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Assisted biological crops

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05.JUNE.09

by Sir James Mitchell

Throughout the ages, ever since the conceptualization of thinking and the thought process, we have sought to distinguish between good and evil, between right and wrong, and above all to distinguish between the dangerous and beneficial to health.##M;[more]##

Into this age-old process has been plunged the controversy around genetically modified food, genetically engineered seeds, in contra-distinction all that is natural and organic. Opinion, in the process, has become fact, and process has drifted into substance. The way an activity has produced results tarnishes the result itself, and a wall of suspicion has been allowed to be created that accepts no scientific analysis of the merits of the product itself.

In the world of this financial crisis, conventional wisdom of the last two decades has been shattered. Who would have thought in the dawn of this millennium not so long ago that the guru of financial respectability Alan Greenspan would literally be declaring before the US Congress “mea maxima culpa”? This reversal has now been favourably categorized as a serious historic event by Joshua Cooper Ramo in his recent work “The Age of the Unthinkable”.

In like manner, the Catholic Church has at last softened and indeed abandoned the charge of heresy surrounding Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species”, 150 years later. The variation that has evolved in nature and that is still evolving, like the bird-flu and swine-flu viruses are facts of life that our scientific minds must address, or more of us will perish.

The history of civilization would have been quite different if a disease-resistant species of wheat had not been located and distributed. Imagine, literally, a world without bread. Disease resistance has also been a product of the human intellect. Vaccines are produced in laboratories, and from laboratories the technique has been replicated on a grand scale in industry. But the fact that vaccines are industrially produced does not make the process abhorrent to our best interests.

I am absolutely fascinated by the sight of perspiring tennis players on television eating a banana during breaks. It is wonderful to see a natural product, filled with potassium, replacing mineral loss in perspiration. But as an agronomist in the banana fields, I became acutely aware of the bronzing of the edges of the banana leaf when the soil on which the plant was growing was devoid of potassium. The only cure was the application of mineral fertilizer before the potassium deficiency occurred.

Scientific research continues to improve the quality of our lives. No one challenges the need for such activity. It is also absolutely accepted that morality and integrity be imposed on the use of knowledge thus derived. No longer do we confuse insect damage with disease infestation, or bacterial with viral infection. It is in the laboratory that the virus will be identified. The rules of biological warfare, potentially using a virus, have to be determined by parliaments and the United Nations, not in the laboratories, but scientific definitions have to be applied. The fact that biological warfare is a possibility does not mean that students should not study the organisms that can be used in biological warfare, quite the contrary. A variety of responses to biological warfare has to be harnessed. All that is biology is at the heart of nature.

The laboratory is very often the only place and service available to deal with the problems we face. There are not many options available in wild nature to locate disease resistance for many of our crops. Indeed there is nothing wrong, in my view, in increasing the stock of disease-resistant plants in the world. The option of letting a virus delete a plant species from the planet is irresponsible, when we can find an alternative. The exercise of choice should not be abandoned as being outside the scope of functions among natural diversity.

Agriculture could not have progressed without traversing the boundary between quality and quantity. Some species are prolific in their yield of fruit, but lack a desirable quality; others have quality but are low-yielding. An example exists with quantitative yield in our coffee, Robusta, and qualitative yield from the mountain variety, Arabica. Over the years the scientists have attempted to blend the two to create, still with diversity, the volume of the flavours desired.

The papaya in Thailand is at the heart of the controversy surrounding genetically modified crops. The mosaic virus kills the papaya plant in many tropical countries, including the Caribbean, just at the time when fruiting occurs. Hawaii was able to produce a virus-resistant papaya, and so did Thai scientists working in collaboration with a scientific team at Cornell University. Then the NGO Greenpeace made the planting of the resulting virus-resistant strain of papaya into one of its “Causes”, dumping papaya fruit outside the parliament of Thailand when legislators were about to enact rules regulating the use of this safe planting material, claiming that the protected fruit would cause infertility and death (a claim that did not, however, stop passers-by stealing and eating the fruit and pronouncing on its wonderful taste). No scientific test was performed on any resulting incidence of infertility, and there has been no reported case of death. So emotion and superstition replaced scientific fact.With political turmoil surrounding other issues in Thailand, the parliament has been unable to legislate on matters such as food safety concerning papaya, and in 2007 the country lost 850 million US dollars in economic benefit.

The argument on genetically modified food assumes another dimension which confuses the issue – intellectual property rights.Patents and intellectual property rights are quite rightly endorsed in well-regulated international law, but in the same way that systems have been put in place for the production of expensive drugs to reduce human suffering in developing countries, so, too, should genetically modified crops, protected by patent and owned by powerful multi-nationals, be made available. Resistant varieties of crops, or crops that enhance yield per acre should be made available to poor peasants throughout the world. This is an issue that should be brought within the ambit of World-Bank financing, particularly at this time when the financial crisis is producing poverty and hunger. Good-quality rice cultivars should not be hidden from poor farmers in India or Indonesia. When the land becomes more productive with the use of high-yield seeds, nature benefits from the deployment of the human intellect.

The misconceptions surrounding GM (genetically modified) and GE (genetically engineered) are all pejorative.In the old days it was simply plant breeding. When the farmer took a feather to transfer the pollen from the flower of the passion fruit to its stigma, it was a process of man discovering a problem of infertility and finding the answer from the bees. Genetic engineering is a terrible phrase. Genetic modification almost invokes the Hitlerite concept of breeding a “master race”.

Yet we need to understand that genetically-engineered crops present opportunity for the most efficient use of the land surface. The Malthusian challenge posed by the increasing billions of world population in relation to resources has not vanished.We cannot afford to deny the fruits of scientific research by a failure to create appropriate policy response.The battle for public approval cannot be left to the scientists.Understanding the problem and formulating a policy response is a subject for the world’s political leadership.

I think it is time we go back to the pioneering spirit when the botanist set out to solve the problem on the farm. It is time to go back to basics. A simple formula has to be found to deal with the massive problem of increasing poverty and world hunger. Forget about GM and GE. My answer comes from the kindergarten – ABC. Learn the alphabet and new language to take us from the laboratory to the farm and feed the starving. We cannot afford to be wrong.

Sir James Mitchell is a chartered biologist, and was prime minister of St Vincent & the Grenadines, 1984-2000.

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