanding was that wheat doesn't spread often cross-pollinate, and they note that in Advisory Committee release. Plus, GM wheat is grown in open in a lot of places in the world which should give them some idea of what to expect, at least in terms of spreding, but maybe I'm being overly optimistic to think they designed the trial with it's barriers and other protocols to best avoid that possibility. Making a general reference to invasive species ignores the specifics of the crop they're using, I can't name all the species that didn't run amok because we don't care about them.

If your trying to grow wheat for human consumption at some point you need to actually grow it in a field because laboratory crops aren't going to feed any appreciable number of people.
posted by PJLandis at 8:00 PM on May 21, 2012


Also, we basically use GMO to make crops resistant to herbicide so we can use more herbicide.

That idea is a good idea, as are the insecticide-producting GMOs.

The way we do this in traditional agriculture to get the yields and quality that the market demands is: apply lots of pesticides, usually broad spectrum (often targeting mammals as well) and usually in a manner that has a lot of run-off which end up harming a lot of organisms that aren't pests to the crop in question. A plant that produces its own pesticides (or "scares" off a pest in the case of this GM wheat trial) can be engineered to produce very specific pesticides that only affect the pests that are problematic. Or with herbicide-tolerant plants, we can hopefully apply lesser amounts of less harmful herbicides at the right times to control weeds. We need more of these types of GM traits so we can mix and match and better target only pests that affect yields and quality.

While I'm not going to say the way this is working now is perfect (what is?) the idea is sound and is already showing benefits in reduced pesticide use (or reduced use of more harmful ones) and reduced greenhouse gases (largely due to less tilling). We've got a long way to go to the kind of future that will be sustainable but these techniques are critical to reducing our impact on the environment while still producing so much food. Some other ideas that have to get traction are varities more suited to their environment (e.g. flood-tolerant rice in Bangladesh), varieties that are more nutritious than is typically grown (e.g. golden rice or better cassava varieties) and so on.

Publicly funded trials like this are critical to pushing GM as an accepted technology so that it's not only huge agribusiness companies that can afford to commercialize GM crops. The big companies unsurprisingly don't have much incentive to create some of the harder crop varieties needed, but we should as societies and human beings.
posted by R343L at 8:06 PM on May 21, 2012 [8 favorites]


Also, to re-iterate, wheat is self-pollinating!!! It doesn't go very far and for this trial they even have the precaution of planting a non-GM wheat barrier crop around the trial plants which will be destroyed at the end of the trial.

Sense About Science has been doing Q&A with the scientists involved and posting answers. I highly recommend reading it.
posted by R343L at 8:09 PM on May 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


I can acknowledge that based on what we know this seems to be a relatively low risk experiment. On the other hand, everyone in the world is potentially threatened by it, so I don't think the analogy with free speech is accurate. We're still in the early stages and it has the potential to be very good or very bad. So far, the way we are using it is largely negative, but thankfully we've also had no disasters.
posted by snofoam at 8:15 PM on May 21, 2012


I have no idea if this wheat is good or not, and I think that GM is a powerful tool that has to be used carefully. But it requires some ignorance to say that gene transfer between distant species is "unnatural", whatever that means (Anything done by any organism is natural, unless that organism is this one particular species of ape).

Horizontal gene transfer in nature can give rise to some awesome organisms. One of my favorites is this Elysia chlorotica sea slug.

Just look at it, so pretty.

This slug eats algae. It digests most of the algae cells, but retains the photosynthesizing plastids that were inside algae cells.

The plastids by themselves can not carry on photosynthesis. They have their own genome, but it does not have the instructions for most of the proteins the plastid needs for its metabolism. The code for these proteins resides in the algaes's cell nucleus, and the proteins themselves are built outside the plastid in the algae's cell.

How does the slug keep the plastids working? The slugs produces all the proteins needed to keep the plastids happily photosynthesizing for months and months. How did the slug get the genes needed to build these algae proteins? Prey to predator horizontal gene transfer.

People who are way smarter and better educated than me are still arguing about the exact mechanism for this gene transfer. It could have been through viruses, through parasites, through sheer luck. What they do know is that the genes in the slug and the algae are mostly identical, and the ones that are different are closer to each other than to analogous genes in closely realted algae.

I don't even know how to quantify how different an algae is to a slug compared to a horse and a donkey. But this gene transfer sure did happen naturally in nature by natural means.

There are many other interesting examples, like a parasitic mite transferring genes between species of flies, or plants exchanging genes via a complex interaction of viruses, bacteria and fungi.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 8:15 PM on May 21, 2012 [14 favorites]


What I do have a problem with, is the idea that you are going to grow it out in the open, where pollen drift has the potential to infect other adjacent plants (results of which: unknown).

One of the results of pollen drift is known: it could cause small farmers to lose their land when big corporations sue them. The non-profit Center for Food Safety listed 112 lawsuits by Monsanto against farmers for claims of seed patent violations.

Heritage seeds and organic farming are two of the things that are threatened by pollen drift. Read the headlines: organic farming may already be a thing of the past.

Monsanto has a pretty lousy track record. If you don't like lurid websites, how about Vanity Fair: Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear
posted by BlueHorse at 8:18 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


By threatened by it, I meant it as GM, not this specific experiment per se.
posted by snofoam at 8:20 PM on May 21, 2012


@BlueHorse: but we're not talking about Monsanto in this case.
posted by sbutler at 8:21 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some other contrary points for things I think are inaccurate:

* No terminator gene technology has ever been marketed commercially. The idea was originally proposed because researchers knew that people would worry about GM traits would "escape" the plant they were on. Not allowing the plant to reproduce from seed was one proposal to mitigate those risks (and fears).
* Bt corn by itself doesn't not harm monarch butterflies. The 1999 study referenced on this link was not confirmed in later study. It's entirely possible that there are unintended side-effects in the way Bt-toxin producing and glyphosate-tolerate crops are grown (e.g. better weed control could mean fewer weeds as habitat for larvae), but Bt-toxin largely replaced broad-spectrum pesticides that were sprayed liberally and killed monarch butterflies very directly.
* Pollen drift can be an issue for farmers who have adjacent fields regardless of whether GM crops are involved. For example, there are multiple varieties of rape seed ("canola" is actually a particular variety of rape). Some are fit for human consumption and some aren't. If your neighbor is growing the not-fit-for-humans variety too close to your field of fit-for-humans, then your crop is unsellable.
posted by R343L at 8:22 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Errr, by "Bt corn by itself doesn't harm monarch butterflies". I'm really trying to point out that the claim that goes around that monarch butterflies (or their larvae) eat Bt corn pollen and are killed has not been demonstrated to be true.
posted by R343L at 8:23 PM on May 21, 2012


Sorry, I meant to say that I personally believe that this research isn't inherently bad and we are learning a great deal from it. Allowing it to be conducted by corporations like Monsanto is absolutely horrifying.

Also, the arguments about food production being insufficient to feed the world won't fly. The problem isn't lack of food, it's distribution. And that's a political issue that corporations only exacerbate.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:24 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


BlueHorse: There *is* a problem with producing enough food while simultaneously reducing agriculture's impact on the world. Agriculture is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, runoffs destroy ecosystems far from the crop fields (e.g. the Gulf of Mexico deadzone) and massive amounts of carbon-sequestring trees are being destroyed to meet demand.
posted by R343L at 8:27 PM on May 21, 2012


If your biggest complaint about GMO's is that Monsanto is evil, you should really be supporting any public institution researching them.

And honestly, if your approach to protesting is destroying anyone else's property or livelihood, fuck you.
posted by maryr at 8:28 PM on May 21, 2012 [9 favorites]


Some folks are remarkably sanguine about GM. To me it is somewhat analogous to nuclear power. Fossil fuels and regular agriculture both have terrible environmental effects, but they are basically incremental and largely understood. Nuclear and GM both have great potential but could also cause sudden catastrophe.
posted by snofoam at 8:30 PM on May 21, 2012


@sbutler
I think if you're talking genetically modified foods, you might want to discuss the ethics of the world's largest genetically modified food producer.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:35 PM on May 21, 2012


Also, awesome sea slug up thread developed over time within an ecosystem with checks and balances. If it were the ultimate being the the oceans today would be all sea slug. We, on the other hand, have the potential to create a problematic organism more or less instantly in a world where natural systems are working on an evolutionary time scale.
posted by snofoam at 8:38 PM on May 21, 2012


Monsanto's Harvest of Fear is off base because these researchers are from a public institution committed to open access.
posted by PJLandis at 8:40 PM on May 21, 2012


Fossil fuels and regular agriculture both have terrible environmental effects, but they are basically incremental and largely understood. Nuclear and GM both have great potential but could also cause sudden catastrophe.

Fear of "sudden catastrophe" while ignoring the "slow" dangers is a failure of human understanding. Coal power plants emit more radiation into the environment than nuclear power plants do.
posted by Jimbob at 8:40 PM on May 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm interested to hear a plausible scenario where GM wheat produces or becomes a super-rorganism destroying every other organism on the planet because they added a gene from mint plant.
posted by PJLandis at 8:42 PM on May 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thank goodness I am in no way ignoring slow dangers!
posted by snofoam at 8:52 PM on May 21, 2012


Pjlandis, that's not the scenario. The scenario is more like we progress to widespread use of GM crops, also contaminate the non-GM versions, and then find out that our awesome modification that made everything taste like chocolate made our plants vulnerable to a fungus that wipes them all out and then we are hungry.
posted by snofoam at 8:58 PM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


R343L, please explain to me how GM food will reduce the agricultural impact. Roundup Resistant crops certainly haven't panned out that well. Dealing with the politics of distribution could help. Doing that could have alleviated some of the 34 million tons of food waste generated in the US 2010.

Maryr, my biggest complaint about GMOs is the lack of regulation and the inadvisability of putting their development into the hands of proven ethical offenders. And where exactly did I say that I approved of destroying anyone else's property or livelihood? I don't. But when people are afraid for their livelihood and their health, when there is a lack of communication and education, and when the government won't acknowledge their concerns, then shit happens.

I can't find any ties from Rothamsted to any particular corporation. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council which oversees their funding appears to have a clean record. I'm wondering exactly why they need an open air test at this point, and why they haven't addressed some of the concerns regarding cross pollination etc.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:02 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The scenario is more like we progress to widespread use of GM crops, also contaminate the non-GM versions, and then find out that our awesome modification that made everything taste like chocolate made our plants vulnerable to a fungus that wipes them all out and then we are hungry.

Thank goodness for all the projects out there preserving genetic diversity and creating seed libraries, then... This problem applied to non-GM crops, though breeding to a monoculture, before GM existed.
posted by Jimbob at 9:02 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm wondering exactly why they need an open air test at this point

Addressed by the scientists; they've tested it in the lab, now they want to see how the plants respond to the baseline natural aphid threat.

and why they haven't addressed some of the concerns regarding cross pollination etc.

They have. See above. Wheat has an extremely low outcrossing rate and distance. They have the necessary buffers. Because they are agricultural scientists who know how to run agricultural science experiments.
posted by Jimbob at 9:04 PM on May 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


R343L, please explain to me how GM food will reduce the agricultural impact.

Read the links. From the letter from the researchers to the protestors:
We have developed a variety of wheat which does not need to be sprayed with insecticides. Instead, we have identified a way of getting the plant to repel aphids, using a natural process that has evolved in mint and many other plants – and simply adding this into the wheat genome to enable it to do the same thing.

So in this case, if this wheat works, farmers would not need to use pesticides on it, and neighbouring ecosystems would be less impacted by the runoff from farms growing this wheat.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:14 PM on May 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


BlueHorse: I am definitely not saying glyphosate-tolerant crops are some kind of cure-all. I'm suggesting they are a good idea if applied well (and sometimes they aren't). I'm not disagreeing there are other things we need to do to improve our agricultural system and waste is definitely part of it (see the other link I pointed at you). But glyphosate as a way of controlling weeds have partially displaced use of much more toxic organophosphate herbicides (many that take much longer to breakdown than glyphosate ones). How is this awful?

For insecticides, it's a much better idea to have a plant produce a very targeted pesticide that harms a single pest (such as corn borer) rather than a broad-spectrum one that has to be sprayed over a large area. Conveniently, Biofortified just posted a very good overview of how Bt-toxin producing crops work and why they are useful. How is reducing the amount and harmfulness of pesticides not reducing agricultural impact?

His thoughts were red thoughts reminds me that I found out today that outside Europe and the Americas (where it's banned), farmers use a highly toxic pesticide endosulfan to control aphids on wheat. This is one very good reason for crops like this GM wheat (hoping it works!)
posted by R343L at 9:20 PM on May 21, 2012


I think these activists are at best misguided, but you have to admit, "Take the Flour Back" is a pretty awesome name.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:29 PM on May 21, 2012


You cannot and will not ever naturally get a flounder gene into a tomato, for example.

Yes... not ever... *loads flounder and tomator into supercollider*

And now, a shameless self-link.
posted by Behemoth at 9:32 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whatever the broader concern about widespread use of GM, if a reasonable open-air GM experiment was ever designed this looks like one to me. Unless you're advocating complete suppression of GM crops, at some point something like this trial is going to be necessary. Personally, I'm convinced that they've taken reasonable precautions, probably more than anyone at Monsanto ever took, based on enough information to be fairly certain of causing no harm, and I think now is as good a time as any

And while I get why the methods used are different than naturally occurring methods, I don't understand why they're considered so much more dangerous. We have genetics which we share with every organism on the planet and we're simply moving certain genes, and a very select few at that, across species. At worst I see the possibility that it outperforms other species and spreads in the wild, but I don't see why it would be any more successful than other instances of invasive species which haven't exactly threatened humanity on any large scale.

I'm dismissing the slow dangers, but if we really need more food and I think that's true, and we need to use less pesticides which I also think is true, then the development of GM crops seems like a relatively small risk and one well worth taking.
posted by PJLandis at 9:33 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm interested to hear a plausible scenario where GM wheat produces or becomes a super-rorganism destroying every other organism on the planet because they added a gene from mint plant.

Klebsiella planticola is of the enterobacterium family, microbes that typically reside inside the guts of mammals, but this particular strain inhabits the root systems of most terrestrial plants. Actually, every root system that's ever been tested for the presence of K. planticola has come up positive, so it is as near to a universal plant bacterium as there has ever been ...
Luckily, Ingham and her group took it upon themselves to study the bacteria in a more realistic scenario, using normalized samples of unsterile soil and three different sample groups. There was a group absent of K. planticola entirely, a group with the normal K. planticola present and a group with the genetically modified K. planticola in it. They planted wheat seeds in all three groups, and then let it sit for a week. When they came back they found the first two groups doing fine, while all the crops from the GM sample were dead. Dead in less than a week. If released from the lab--which, I cannot stress enough, it very nearly was--the modified K. planticola would have spread worldwide in a matter of months, killing all plants it touched within a week, and turning all soil-based plant life into sweet, sweet liquor.


How a Biotech Company Almost Killed The World (With Booze)
- Cracked.com


I'm not opposed to GM crops... And scientific research does have ethical codes like the Hippocratic, the Nuremburg code is an early example but you can find one in just about every country and research institution.

Which one do they use when they're inserting genes into plants?

That's not to say that perennial wheat wouldn't improve our lot as humans.

Fear of "sudden catastrophe" while ignoring the "slow" dangers is a failure of human understanding. Coal power plants emit more radiation into the environment than nuclear power plants do.

Than the average nuclear power plant, yes. Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi screw up our statistics.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:38 PM on May 21, 2012


I meant "not dismissing slow dangers."

I'd actually like to hear more about the imagined worst-case scenarios, slow or not. And not counting abuse of patented organisms, just dangers posed by the plants themselves.
posted by PJLandis at 9:40 PM on May 21, 2012


I don't think ethics are all that important when inserting genes into plants. It's what you do with those plants that raises ethical concerns.

And for this study, under the research link, they list 10 things taken into consideration "To avoid possible adverse effects to human health and the environment..."
posted by PJLandis at 9:43 PM on May 21, 2012


The root bacteria is pretty scary, but it's pretty far from this specific wheat experiment mentioned. I'm not arguing we shouldn't regulate GM organisms, but I think the attempt to stop this specific experiment is misguided.
posted by PJLandis at 9:50 PM on May 21, 2012


sebastienbailard: Klebsiella planticola is of the enterobacterium family, microbes that typically reside inside the guts of mammals, but this particular strain inhabits the root systems of most terrestrial plants. Actually, every root system that's ever been tested for the presence of K. planticola has come up positive, so it is as near to a universal plant bacterium as there has ever been ...
Luckily, Ingham and her group took it upon themselves to study the bacteria in a more realistic scenario, using normalized samples of unsterile soil and three different sample groups. There was a group absent of K. planticola entirely, a group with the normal K. planticola present and a group with the genetically modified K. planticola in it. They planted wheat seeds in all three groups, and then let it sit for a week. When they came back they found the first two groups doing fine, while all the crops from the GM sample were dead. Dead in less than a week. If released from the lab--which, I cannot stress enough, it very nearly was--the modified K. planticola would have spread worldwide in a matter of months, killing all plants it touched within a week, and turning all soil-based plant life into sweet, sweet liquor.


You know, I've heard this before, and I find it implausible. If a simple mutation would have allowed a bacterium to totally take over the world, it would have already happened (and horizontal gene transfer allows entire biochemical pathways to be traded between prokaryotes). My guess is that if the modified bacteria had been released, it would have been outcompeted and eradicated by the wild-type strain and that would have been that.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:53 PM on May 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


It looks like the bacteria-that-could-destroy-the-world story was debunked. I'd never actually read that one before and I thought I'd read every GM scare story!
posted by R343L at 10:05 PM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thank you, R343L, I've been hoping for a debunking, frankly.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:06 PM on May 21, 2012


R343L, you read the "debunking" story? That's not a debunking, far from it. What it is, quite rightly, is a reduction of the claim "kill all terrestrial life" back to something more like "this was pretty scary in the lab".

Mitrovarr: "My guess is ..." isn't really the standard we're looking for here, is it?
posted by wilful at 10:07 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


wilful: Uh, yeah, it was debunking the idea that this bacteria was going to kill all life via the means claimed in that Cracked story. Sure, it looked scary in the lab, but those lab results were only one lab's results and haven't been replicated (as far as I could find anyway). So, I would call that a debunking.
posted by R343L at 10:21 PM on May 21, 2012


From the "debunked" link:
Dr Ingham now says her evidence of terrestrial destruction was an "extrapolation" from laboratory evidence, not field test findings; and that she was incorrect in saying the modified plant had been approved for field trials and was going to be released.

However, she stood by research findings that further research was necessary.
That's as close to a full retraction as you're ever going to get on such a politically charged issue.

Given the claims that she actually did formally retract, we're left with a story of a plant that did some weird stuff, might have been bad if released, and wasn't released, the end. Interesting to be sure, but not at all deserving of the propaganda purposes to which it has been put.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:21 PM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: turning all soil-based plant life into sweet, sweet liquor
posted by benzenedream at 10:40 PM on May 21, 2012


A more thorough treatment of the Dr. Ingham story can be found here. To me, the most critical points are that 1) the paper on which her claims rest had no wild-type (i.e., un-mutated) bacteria control, 2) alcohol-forming K. planticola already exist, with no apparent ill-effects in the wild, 3) the authors used enormous concentrations of bacteria, and 4) even so, it seemed that the bacteria were steadily dying off, and would have probably died out entirely if the experiment had been run out for longer.

Also, I feel like I should add that in addition to these problems, their study was done with only n = 3 wheat plants in each group. So while "the plants all died" sounds impressive, it really means "three plants died," which in comparison to the control is not even statistically significant by Fisher test (p = 0.1).

I'm not saying that there's nothing there, but the evidence as presented in that paper doesn't strike me as particularly damning or scary.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:26 AM on May 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Listen, I'm sure this is being researched exactly as carefully as those pesticides were when it came to the bees, because scientists completely understand the complex systems they work with and never generate unintended consequences, and having doubts about this means you're a terrible person who worships Jesus and wants us to live in the stone age where you think the dinosaurs lived.
posted by mobunited at 12:51 AM on May 22, 2012


I don't think "unrelated scientists once did something bad" is a particularly compelling argument against this particular experiment.
posted by Pyry at 1:26 AM on May 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


This is the military wing of the Paleo diet crowd.
posted by srboisvert at 2:11 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi screw up our statistics.

And how!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:28 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]




"A better analogy would be to consider a GM crop the way we consider an invasive species. We've seen time and time again how destructive that can be and how unpredictable the consequences are. There is every reason to be incredibly wary about introducing any invasive species into the wild or to do research under conditions where it could get into the wild."

I don't suppose you could give us an example, a single example that isn't bullshit.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:17 AM on May 22, 2012


I hope I'm not misreading you, but from an Australian point of view cane toads, rabbits, mice, foxes, blackberries and cats spring to mind without much thought at all.
posted by Wolof at 5:31 AM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


The only thing modified about those organisms was their location, from a GM standpoint, all the damage that they did was perfectly natural.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:35 AM on May 22, 2012


"You know, I've heard this before, and I find it implausible. If a simple mutation would have allowed a bacterium to totally take over the world, it would have already happened (and horizontal gene transfer allows entire biochemical pathways to be traded between prokaryotes). My guess is that if the modified bacteria had been released, it would have been outcompeted and eradicated by the wild-type strain and that would have been that."

Sustained pathogenesis is a hell of a lot more complicated than host death, which is all that the researcher showed, and why they were rightly forced to apologize for saying anything so absurdly stupid and self-aggrandizing in public.

To be a meaningful threat a pathogen has to SPREAD. It needs a mechanism of getting from one plant to another, as well as a means of surviving that transplant, and when it gets to the new host it has to do it in sufficient numbers to actually be still alive and infectious. It then needs to grow at the expense of the host enough that it is able to start the cycle again. This is a LOT more complicated than it sounds. This researcher sprayed their THREE plants each with a massive amount of the critter and found that the critter started to die immediately rather than grow at the expense of the host. No part of a pathogenic cycle was established and a couple were in fact refuted by the pathetically small experiment.

I'm going to disagree with en forme de poire for once, there is nothing of any meaning here aside from perhaps the easily manipulated ignorance of the public.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:35 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I hope they don't destroy this crop. It seems to be well designed and well controlled, from the opinions of those who are informed. Maybe the application will be somewow nefarious, but the test is just fine.
posted by Jehan at 5:44 AM on May 22, 2012


"Sorry, pyramid termite. Although you may personally be the result of the unlikely cross between an ancient Egyptian structure and an insect, the fact remains that only very closely related plants and animals can breed together successfully. More importantly, the fact that we have been able to develop useful food crops through selective breeding doesn't mean that GMO is not unprecedented or not potentially dangerous. wilful was totally correct to point out that your original comment was misinformed and incorrect."

There is a lot more to genetic diversity than sex, and while sex is great, it makes for terrible blinders for what is really going on in producing evolution in natural systems. Yes, the gross genetic recombination of successful sex is indeed generally limited to closely related organisms, but genetic recombination absolutely is not. Plant populations can and do routinely incorporate recognizably Bacterial, Archaeal, and Eukaryotic genes into their genomes as part of natural selection, even from metazoan animals. To say, BUT NOT FROM FLOUNDER, is to betray an ignorance of how similar flounder really are to everything else that is alive on the molecular level we are talking about, and how fantastically small what is different is.

Besides, selective breeding routinely selects for genes that have never been seen in nature before, how scary is that?
posted by Blasdelb at 6:07 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think "unrelated scientists once did something bad" is a particularly compelling argument against this particular experiment.

It doesn't actually matter if you're right, since this argument has been used to defend every particular experiment, including those conducted against the public interest.

See MeFites, I know you guys like to snort at the Mere Primitives attacking the Truth of Science. But you fail to do is impart rational motives to the other side. The people coming to destroy this crop are rational actors -- they have reason to be cautious. They and you live in a world where lack of precautionary measures has led to massive artificial changes. The sun causes cancer more readily. The seasons are fucked up. The water is filled with hormone disrupting chemicals.

So you know, when you chortle about how Unreasonable and Stupid your opponents are, you're just not helping. Because most educated human beings live in the shadow of science's various applied fuckups.

Ask yourself: How are you really helping here? Are you actually asking the critical questions that the other side needs for reassurance? Because they need it, for good reasons.
posted by mobunited at 7:42 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


How are scientists helping? By developing crops that require less pesticides, which reduces carbon emissions that lead to ozone depletion and climate change (reducing the need for pesticides saves on fossil fuels needed to produce the pesticides, transport them to the field, and apply them to the crops) and more directly, reduces the application of the pesticides that contaminate ground water.

The reason these scientists are conducting a field trial is to answer critical questions about not only the viability, but the safety of this product. The people destroying that crop are not acting rationally. None of the reasons to be cautious you've cited here are remotely applicable to this experiment.
posted by maryr at 8:07 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


mobunited: If those "coming to destroy this crop are rational actors", then they should explain their reasons in ways that don't involve falsehoods, exaggerations, guilt-by-association and other failures of reason. Things they claim on their own website that are false which have been clarified many times:

* They claim cross-contamination could occur with this trial. Wheat is self-pollinating and the researchers have gone to great lengths to ensure that there is no cross-pollination (see also above the link indicating that wheat only outcrosses at a rate of 0.03% at 2.5 meters).
* They claim that the "lack of any adequate safety testing before release ... raises huge concerns[for human health]." No humans will be asked to eat this wheat and unless the researchers themselves secretly (and probably against protocol) choose to eat it, no human will eat this wheat. Why would we do food safety trials before even knowing that the modification is effective?
* "Cross contamination runs the risk of losing these export markets[UK wheat to Europe]." Since there is nearly no chance of cross contamination from this trial, this is absurd. There's no chance that the entire wheat crop of the UK will be cross contaminated.
* "But the high costs of bringing a GM crop to market mean that it will not be Rothamsted themselves who do this, begging the question of which biotech company with the required financial clout might do so." The scientists themselves answered this: the technology will be freely licensed to anyone who wants. It's telling that this section of their opposition doesn't note that it's the high cost of GM regulations and low investment by governments and universities that means only large multinationals can afford to bring GM crops to market (though there are notable exceptions such as flood-tolerant rice, developed by IRRI and University of California; Golden rice which is almost to market, developed by non-profit research and supporters; and ringspot virus resistant papaya, developed by the University of Hawaii).

The only public "debate" that Take Back the Flour was willing to participate in was the Newsnight program last week. If you can find the video still on youtube (or you're in the UK), you'll find that Take Back the Flour's representative talked or shouted over everyone else (including the moderator!), rarely answered questions or brought up actual facts, rather than feelings. I hardly call that "rational".

And I would say that the researchers have been very effective at answering concerns and questions from the public. Did you even read the Sense About Science links provided?

Destroying a scientific trial which by itself presents very little risk to anyone is not "rational". It is fear-mongering and an attempt to shut down free inquiry.
posted by R343L at 9:07 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Terminator genes and Round-Up Ready haven't done a thing to benefit society or the environment at large.

Terminator genes have never been used but were developed due to the hand waving freakoutery over releasing GM crops into the wild. Then, the anti-GM crop people freaked the fuck out about that because what if these plants with genes that cause sterility out-competed all the other plants! So yeah, no benefit to society there.

Round-Up Ready crops however encourage the use of no-till farming which has lots of advantages like keeping much of the Midwest's top soil out of the Gulf of Mexico. I'd call that a benefit, buy maybe you read a different edition of The Grapes of Wrath than I did.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:38 AM on May 22, 2012


I was very skeptical of the anti gmo movement when I asked an acquaintance to make the argument against. This guy seemed to know a whole lot about biology, and went into immense detail about the idea that gmo'd soy for example, created 'partial proteins' (he lost me pretty quickly after this). The idea was that gmo grain create proteins that were not readily digestible, and in fact put a strain on the digestive system. This effect could contribute to serious health issues, including cancer, of those eating them, especially over the long term.

I am suspicious that the powers that want to promote gmo foods are unlikely to do the long term, expensive and sophisticated research to look into these effects before introducing gmos into to the food system, especially if the research did show these types of dangers.

Just because we can get something down our throats and not collapse into a seizure does not mean a food is safe, but food safety is currently being cut back in my country, as it is, I am sure, in most of the countries affected by the current recession, or governed by politicians who receive campaign funds and are otherwise pressured by Monsanto and the like. I am skeptical about the benefits of gmos given the motives of those in power.

Long comment, but it's a complex issue, not just a question of 'good or bad'. If I could trust governments to act in the interest of the people, I'd be better able to trust the efforts of research and into gmos.

I'd be very interested in hearing from anyone here (blasdelb?) who could comment on the likely effects of incomplete proteins present in gmo food (which would include non-gmo cattle that feed on gmo grain, etc).
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 11:08 AM on May 22, 2012


One of the interesting things in the GMO debate is that there are some ways to create novel strains that don't get the label GM, and so don't get tested. For example, radiation breeding:

Radiation also has been used in breeding for several decades [1]. Using a cobalt 60 gamma source, seeds are irradiated to create mutations in the DNA. Improved varieties are then selected. Since 1970 more than 1,800 different crop varieties have been developed using radiation mutagenesis [2]. It is important to understand that plants improved through conventional genetic modification, including radiation breeding, undergo no governmental food or environmental safety review prior to being introduced into the marketplace.
posted by Adamsmasher at 11:21 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's because they're an accelerated version of the more traditional breeding - you aren't introducing genes from any other organisms. The less scientific way of producing this result would be to leave seed in the sun and hope that UV rays would cause damage (therefore changes) to DNA. The descendent plants shouldn't contain any radiation. You couldn't introduce an entirely new protein to the plant this way. These are no more genetically modified than a Great Dane.
posted by maryr at 11:31 AM on May 22, 2012


(...I assume, based on your quote above. I have no particular familiarity with radiation breeding, but it sounds like just another random mutagenesis technique.)
posted by maryr at 11:33 AM on May 22, 2012


The term "Partial proteins" does appear in PubMed searches. However checking the first five results the term "partial" is used to modify other terms so I don't have any idea if this is a standard term. Examples: partial protein folding, partial protein destabilization, partial protein sequences, etc. So I don't even know what this means.

In general, your gut turns proteins into amino acids which are basic building blocks and are the same ones in all organisms. So I'm not sure how this a GMO plant *in general* could be problematic. Interestingly enough, Bt corn varieties do produce proteins (called "Cry" proteins and there are a set of them -- see biofortified for a recent overview) which are toxic in the guts of very specific insects, but they aren't thought to have any effect on humans (or for that manner non-target insects) because your digestive track breaks them down into amino acids (as it does for nearly all proteins).

The phrase "incomplete protein" is used to describe cases where one food type does not have roughly equal amounts of the "essential" amino acids (the ones your body can't synthesize itself). This isn't usually a problem in a diet because you'll eat many different kinds of foods. No GM variety has been shown to have a different nutritional profile than the source crop, so I'm not sure if that could be what your friend meant either.
posted by R343L at 11:34 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


To clarify the sentence "I'm not sure how this a GMO plant *in general* could be problematic", I'm trying to point out that every GM crop is modified differently and the modified genes express different proteins. The new or changed proteins might not even express in the part of the plant we eat. So it's not like there's something special about genetic modification techniques that modifies how all proteins produced in that crop: generally a specific variety is only modifying or adding expression of one or a very small number of proteins. These are not usually the ones that the crop plant already produces which are going to be the major sources of proteins in them that we eat (because for most GMs on the market currently they aren't trying to change the nutritional profile, though that's changing with Golden Rice and improved cassava varieties).
posted by R343L at 11:43 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


You couldn't introduce an entirely new protein to the plant this way.

If you got a gene duplication (e.g. from DNA repair gone awry) you could get a protein with a totally new function, because the selective pressure would go away for one of the copies and the other would then be free to diverge to whatever. But it would take a lot of generations to accomplish that.

The term "partial proteins" also doesn't make any sense to me - a partial protein is just another protein, or a peptide. Maybe there was another word that got left out there?
posted by en forme de poire at 12:02 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I'd be very interested in hearing from anyone here (blasdelb?) who could comment on the likely effects of incomplete proteins present in gmo food (which would include non-gmo cattle that feed on gmo grain, etc)."

Like R343L said, it is kind of a non-sequitor. There are proteins with indigestible motifs (parts with a specific pattern), as well as proteins with motifs that have a high likelihood of provoking an immune reaction when consumed, so maybe this is what your acquaintance was referencing?

To be clear, the human immune system has the capability to react to just about anything, and there is nothing inherent about GM that makes it more likely. We're talking about the dozen or so GM peptides that we run into as opposed to the trillions of trillions of novel 'natural' peptides that we encounter on a daily basis. These are also issues that regulators and industry are hyper-aware of and so they are orders of magnitude more cautious than even makes sense. In order to be sold, every GM product must have the modified component go through a testing regimen where it is tested to make sure that the modified or incorporated protein is both quickly digestible and hypo-allergenic according to the best tests we have. If the protein even digests a little bit slowly, then the product is labeled as not fit for human consumption, just in case. Additionally, genetic components originating from organisms that are known to produce any allergenic response are never used, even if there is no conceivable way in which the component has any relationship to the provoked reaction, just in case.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:05 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks so much for the responses - I did not know that testing re: digestibility was done; it was this concern, rather than immunological responses that was the point I took from the earlier discussion.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 12:31 PM on May 22, 2012


A comment on a post on Biofortified has a huge list of feeding studies for a variety of GM crops in a variety of animals.
posted by R343L at 12:51 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


See R343L, what you're doing is taking the PR initiative from this research centre -- this research centre which is an explicit business-public partnership -- at its word. But even if the PR is the epitome of virtue, it's poisoned by the fact that it is one of a series of efforts closely associated with lying motherfuckers. "Fuck it, I'm burning it just to be sure," is reasonable in this context.

* They claim cross-contamination could occur with this trial. Wheat is self-pollinating and the researchers have gone to great lengths to ensure that there is no cross-pollination (see also above the link indicating that wheat only outcrosses at a rate of 0.03% at 2.5 meters).

On the other hand, we know for a fact that:

1) Cross-contamination has actually happened in other cases.
2) Sometimes, scientists lie about the precautions they take.

* They claim that the "lack of any adequate safety testing before release ... raises huge concerns[for human health]." No humans will be asked to eat this wheat and unless the researchers themselves secretly (and probably against protocol) choose to eat it, no human will eat this wheat. Why would we do food safety trials before even knowing that the modification is effective?

Because if the private partners in said research like it, they'll really want it to be classified as fit for entry into our food supply. Past experience shows that they will actively attempt to conceal its entry into the market, in fact.

* "Cross contamination runs the risk of losing these export markets[UK wheat to Europe]." Since there is nearly no chance of cross contamination from this trial, this is absurd. There's no chance that the entire wheat crop of the UK will be cross contaminated.

Yeah, see point the first/second.

* "But the high costs of bringing a GM crop to market mean that it will not be Rothamsted themselves who do this, begging the question of which biotech company with the required financial clout might do so." The scientists themselves answered this: the technology will be freely licensed to anyone who wants. It's telling that this section of their opposition doesn't note that it's the high cost of GM regulations and low investment by governments and universities that means only large multinationals can afford to bring GM crops to market (though there are notable exceptions such as flood-tolerant rice, developed by IRRI and University of California; Golden rice which is almost to market, developed by non-profit research and supporters; and ringspot virus resistant papaya, developed by the University of Hawaii).

I would say that the protesters have remarkably low confidence in biotech companies' ethics when they decide to bootstrap a product on an open source technology.

I do not necessarily agree with these rationalizations -- but they are not *bad* rationalizations. They are simply based on a distrust of an establishment you trust. This distrust is not rooted in Superstitious Jesusism as some might like to think, but a reaction to an environment shaped by poor precautions in applied science.

Think of this: A lot of you are coming up with lots of very good reasons why this stuff is not a problem. *None* of your past counterparts predicted that a clothianidin would start killing massive numbers of bees. This is what moves people. And until these fears are recognized as coming from a valid place, confronted on that basis, and ordinary citizens are systematically educated about the process of dealing with risks and ethical issues in applied science, a substantial group of people will feel alienated and suspicious for not-crazy reasons.
posted by mobunited at 12:53 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Science in centuries past promised us a golden age, but it is pushing us towards self destruction and slavery," the group wrote, adding: "With our action we give back to you a small part of the suffering that you scientists are bringing to the world."

They probably would have been nicer if the Italian nuclear industry wasn't suspected of letting the Mafia deal with its waste.
posted by mobunited at 12:57 PM on May 22, 2012


There isn't a biotech company involved! This is a highly regulated, completely open, government funded research project at a government facility. They have absolutely no reason to lie or hide things (and every reason to avoid it because of paranoia like this).

1) Cross-contamination has actually happened in other cases.

Yes, in actual use after being commercialized and farmers are growing their crops too close to each other. See above about this not being a problem just for GM/non-GM fields but also for fields growing the same crop but commercially different varieties. Can you provide an example where a GM crop undergoing its very first field trial contaminated a field outside the purview of the people doing the research?

2) Sometimes, scientists lie about the precautions they take.

So, because some scientists somewhere have in the past lied about the procedures they are using for their experiments, these scientists deserve to have what can be credibly called their life's work destroyed? Unless you have evidence that these particular scientists are lying you have just used the logic of a bigot: impugning an entire group of people for the failures of a few individuals within it.

*None* of your past counterparts predicted that a clothianidin would start killing massive numbers of bees.

Actually they did expect that clothianidin can kill bees. It has a known lethal dose in a large number of animals, including bees, and it's regulatory approval (at least in the US, Canada and the EU) had restrictions on when, where and how it can be applied to hopefully not harm non-target insects in large amounts. That is pretty standard for any new pesticide going on the market. What they didn't expect is that it might be related to a disorder such as Colony Collapse Disorder (which is what I assume you're referring to though the exact causes are far from agreed upon) because when clothianidin was approved, that disorder wasn't known to exist (2006 is when it was first called that).
posted by R343L at 1:10 PM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


If you're an organic farmer you can have your livelihood ruined by pollen drift.

Citation please. Currently the National Organic Project doesn't require the revocation of organic status due to occasional pollen drift.

The non-profit Center for Food Safety listed 112 lawsuits by Monsanto against farmers for claims of seed patent violations.

Monsanto's contract for seeds stipulated you can't save the seeds and the end of harvest and replant them. Farmers thought they could get away with violating a contract they signed, and they lost.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 1:43 PM on May 22, 2012


Monsanto's contract for seeds stipulated you can't save the seeds and the end of harvest and replant them. Farmers thought they could get away with violating a contract they signed, and they lost.

It totally sucks when people try to wheedle out of an offer they can't refuse.
posted by mobunited at 1:44 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


wheedle out of an offer they can't refuse.

Huh? Most of the violators were seed cleaners or grain operators who offered seed saving on Monsanto-licensed seeds to farmers who brought in their harvest. Most of the time, they were turned in by other farmers who understand the importance of sticking to an agreement.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 2:05 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mobunited: *None* of your past counterparts predicted that a clothianidin would start killing massive numbers of bees.

In fact, the exact opposite appears to be true. The EPA allowed the use of clothianidin over concerns from their own scientists that the pesticide could have harmful effects on pollinators, and continued to allow it even after published research confirmed these fears:
Nine years ago, scientists within the EPA required a field study examining the potential harms of clothianidin to non-target insects - specifically honey bees - because they had reason to believe the pesticide may harm pollinators. In the years since EPA first required this study, a substantial body of scientific evidence has confirmed that the use of clothianidin, a persistent chemical, presents substantial risks to honey bees and other insects that are in or near recently sown fields.
...
“EPA ignored its own requirements and failed to study the impacts of clothianidin on honey bees,” said Peter Jenkins, an attorney for the Center for Food Safety and co-petitioner. “The body of evidence against the chemical continues to grow, yet the agency has refused to take action.”
(from; emphasis mine)
posted by en forme de poire at 2:11 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


There isn't a biotech company involved! This is a highly regulated, completely open, government funded research project at a government facility. They have absolutely no reason to lie or hide things (and every reason to avoid it because of paranoia like this).

It entirely depends on the funding channels through BBSRC, who set priorities in consultation with business and occasionally go in for part of it, too. Do you know how many layers something needs to pass through before it is lilly-white pure government research?

Yes, in actual use after being commercialized and farmers are growing their crops too close to each other.

Villifying farmers . . . doesn't lead to a sympathetic argument. Also, I believe the phrasing you're looking for is "Developed with mistaken ideas about how farmers grow crops." Since theoretically, they're the consumer, not the mark for some scheme.

So, because some scientists somewhere have in the past lied about the procedures they are using for their experiments, these scientists deserve to have what can be credibly called their life's work destroyed? Unless you have evidence that these particular scientists are lying you have just used the logic of a bigot: impugning an entire group of people for the failures of a few individuals within it.

Well yes; like the cops. What you have to imagine is a world where there are multiple Youtube videos of scientists holding people down while executives kick them in the face -- not all scientists and executives, or even most. In fact, I would say that I trust scientists about a million times more than police. Strongarming developing countries into abandoning traditional crops and turning farmers into indentured servants from seed costs isn't as telegenic.

To be clear, I believe you are absolutely right. But I do not believe the protests are irrational.

Actually they did expect that clothianidin can kill bees. It has a known lethal dose in a large number of animals, including bees, and it's regulatory approval (at least in the US, Canada and the EU) had restrictions on when, where and how it can be applied to hopefully not harm non-target insects in large amounts. That is pretty standard for any new pesticide going on the market. What they didn't expect is that it might be related to a disorder such as Colony Collapse Disorder (which is what I assume you're referring to though the exact causes are far from agreed upon) because when clothianidin was approved, that disorder wasn't known to exist (2006 is when it was first called that).

Dude! THAT'S THE PROBLEM. "Don't blame us, we didn't know it would kill *that* many bees," is not something that arouses sympathy. Instead, it suggests that there's something wrong with the system that approved clothianidin to begin with. And no, it doesn't arouse sympathy that one link in the chain got suspicious, but the bee-killin' stuff got out anyway.

Again, this is not my position, really (I don't think GMOs are bad, but they contribute to a bad global food system by virtue of the laws and practices around them) but it's not a *stupid* position, either. It's an extension of real fears growing from real problems.
posted by mobunited at 2:19 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Most of the violators were seed cleaners or grain operators who offered seed saving on Monsanto-licensed seeds to farmers who brought in their harvest. Most of the time, they were turned in by other farmers who understand the importance of sticking to an agreement.

I once asked a farmer buddy of mine what he could get instead of Monsanto seed and oh, how he laughed and laughed.
posted by mobunited at 2:22 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ignoring the part where you're comparing scientists to thug-cops ... because that's insulting and would require large numbers of scientists to be liars and scammers and a large number of them to be covering up for the liars...

Dude! THAT'S THE PROBLEM. "Don't blame us, we didn't know it would kill *that* many bees," is not something that arouses sympathy. Instead, it suggests that there's something wrong with the system that approved clothianidin to begin with.

You do know what a pesticide is? It kills something we don't want there (and unfortunately often things we do). At least clothianidin doesn't tend to kill the workers who apply it, unlike organophosphates, or pretty much every aquatic animal in even tiny concentrations, like pyrethrin pesticides. Both classes will generally kill bees on external contact (e.g. spraying over them). At least the bees have to eat something contaminated with clothianidin to be harmed by it.
posted by R343L at 2:47 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


>Currently the National Organic Project doesn't require the revocation of organic status due to occasional pollen drift.

If this is meant to reassure that regulations are sufficient, it is not having that effect on all readers.

>Farmers thought they could get away with violating a contract they signed, and they lost.

Monsanto sues farmers who want nothing to do with them, never mind signing contracts with them.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 3:16 PM on May 22, 2012


I once asked a farmer buddy of mine what he could get instead of Monsanto seed and oh, how he laughed and laughed.

But he didn't answer. Because then he'd have to admit that Monsanto either provides better pricing, better service or better results than other seed sellers.

2 minutes on google could get you a large scale source on any commercial seed you want. Thousands of farmers aren't using no-save seeds every years because they enjoy the inconvenience and cost of buying need seed every year. So either Monstanto's products are compelling in spite of the restrictions or their sales people are skilled in the Imperius Curse. But I'm not buying the anecdotal excuse there is no where else to go.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 3:44 PM on May 22, 2012


Monsanto sues farmers who want nothing to do with them, never mind signing contracts with them.

Monstanto sued farmers who saved seeds they were not supposed and seed polishing companies who offered to save Monstanto seeds, or farmers who saved seeds and tried to sell them to other farmers.

I keep seeing people post this, but so far no one has posted one single case of Monstanto kicking in someone's barn and demanding money because a few Round-up Ready soybeans were growing along the fence. Monstanto has sued 145 farmers/silo/seed polishers since the 80's. Only 11 have gone to court, the rest settled.

If you've got an example of Monstanto ruining some hippy organic-coop with their evil lawyers and pollen drift, show it.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 3:50 PM on May 22, 2012


>Monsanto sued farmers who saved seeds they were not supposed [to]

'Supposed to' by the current regulatory system, rather than by farming practice established since the beginning of ... farming.

>If you've got an example of Monstanto ruining some hippy organic-coop with their evil lawyers and pollen drift, show it.

Something of a strawman, as I didn't say they had done so. Nonetheless.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 4:11 PM on May 22, 2012


But he didn't answer. Because then he'd have to admit that Monsanto either provides better pricing, better service or better results than other seed sellers.

He did. Monsanto does indeed provides better pricing. In fact, it provides the *only* pricing that allows soybeans to sell unless he wanted to try for organic certification and pay more money on top of the seed, operate at a loss and most likely, not be a farmer any more. This is because Monsanto takes advantage of vertical integration between its seed and pesticides in a situation that sucks for farmers because by the way, if your neighbour uses Roundup-ready seed with Roundup and you don't, *your plants fucking die*.

See this annoys my friend Steve -- a farmer -- because he also happens to have been an environmental modelling researcher. I've mentioned him in past MeFi threads because I once asked him why he didn't own non-stick cookware, and he looked at me like I was a fucking idiot and discussed his work on endocrine disruptors. Guess what Roundup is?

So to sum up, thanks to vertical integration between a pesticide and crop, and the fact that the same pesticide harms alternatives to that crop, Monsanto manages to dissuade farmers from alternatives because the alternatives are too expensive compared to Monsanto's quasi-monopoly, forcing a very good friend of mine to buy its seed even though he knows its manufacturer is really fucking evil. This idea that you have, that the seed business is anything like a fairly competitive market, is so far from the truth . . . man.

So that's why he laughed. He did not, however, smile.
posted by mobunited at 4:15 PM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


if your neighbour uses Roundup-ready seed with Roundup and you don't, *your plants fucking die*.

Solid cause to sue your neighbor, with good prospects of winning surely?
posted by Catfry at 3:31 PM on May 23, 2012


> Citation please.

Organic farmer sues over GM contamination.
posted by wilful at 6:35 PM on May 23, 2012


Your plants only die if the Roundup gets on them, through careless spraying or runoff contamination, both of which are problematic no matter what the herbicide or pesticide. Your plants being near the Roundup-ready seeds doesn't kill them.
posted by maryr at 8:35 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


This seems like a pretty bizarre derail. If your problem with GMO technology is its current proprietary exploitation by corporate seed companies, then wouldn't the efforts of these researchers making non-proprietary advances available to anyone with the sense to use them be exactly what you want?

Besides, even if we were to accept the premise that all attempts at improving seed stocks with GM technology were somehow inherently to dangerous, this whole business reminds me of how PETA nuts only ever threw red paint on small women in fur coats and never on large bikers in leather jackets, only worse. Monsanto, which is often a genuinely bad actor but more regularly misunderstood, has the luxury of working wherever they need with as much security as they need to do what they do. These fuckers are picking on academics in an otherwise profitable science, people who work harder than you likely ever have, who gave up comfortable jobs in industry for that high risk and pain, and did it for the hope that they might be able to help the world with the knowledge they're hoping to gain. They don't have the budget or the time to deal with this fuckery, and while they do have the duty that all academics have to justify our endeavors and educate, that should not include dealing with the willful ignorance and lust for carnage that this group has displayed.

To be a healthy discipline of research, GM researchers need good critics, that is an inherent part of how knowledge works, I for one really value the good critics in my field that I regularly disagree with. However, these aren't rational actors and they aren't informed critics, these are cowards acting in a mob with to much momentum to acknowledge its own obvious ignorance.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:41 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


If your problem with GMO technology is its current proprietary exploitation by corporate seed companies, then wouldn't the efforts of these researchers making non-proprietary advances available to anyone with the sense to use them be exactly what you want?

Speaking only for myself, yes, yes it is what I want. It does seem like the trial mentioned in the FPP is about as good as it can be. I'm interested to see the results, since Monsanto's researchers are pretty good at avoiding peer review for the results they claim to get.

But I do worry about GM crops, for the same reason I worry about invasive species such as the Australian cases mentioned earlier. It isn't about genetics per se, but about unintended consequences from a well-meaning attempt to solve a complex problem. Cane toads were imported to one location in Australia to eat the cane beetles destroying our economically-important sugar crops. But they: didn't prevent the cane beetles; have no natural predators here; are poisonous; spread disease; displace or eat endangered native plants and animals; and they are prolific breeders. They weren't meant to create huge problems across two-thirds of the continent, but they did, just by doing what they naturally do.

Plants and animals aren't isolated variables, they're part of a interconnected planet-wide system. Lab results cannot possibly be adequate predictors of real-world situations, and we rely on plants and animals to survive, so extreme caution is warranted when we mess about with them.
posted by harriet vane at 2:51 AM on May 24, 2012




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