Defender of the seeds: Q&A with Claire Hope Cummings, author of “Uncertain Peril”

Claire Hope CummingsAn environmental lawyer for 20 years, including four spent with the USDA, Claire Hope Cummings reports regularly on agriculture and the environment; she has also farmed in California and in Vietnam.

We chatted recently about her new book, Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, for the current issue of Edible San Francisco. This is an extended version of that interview. (Cummings photo by Bart Nagel)

What motivated you to write this argument against the use of genetic technologies in agriculture?

Because GMOs (genetically modified organisms) don’t seem like an immediate personal threat, their risks to our health and the environment are fairly subtle. They’re real; they’re just not the kind you see on the evening news. There’s a lot of information about those risks already available. I wrote the book because I’m very concerned with the political and moral aspects of the technology. As a public-interest lawyer I was appalled to learn how this was invented and imposed on us. We were never given a choice. There’s a whole matrix of control involved, from the biological level — the way they are engineered — to the social level, how they are being imposed on people and nature.

Let’s start with the biological. Why do you call genetic technology the “defining moral issue of our time”?

Because it dismantles the basic integrity of the natural world. It’s so short-sighted. We don’t know enough about the biological world to know what we’re doing, and we haven’t agreed on an ethical framework for these technologies.

But isn't the technology itself morally neutral?

Like all tools, technology simply extends the hand of man. But we forget that that hand is connected to the head and the heart. So how it is manipulated is part of the technology. We can talk about science as a set of different tools of inquiry, that can be a little less value-laden, but technology is never anything but a tool that is connected to a value.

Genetically modifying a plant severs its relationship to its evolutionary course, and inserts into it, by force — using a gene gun or bacteria — some human idea of what the plant should do. The technology is limited both by its violent nature and our imagination. We’re rearranging the molecular structure of these plants because we think we know how this plant should be used. Why, instead of breeding plants with traditional methods and relying on the plant’s own carefully created system for say, drought resistance, would you use a much more expensive, unpredictable process like genetic engineering?

Because of patents. So you can own it. I mean, given all these great tools, what did Monsanto come up with? Herbicide-resistant soybeans to sell more of its chemicals. Most GMOs are plants that don’t die when sprayed with a lethal herbicide, or ones that exude insecticide. That’s Monsanto’s idea of how to use nature to make money.

The point of GMOs is control over seeds for profit.

Which brings us to the social control aspect.

Yes, the ownership issue. For example, Monsanto owns so much of the world’s cotton seed supply now that cotton farmers cannot get conventional [non-GM] seed. It is simply not offered. Monsanto also tells farmers they can’t save seeds, reuse them, or even study them. This is the time-honored heart of agriculture. Seeds have always adapted themselves to a specific place and climate. Now, just when we need more food, more adaptability and natural diversity, millions of dollars’ worth of seeds are being thrown away because of biotech industry contracts.

Playing devil’s advocate, when this was getting started, no one made farmers buy biotech seeds. And they can still save their own seeds, right?

If they grow open-pollinated, non-hybrid crops. So yeah, your average organic farmer growing certain crops can save their seeds, yes, but I’m talking about the dominant agricultural system. It's like saying people smoke because they really like it, not because of advertising or addiction. Agriculture is not a free market, and the reason that farmers have adopted biotechnology is because they have been absolutely desperate — until just recently until prices went up — for some competitive edge. And the reason biotechnology gives them a competitive edge is because they can spray herbicides over the top, and that's a labor-saving device. A competitive edge in agriculture has always been about labor. That’s why the tractor took over from the mule. That’s why the plow took over from the hand-drill. It’s always been about maximizing the labor in your field. And biotechnology crops provide farmers with a slight edge when it comes to labor.

So if Roundup Ready plants are save labor and require less herbicides, aren't those good things?

I did not say they used fewer herbicides. In fact, studies have shown that not only do Roundup Ready crops produce about 10% less in terms of their production — and the reason is, that when you ask a plant not to die by spraying it with a lethal herbicide, the plant has to make a tradeoff between its productivity and that trait — but the studies have also shown that the amount of herbicides being used on these crops is enormous. It’s much greater than farmers growing the same varieties conventionally. This is USDA data, this is land-grant university peer-reviewed data, not some partisan study.

This commercial technology — let’s make sure we make clear we’re not talking about science, but a product like any other product. They’ve positioned themselves as if they are operating in the public interest. They’ve sold the public and farmers and the agriculture departments a bill of goods, that this commercial product somehow makes them equal to public plant-breeders and those working on other issues involving things like hunger. Roundup Ready crops are a commercial product just like their pesticides. And like the pesticides, they would not survive if they weren’t being subsidized.

There is no free market in agriculture in this country. So questions about why farmers adopt these plants, these particular seeds, have to be understood in the context of the fact that this is being completely controlled by the Farm Bill, which just passed and will continue to give billions of dollars of subsidies to commodity crops that are genetically engineered. It’s what I call “zombie agriculture.” Take away those life-support subsidies of money and chemicals, and this technology dies. Because it can’t compete with biological agriculture.

Really this is all about who controls our food supply, isn't it?

Yes. Is food going to be something the public maintains as at the center of our personal and political decision-making, or will we just continue to hand it over to either private corporations, which have a completely different set of interests in mind, or to the government, which is now aligned with these private interests? That’s what we have now. How are we doing so far? I’d say the sorry state of public health and the environment shows our food system is not healthy.

When Abraham Lincoln created the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he called it “the People’s Department.” The USDA used to send seeds out free every year to gardeners and farmers all over America. The democratic underpinnings of our food system have been dismantled.

We’ve already lost most of our seeds. There are about 50K plants in the world that could be edible. About 150 have commercial value. About 40 of those are cultivated regularly around the world. But only four — wheat, rice, corn, soy — make up most of our basic food supply. The FAO has estimated that over the last hundred years, we’ve lost 75 percent of our agricultural genetic diversity within that context. If you look at corn for instance, there might be 85,000 subvarieties in Oaxaca, but they’re not being grown and they’re not really part of our food supply. When you look at the forces reducing this genetic diversity, its partly an environmental problem — the overall reduction of biodiversity — but a big part of it is private ownership, industrial agriculture and the way it operates.

But if these varieties are working for us, surely that means they’re the best seeds for the job?

That’s a typical culinary orientation to food. The way I come at food is from our environment — the natural world and how it supports us more generally. We need agricultural diversity because it maintains the health of even those few plants that we rely on. You could say that 100 varieties of corn might be just fine. But if you only grew those 100 varieties, you would end up with pests, because the natural word has a way of designing resistant pests. So that crop would fail and you wouldn’t have the genes that we need. Better that we should have 100,000 varieties of corn that are resistant to wind, drought, rust, aphids, whatever the particular problem is. You have to see the basic plants that keep us all alive in relation to the natural world.

So genetic diversity is kind of our insurance against future problems.

That’s a symptomatic way of describing its value. Diversity is the basis of resiliency in the natural world, and that applies to all plants and animals. We need it even more now that we have these environmental threats. The industrial food system has put all its eggs in one basket. It has emphasized uniformity and technology, particularly genetic technologies and chemical technologies, and neither of those are very well adapted to those threats we’re facing.

Seeds are us, I hate to use that corporate expression, but it’s true: all flesh is grass. Seeds are what we as a species have depended on for our food system and what has allowed us to develop all this great technology and so called civilization that we have. That relationship is as important as any relationship that we have.

Talk to me about the tripod you write about, of "people, plants, and place."

That’s my favorite way of discussing what we need to return to, what we need to build a productive agriculture on. True productivity, fertility, and health are based on those three things, and all of them are under huge duress right now. We have to go back to understanding that productivity is more an ecological question and more whole-farm based, looking at the whole farm, the soil. It’s about biodiversity and even the larger human community in and around that farm

What can we do?

We can save seeds. It doesn’t matter which ones. Calendula is a really pretty, very hardy flower, very generous with its seeds — so easy to save. Have fun and plant stuff. Kids like to see things grow; radishes are easy kid plants. There are so many easy ways to honor our relationship with plants. It’s sort of like a prayer. You may not want to be a priest, rabbi, or the Dalai Lama, but you can have a simple daily prayer of caring for a plant through its entire cycle, and participate in the generosity and integrity of the natural world by growing food and sharing it. It’s a practical spirituality that keeps us grounded in place and community, while giving us the enormous privilege of assisting in the regenerative capacity of the earth.

What it comes down to is whether or not we are going to be allowed to feed ourselves and make informed choices about how we do that — to live in our biological and social reality, which is that people, plants, and place were meant to be working together.

Further reading:

24 Responsesto “Defender of the seeds: Q&A with Claire Hope Cummings, author of “Uncertain Peril””

  1. Ian Lewis says:

    I am really symathetic to her arguments, and she is fighting the good fight, however:
    1. When we say that people smoke because they are made to, we are infantilizing them. They may have been ignorant to the problems with cigarettes many years ago, but not lately.
    2. It is true that we do not have a free-market in the US, but, the market that we do have is not that bad. Remember, the "organic" movement exploded during the 1990's and 2000's in spite of laws and regulations that worked against them. That was all because of consumer demand.
    3. The USDA used to send seeds out free every year to gardeners and farmers all over America. I know that this is nitpicking, but, it wasnt free. Someone was paying for it.
    4. The democratic underpinnings of our food system have been dismantled. Americas agricultural system was doing quite well before the Feds got their hands on it. Now look at them (i.e. the USDA, FDA, etc.) The underpinning of our food system is farmers, consumers and soil...not Republicans and Democrats

  2. I agree completely against the patenting of seeds, against the whole whole GMO issue. The problem is broader than just patenting life, our government is granting patents, copyrights and monopolies over far too much and for far too long. The whole system is corrupt and filled with trolls. The best thing we could do is to reduce all patents and copyrights back to seven years and cease all patents on life, software and the like.
    "If they grow open-pollinated, non-hybrid crops [they can save seeds]. So yeah, your average organic farmer growing certain crops can save their seeds, yes, but I’m talking about the dominant agricultural system."
    Perhaps it is time to accept the impending death of the "Dominant Agricultural System" a.k.a. Big Ag. The fall of the mighty may be the salvation of the many.
    "Agriculture is not a free market"
    I beg to differ... No, I insist. On the Mega Subsidized Big Ag playing field it is not a free market but that is their own fault for accepting handouts and the controls that go with that. Deal with the Devil and you find a bad hand. However, on the local small farm playing field we deal very much with a free market.
    What we really need to to eliminate subsidies. All subsidies. Not just for agriculture, most of which goes to Big Ag, but also eliminate the oil subsidies which would drive up fuel prices to their real costs forcing people to conserve and develop alternatives. We should eliminate the subsidies to home mortgages which artificially inflate the price of homes and encourages the building of conventional energy inefficient, resource gobbling boxes. All subsidies should be eliminated. This will hurt. At first. But the pain will pass and the playing field will level out. If fuel were not subsidized then products would not be shipped so far - one more form of subsidization.
    Sadly knowledge is being lost as people concentrate in the urban areas. They are forgetting how to feed themselves, how to enjoy life, how to live. These sorts of problems tend to be self-correcting in the long run.
    "Better that we should have 100,000 varieties of corn that are resistant to wind, drought, rust, aphids, whatever the particular problem is. You have to see the basic plants that keep us all alive in relation to the natural world."
    Agree. That is one of the biggest arguments against GMOs. We need options, just incase.

  3. Genetically modifying a plant severs its relationship to its evolutionary course, and inserts into it, by force — using a gene gun or bacteria — some human idea of what the plant should do. The technology is limited both by its violent nature and our imagination. We’re rearranging the molecular structure of these plants because we think we know how this plant should be used. Why, instead of breeding plants with traditional methods and relying on the plant’s own carefully created system for say, drought resistance, would you use a much more expensive, unpredictable process like genetic engineering?

    The argument that genetic engineering is wrong because it involves "force" (or guns) while plant breeding does not is not only based on false information but also a fallacious argument about how to gauge morality. First, plant breeding involves "force" just as much as genetic engineering - plants are forced to cross with each other by breeders. They are forced to cross with other varieties that flower at different times and would otherwise not do so, or with other species in the same genus, or even across genuses. The numbers of chromosomes are increased, and molecular markers are used to make sure that certain genes end up in the progeny of each cross - There is no less "force" involved.
    The fallacious moral argument is twofold. First, plants are not sentient beings, and it makes no sense to talk about the plants being "forced" to do anything - in language that would be more suited to describing child labor. Second, the fact that a gene gun is used in some instances to introduce the transgenes doesn't make that act take on some sort of immoral flavor - loud bangs to not an immoral act make. The same goes for bacteria - the idea that whenever you involve bacteria in something means it must be wrong would make yogurt manufacturers guilty of something horrifically wrong.
    Plant Breeding steers plants away from their "evolutionary course" all the same - so I think this author could stand to educate herself about the relevant biology. The most human-modified parts of our crops are the most useful to us - large leaves, tubers, fruit, etc. Crops didn't fall out of the sky - we've been manipulating their genetics indirectly (today, far more precisely) for millenia. The idea that evolution produces delicious, nutritious, and productive foods for us on it's own is an idea equivalent to creationist beliefs - not only wrong in its understanding of evolution, but wrong in the origin of these important plants.
    Why do it? It seems that the author is suggesting that scientists working in universities around the country are stupid. Don't they realize that if you let the plant alone it will do everything you need it to do on its own? Why spend all that money? Because you can only achieve a particular genetic improvement if the trait you are looking for exists in the gene pool. Drought tolerance can indeed be found in wild relatives (some force required) and some varieties in gene banks. But all crop species? The reason why transgenic approaches are favored in many cases is that the trait does not exist in any known accessions or compatible wild species.
    The author is too simplistic by reducing it all to the money factor. There are biological reasons why transgenics are being used in many of these cases. The commodity crops were the first to be engineered because they promised the highest immediate returns - so there is some truth to what she said about the economics of commodity crops.

    For example, Monsanto owns so much of the world’s cotton seed supply now that cotton farmers cannot get conventional [non-GM] seed. It is simply not offered.

    That is not true in the least - otherwise there would be no such thing as organic cotton. The idea that conventional seeds are unavailable shows that the author has never picked up a seed catalog and looked. Here's the first hit I got on Google: http://www.deltaandpine.com/ They sell non-engineered cotton.

    The point of GMOs is control over seeds for profit.

    Yes, the whole point of:
    Golden Rice for increased beta-carotene and
    Tomatoes for higher folate content and
    Carrots (and other crops) with higher calcium bioavailability and
    Maize with higher iron bioavailability and
    Submergence tolerant rice and
    Virus-resistant papaya
    - were all developed or are being developed by university researchers because they want to control the world's seeds for profit. Sure. /sarcasm
    Seed companies are looking to make a bunch of money - that is beyond doubt. The author makes the argument here that the seed companies just want to control the world's seeds. Right, but wrong. They want to control the seed market. That means that they want to be the ones that farmers buy their seeds from rather than their competitors. The first GE crops were engineered with traits that the farmers were interested in, which goes against the argument that this is being forced on them. But when the patents run out on the particular seeds involved - they can be saved and grown by anyone. They're not 'controlled' anymore.
    Here's an interesting question, if companies like Monsanto and Pioneer make a large part of their money off of selling farm inputs such as pesticides, why are these two companies working on genetically engineered traits that will undercut and eliminate the sales of their own chemicals?

  4. The timing of this couldn't have been better. I was looking for news for my show and I came across an update on the biofortification of cassava by Richard Sayre and his colleagues. (I interviewed him a couple years ago, check my site for details.) This would be a good link to share with your readers:
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080630102737.htm
    Of course, genetic engineering is all about controlling seeds to make money...

  5. Inoculated Mind, apparently you are not aware of the fact that Monsanto owns Deltapine. See:
    http://corporatewatch.wordpress.com/2006/08/17/monsanto-buys-yet-another-large-seed-company-and-with-it-key-terminator-patents/
     
    Your other arguments miss the mark because you don't understand the dangers of tinkering.

  6. That doesn't change the fact that non-engineered seeds are available. So basically, I catch the author spreading false information and you dismiss my comments.
    I understand the dangers of altering the genetic makeup of food plants. For example, conventional plant breeding has already resulted in potatoes and celery that burned and caused rashes - no GE involved. To date, not a single confirmed person has become sick from eating GE crops - even the guy who videotaped himself having an allergic reaction was given a double-blind allergy test and had no reaction whatsoever - so he was probably faking it.
    People need to understand that there are risks involved in all of these techniques, and in many cases the risks are lower for transgenic approaches. For example, moving genes in from wild relatives is far more risky than using GE approaches to pick out a single gene from another variety of the same species and insert it into a crop plant. I can get you the full NAS reference so you can read it for yourself if you like.

  7. Bonnie P. says:

    Inoculated Mind: I wouldn't recommend judging the science or argument of a book based on a Q&A, which by its nature is going to be more conversational and shorthand.  If there are  any gaps in logic or  sourcing I would blame the author of the Q&A (me) before  claiming  to have caught the author "spreading false information." And anyway Cummings is not saying such seeds are not available, as she clarifies they are not available on an industrial, global scale.

    Re: some of your other points — many of which, by the way, she deals with at length in her book, such as debunking the Golden Rice PR campaign, etc:

    "To date, not a single confirmed person has become sick from eating GE crops": Her concern, which I share, is that there have been no large-scale, long-term studies on human or indeed any other organism's health on eating these novel foods. But there have been independent studies showing that they have near-term deleterious effects on earthworms and other soil dwellers, on bees, and even on rats that eat them. Is there a threshold effect? Who knows. I wonder what we would find if we actually took the trouble to study the effect of Roundup-Ready soy and Bt corn on organisms in an ecosystem over a period of say 15 years?

    "First, plant breeding involves “force” just as much as genetic engineering - plants are forced to cross with each other by breeders. …There is no less 'force' involved": I find this parsing of her argument positively Clintonian. Well done. However we are talking about transgenic  vs. conventional breeding here. Nature quite happily allows genes from varieties of the same species to commingle and the resulting organism to then live or die based on its evolutionary adaptability.  But there would be absolutely no way for nature to get a bacterial gene (ie, Bt) into a plant's RNA without our interference.  And that interference not only involves crossing species boundaries — which I can't help but think exist in nature for a very good reason that we may not understand yet — but often also involve using salmonella or E. coli viruses as vectors, resulting in vestigial bits of THEIR  genes littering up the resulting RNA in unpredictable ways....oh and not to mention the antibiotics genes embedded as markers...I really don't think the analogy to conventional plant breeding carries any weight whatsoever. To me it is like when doctors decided that because they because they could open up the skull and see the brain at work without killing the person that they knew what would happen to it when they performed a lobotomy.

    "Here’s an interesting question, if companies like Monsanto and Pioneer make a large part of their money off of selling farm inputs such as pesticides, why are these two companies working on genetically engineered traits that will undercut and eliminate the sales of their own chemicals?": I think you missed something here. Which traits are those? The enormous success of Monsanto's Roundup-Ready crops mean that because it is resistant to its specific brand of herbicide, that is the only herbicide that can be used on it, resulting in ever-increasing sales.

    I will stop here, and conclude with saying that I — and, I believe, Cummings — do not think that technology is bad or that even GM technology could not offer solutions to agricultural problems. But there should have been public debate; there should have been massively funded, long-term trials on a holistic ecosystem basis, not just whether they made mammals sick immediately; and there should  at least have been a willingness to label the resulting products. Your tone throughout your comments exactly mirrors that of all blindly pro-GMO  advocates: arrogant, "you're too dumb to understand this science so should just trust us that it's safe."  Historically that hasn't worked out so well for scientists: something else that Cummings documents in her book. I mean really, do you think an author listed as a public-health attorney for 20 years including for the USDA, and an organic farmer, has never picked up a seed catalog?

    All those of us who are skeptical of the secretive, risky way that GMOs have been unleashed on our environment, our bodies, are asking is that a) someone explain why they are the only way to solve the agricultural problems they purport to address and b) their potential long-term effect on an ecosystem and ALL the stakeholders in their use (earthworms, bees, beneficial bacteria) be weighed against those who would profit from them.

    If you would like to read the entirety of Cummings' book and then engage in an informed debate with her, I would be happy to try to arrange that.

  8. Inoculated Mind, you rather missed the point - simply that Monstersanto owns Deltapines. You're so defensive you can't see beyond your arguments.

  9. Walter Jeffries, you are the one who is missing the point. Claire Hope Cummings said "It is simply not offered." This is a false statement, and you can't seem to admit it. Search around a little more, and you can find several seed companies that sell conventional cotton seeds. The fact that Monsanto owns Deltapines does not in any way change the falsity of Cumming's statement that non-GE seeds are "simply not offered." Are you prepared to admit that she was wrong in that statement?
    I'm not going to belabor this point because you're dodging the question.

  10. Here's a piece of news that describes several cotton breeding/seed companies that offer conventional (non-GE) cotton varieties. Again, where do you think organic cotton growers get their seeds?
    http://southwestfarmpress.com/mag/farming_focus_technology_yield/

  11. Bonnie, thanks for responding to my comments in full. I'll have to break up my response into several parts, but I would like to get something out of the way. Never have I said to "trust me" or that you or anyone else here "are too stupid to understand the science." I see my role in this as an educator, being a graduate student in plant genetics and a science journalist. I depart from many science journalists in that when I write or talk about a topic, I get into the nitty gritty details, and I can provide full references for what I say. In contrast, many journalists use shortcuts by referring to quotes from experts on the topic. You are accusing me of being arrogant because I am referring to scientific research that backs up my claims. I am a firm believer that information should be readily available and I offered to give references for these claims before you made that accusation.
    It can be really really hard for nonspecialists to wade through the scientific details and know what is going on. From this interview with Claire Hope Cummings, she gives clear signs of not knowing much about the relevant biology. Also, by her statement about the availability of non-GE seeds (and you are twisting her words to defend that statement) it suggests that she is promoting the same myths that I have heard from other people who write on the subject. And in doing so, she is accusing both farmers of being stupid or helpless, and biologists of being stupid or profiteers. And you are suggesting that I'm arrogant? Please try to keep this in perspective, Bonnie.
    When you said "I mean really, do you think an author listed as a public-health attorney for 20 years including for the USDA, and an organic farmer, has never picked up a seed catalog?" You are actually making an argument from authority here - which is a fallacious argument. Being a lawyer for 20 years does not substitute for properly researching a statement before it is made, and it doesn't make it true.
    I am not the kind of person who <em>ever</em> says “you’re too dumb to understand this science so should just trust us that it’s safe.” I am, however, the kind of person who will spend hours talking or writing to people to help them understand the scientific details, which I will in subsequent responses. As you'll quickly notice, I'm the kind of person who says "This information you have been given is false or incomplete. Here's how, and here's how we know."

  12. I've got to finish getting prepared for the Farmer's Market tomorrow, I'll pick this conversation up later. I think I didn't word my question at the end of my post quite right, forgive me. Let me ask it again - I'm not talking about herbicide tolerant crops, which I think you assumed I was talking about. Let me try again.
    Two seed companies, Monsanto and Pioneer, have a substantial part of their profits coming from the sale of agricultural inputs, chemicals sprayed on crops. They are currently developing (or have developed in one case) GE crops that, if adopted, would eliminate their sales of those agricultural chemicals - thereby undercutting their income from agricultural chemicals. In a lecture I attended given by a Pioneer employee, he specifically stated that they will undercut their own market. My question is, why do you think these profit-hungry companies would purposefully eliminate a constant revenue stream such as that?

  13. No, Inoc, I didn't miss the point. You missed my point. You gave DeltaPines as an example of a source of seed. I simply pointed out that DeltaPines is owned by Monstersanto. You then digress. Read more carefully. You seem overly defensive.

  14. I didn't claim that Monsanto didn't own a lot of breeding programs for cotton. My claim was very specific - that Cummings' claim that non-GE cotton seed was "simply not offered" is false. The fact that even Monsanto owns Deltapines can only strengthen my point, because it shows that Monsanto does not offer only GE seed. Also take notice of the other cotton seed producers I linked to above. I will not respond to any more comments from you about this specific issue unless you admit that her statement as quoted above was false. You're changing the subject. Walter, are you being deliberately obtuse?

  15. Bonnie P. says:

    Inoculated Mind: It is a well-known rhetorical tactic to focus on a small claim and ride it into the ground at the expense of the truth of the larger picture. I think it's pretty clear who's being deliberately obtuse here. 

    I have the same problem with people who blindly trust in science as I do with people who trust in faith. I have yet to read any compelling descriptions of what problems transgenic plants solve that would justify the complete and utter lack of prudence and public debate that accompanied their release on our ecosystem. Until someone can convince me WHY we need them — as opposed to the companies who can make money from their adoption — and why they trump the enormous array of risk factors that we've hardly even begin to explore, I'm just going to have to hope that the natural world is strong enough to withstand human hubris and greed. Bring on the cockroaches.  

  16. No Inoc, I'm not changing the subject or being obtuse, you are. I'm not sure what your microscopic point is. Perhaps you should look at the real topic at hand rather than your fixation on this. I'm starting to get the feeling that you are a troll - someone who goes around starting arguments and distractions.

  17. Bonnie, as you will notice I am not focusing on only one narrow point. I'm driving it into the ground because neither of you are admitting that the statement is false. I find it very funny that you are telling me that I'm focusing on only one point, when it is Walter Jeffries that is focusing on only one point, which I have not disputed - in an effort to avoid admitting that the one simple claim I pointed out is false. Neither of you have conceded this point, and I think rational readers will be able to tell from reading this that by avoiding admitting the mistake, you are implying that it is an imporant point. If it isn't important, concede and move on. I'm going to move on from this point (I tried to before but Walter's avoidance tempted me to continue to argue that point), and continue with my response to your comment above.

  18. I'm glad you liked my analysis of the moral argument. :) I have encountered it before, and the word "force" used to describe genetic engineering is a loaded term - a form of linguistic bias that carries with it a moral assumption. Even Michael Pollan used it when I participated in a panel discussion with him a couple years ago. Pollan also echoed another implicit moral argument, that there's something intangibly wrong with crossing the "species barrier," he described the species barrier as having "a purpose," with his hand sort of waving in the air.

    I notice that you're making the same sort of argument above.

    <blockquote>Nature quite happily allows genes from varieties of the same species to commingle and the resulting organism to then live or die based on its evolutionary adaptability.  But there would be absolutely no way for nature to get a bacterial gene (ie, Bt) into a plant’s RNA without our interference.  And that interference not only involves crossing species boundaries — which I can’t help but think exist in nature for a very good reason that we may not understand yet...</blockquote>

    You are suggesting here that there is a sort of ultimate reason for "species boundaries" - which is not a real scientific concept at all. Species do not have clear boundaries, indeed, a whole matrix of data is sometimes required to determine if two organisms are the same species or not. Plant breeders have been crossing these "boundaries" for a long time, so the whole field of plant genetics is going against that idea, long before genetic engineering came along.

    Indeed, sugar cane is a cross between two species (and a duplication of its own chromosomes as well), Rutabaga's are a polyploid with all the chromosomes of two other species, namely Kohlrabi andTurnips, wheat is a combination of three species into one. Triticale has all the DNA of four species combined into one plant!

    So you can see, the "species barrier" doesn't exist. There are indeed barriers to reproduction, such as incompatibility of certain receptors on the surfaces of eggs and sperm, different shapes of reproductive organs and flowering times of plants, to name a few. But in nature, genes slip past all these barriers and introgress themselves into other species. Viruses are also believed to be a big part of how genes transfer between less-related species, dragging some host genes along with their own. There's a term for it, called Horizontal Gene Transfer, and as we sequence more and more genomes, we're finding more and more evidence of it. Apparently, nature does not respect Nature's boundaries.

    To say that because it happens in nature, does not mean that any instance of it is safe. That's not what I'm saying, however, it seems to be what you are implying. Nature is not a benevolent deity with us in mind. I would like to suggest that you're making an implicit philosophical assumption about what is right and wrong based upon this idea or a vague idea that is very similar to it."Nature's a bitch" as the saying goes. Saying that something is natural is not a shortcut to finding out whether it is right or wrong, or dangerous or safe.

    To go further into your statement,

    <blockquote>But there would be absolutely no way for nature to get a bacterial gene (ie, Bt) into a plant’s RNA without our interference.</blockquote>

    That is not true. In fact, one of the techniques genetic engineers use to introduce genes into plants is by using a bacterium called Agrobacterium - which naturally inserts some of its own DNA into a host plant during infection. These genes are on a circular piece of DNA called a Ti plasmid, which instructs the plant to produce hormones that produce a gall that feeds the bacteria. Genetic engineers use a modified version of this plasmid, with the virulence gene and the genes involved in gall formation removed. What is left is a loop of DNA that you can put genes into, and the Agrobacterium will insert it into plants for you.

    So in nature, genes are indeed moving from bacteria to plants, and in one case I've found there's even a parasitic plant that inserts its DNA into its host. (!!) So just like with plant breeding, this stuff is happening all the time in nature, but when used by scientists, you can control the process and have it do something for you instead.

    <blockquote>but often also involve using salmonella or E. coli viruses as vectors, resulting in vestigial bits of THEIR  genes littering up the resulting RNA in unpredictable ways…</blockquote>

    Involving E. coli in the process shouldn't be a cause for alarm, except in public knowledge the bacterium (not a virus) has a reputation for being a pathogen, so it sounds scary. (some strains are virulent, and others are not) But it is really the lab rat of microbiology. When a genetic engineer has a gene of interest, they will usually have it stored on a circular piece of DNA (a plasmid) in E. coli bacteria, which will reproduce in a test tube, carrying with it several copies of the gene. Some molecular biology techniques are used to transfer the gene from the plasmid in the E. coli to the plasmid in the Agrobacterium. Think of it like cutting a loop of string open, and tying the "gene" part of the string into another loop of string. No E. coli genes move with it - just your gene. I can explain how this works if you want me to.

    Then, it is inserted into the plant, where it is tested for whether or not it works, and to make sure that the gene and only the gene is inserted. And here's where the regulatory system comes in. Genetic engineers have to obtain and provide evidence that the gene construct that they intended to transform into the plant is exactly what has been transformed, and nothing else. And this is a really important point, does Cummings discuss this in her book at all?

    I have never heard of Salmonella being used in the genetic engineering process, nor did a search of the literature turn up anything. Could you tell me where you got this information?

    I want to tie this together now, and make some sense out of it. You are suggesting, by implication, that whatever Nature produces is no cause for alarm, but if a human intentionally produces something, that it is immediately suspect. But separating plant breeding into the 'Nature' category and genetic engineering into the artificial category is inaccurate, because every food crop contains the indelible stamp of human involvement, and the genetic engineering process has natural analogs and builds on naturally occurring phenomena. The distinction of whether or not something is 'Natural' or not tells you nothing about what it is, or what it does.

    I would like to end this part of my response with a suggestion, that your belief concerning the boundaries between species does not come from a scientific belief (starting with what we know and drawing conclusions from it) but is instead based upon a prior philosophical commitment. Notice how you describe Nature as if it could do no wrong, almost as if it were a benevolent deity that has planned out a clear purpose for all life, and this new technology is violating that purpose.

  19. Next, I would like to respond to your suggestion that I "blindly follow science."

    That is pure nonsense. Science is itself the antithesis of blindness. It is the "Candle in the Dark" as Carl Sagan momentously described it. Put simply, science is a systematic way of making observations about our natural world that can be tested, verified, and used to make predictions that can be falsified. Essentially, you are saying that my beliefs, and the course that our society should take should not be guided by such a systematic method?

    It is difficult for me to get offended by such a suggestion, because it usually stems from either a lack of understanding about what science is, or an ideological position that is being protected out of fear that science will undermine it. If you choose to believe, for example, that Nature has a "purpose" or a "very good reason" for the way things are, that is your own personal belief, and I have no desire to change it. But that belief, it seems is crossing over into making claims of fact that are false, as I have outlined above.

    Science is not a religion, and it makes no sense to talk about it as if it was something to "blindly follow." Because science gives us models with certainty parameters, and when you use established scientific theories and models you guide your view of the world, you have a better chance of being right than by shooting from the hip. Certain ideas that are more on the 'cutting edge' of science shouldn't be trusted the same way as things in the established center, naturally because by the nature of the cutting edge the details are less certain.

    In some senses, genetic engineering is on the cutting edge. For example, complex traits such as drought tolerance are hard to get working, and even more complex traits are just getting started. I have seen promising results for these things, both in papers and in person. So even these are rapidly progressing from the edge.

    But many other aspects of GE crops are not on the cutting edge, but are well-established. We've been introducing new genes into crops for the longest time, even inadvertently selecting for new genes that are the result of genomic rearrangements. (I can point you to references for each of these points) The lack of allergenicity of commercialized GE crops is also well-established, and the safety of Bt proteins on mammals. There are also several papers establishing that antibiotic-resistant markers used in the transformation process (By the way, these are for antibiotics that have no medical importance) do not transfer to bacteria or other organisms in the soil, and besides, the primary cause of the evolution of resistance to medically-important antibiotics in pathogens is the overuse and misuse of medical antibiotics. Again, I can provide references if you want to read the papers. This isn't about blindly following some sort of vague power structure, this is about informing ourselves about the material reality we live in and allowing those facts to guide our decisions.

    With regard to affects on bees, I hope you are not talking about Colony Collapse Disorder, because that has been thoroughly debunked. I follow bee research very closely because I am also a beekeeper (I was tending them this afternoon), and I've read the stuff about it. With regard to rats, soil dwellers, and more, it is difficult to address your statements because you haven't provided any references for these claims. There have been several studies on mice that were poorly conducted, involving potatoes and tomatoes, for example, that are basically junk science. If you would provide a specific reference that I could check up on then I can address those claims. But there's been a lot of cultural mythology building around the safety of the GE crops that are being grown.

    Other aspects of GE crops that have no cause for alarm are those generated by RNAi - essentially a process where you 'turn off' a plants own genes - and very precisely at that. Recently, a research group made a 'tearless' onion by that process, and many plant breeders have been pointing out that the natural system that RNAi is based on, called Micro RNA's, underlie many systems in the plants we eat. It is very fascinating stuff if you want to hear more about it.

    There is a lot to know in this field, and I have only scratched the surface on it. That is why I am intensely skeptical that a lawyer who has in the space of the above interview made several false claims and fallacious arguments, could offer up a logical argument against the technology that is based in biological fact. There are areas where a lawyer's expertise are very applicable, such as patent law and the network of rights that go from companies to farmers to markets to consumers, and it would be interesting to see what a lawyer thinks about those aspects of the technology - and I fully agree we need more discussion in these areas. BUT, to conclude that Golden Rice is a mere PR move - when it isn't even a project of "the industry" but a nonprofit organization funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, Cummings thinks it is a hoax? This I've got to see.

    (Golden Rice is only the high-profile project - check out the Bio-Cassava Project I linked to above. There's a lot more in the world of public research than Golden Rice.)

    I think I would be interested in debating the topic with Cummings following reading her book, but I think my radio show would be a better venue. I'll contact the author in a couple months after I have had time to digest it and research the contestable claims being made.

    I'd like to pose a rhetorical question, should plant breeders have requested widespread public comment and debate, large-scale "holistic" (as you describe) studies and long-term health studies before making any "wide crosses" to distantly related species? Should all multi-species crops (as I mentioned in my previous comment) be subjected to the same standards? Or is it just GE crops? (you can answer this if you like) The reason why I put this out there is that both involve mingling species, and introducing new genes from elsewhere, yet, one is being treated wholly differently, practically being treated as a crime against humanity (or Nature), while the other is thought of as a no-brainer.

    You have asked for several things, and it seems from your last comment, you are particularly interested in hearing an argument for why something - anything should be genetically engineered. I do not argue that any particular trait should be genetically engineered, per se, but that people who are arguing against the use of the technology are arguing against it for nonscientific reasons, and are allowing their prior commitments (such as about corporations, patents, Nature, and more) to lead them to misrepresent what we know about the process, and conclude that nothing of benefit to them or anyone else (except Monsanto, of course) can come of it. What I do argue is that if something is safe, effective, and benefits the people who grow it and eat it, that that is the primary moral argument. Indeed, if the technology can help people, and there are no credible risks based upon the technology itself that we cannot test for, it then becomes a moral imperative that we pursue it. And finally, I have an overarching argument that people - in general - are benefited by learning more about science and guiding their decisions more based upon what we know, than what we would rather have be true.

    Would you like me to focus specifically on the big 'why' question itself, or any of the other things I have mentioned? Because if I'm going to write at length about scientific details and lay them out carefully so that everyone can follow along, I'd just like to know which one you think is the most important so I don't waste my time. I mean, heck, I brought up several things above and all Walter, for example, could talk about is an irrelevant point that doesn't even disprove anything I said!

    I look forward to reading your response.

  20. Bonnie P. says:

    Inoculated Mind: Thanks for your detailed comments, which have now far exceeded the word count of the original Q&A. Since you asked, I do think you're wasting your time here; no one is actually following along, not even me. So let's not bother pretending we're actually going to change each other's minds with competing peer-reviewed citations and a review of the basic science versus the lack of ethics and oversight councils. I don't plan to waste any more of my time by answering you. Maybe I can't, maybe I don't want to, maybe I'm a technophobic Luddite who wishes Mendel had never crossed a pea plant. Or maybe I secretly hope that you're right and every risk factor has been adequately considered and everything's going to be just fine. Pick your reason, have your last word, and then please do go enjoy your farmers market dinner. 

  21. I did enjoy my dinner, tonight was the first night we could enjoy chard from our own garden. Thank you.
    I'm in this for the science, and the human beings that depend on it, even if they wish they weren't. And thank you Bonnie, for being very open about your mind being closed. Mine's always open, and so is my blog if you ever want an answer to your questions.

  22. But Inoc, you were the one bringing up DeltaPines as an alternative source of seed. I simply pointed out that they are owned by Monstersanto. I wasn't arguing with you. You're the one arguing, or trolling rather. I simply pointed out a relationship between the worst offender of GMOs and the source you chose to use in your example. Very important to know who's behind what in the industry. Speaking of which, why do you hide behind a pseudonym rather than giving your real name. What are you afraid of?

  23. I have always found that the most effective way to hide my identity from people is to hide behind an internet handle, that if you clicked on it, would take you directly to my own website. Evidently, it has worked with you so far.

  24. Jeanine Sih Christensen says:

    In addition to the human health and ecological dangers discussed here, I just wanted to hip you to a documentary I saw a few years ago on "Link TV" called "Life Running Out of Control" which touches on international social justice angles, and also hooks up with some of the few qualified scientists whose study GMO-effects on health are not funded by industry but by their own [Norwegian, I think] government. I admit that my attention did wander a bit while watching it (it was... lengthy), but the film did offer some precise and disturbing facts re: what happens inside living organisms that have eaten GMOs. Ick. Or maybe, ouch. Keep up the good work, Ethicureans.