Technology Makes For A Brighter Earth Day
- Henry I. Miller
The first Earth Day celebration was conceived by then-US Senator Gaylord
Nelson and held in 1970 as a "symbol of environmental responsibility and
stewardship." In the spirit of the time, it was a touchy-feely,
consciousness-raising experience, and most activities were organized at
the grass roots level.
Earth Day now provides an opportunity for environmental extremists to hog
the spotlight, dish anti-technology dirt and proselytize. A favorite
target this year is biotechnology, which Jeremy Rifkin, science's bête
noire, has characterized as threatening "a form of annihilation every bit
as deadly as nuclear holocaust." Greenpeace has said that they are seeking
no less than biotech products' "complete elimination [from] the food
supply and the environment." Greenpeace and similar groups advocate and
have committed vandalism of field trials at universities and on private
Who could tell from such apocalyptic language and extreme actions that
what is at issue are products like papayas, corn and cotton plants
genetically improved to resist pests, grow with less agricultural
chemicals and under adverse climatic conditions, and to give higher yields.
The extremists' eco-babble ignores the scientific consensus that
gene-splicing, the newest manifestation of biotechnology, is a refinement
of less precise methods of genetic modification that have been applied for
more than a century. The US National Research Council put the new
biotechnology in perspective in a 1989 analysis: "With classical
techniques of gene transfer, a variable number of genes can be
transferred, the number depending on the mechanism of transfer; but
predicting the precise number or the traits that have been transferred is
difficult, and we cannot always predict the [characteristics] that will
result. With organisms modified by molecular methods, we are in a better,
if not perfect, position to predict the [characteristics]." In other
words, the newer techniques are more precise and more predictable and
often yield a safer product.
Farmers and the health of the environment have been the major
beneficiaries of the dozens of gene-spliced plants now on the market.
According to a report on gene-spliced crops from the USDA's Economic
Research Service, the adoption of herbicide-tolerant soybeans was
associated with "increases in yields" and "significant decreases in
herbicide use," and "increases in adoption of [gene-spliced] cotton
resistant to insects in the southeastern United States were associated
with significant increases in yields and profits and decreased insecticide
use." In 1999, the adoption of gene-spliced corn prevented the destruction
by the European corn borer alone of more than 60 million bushels, and
herbicide-resistant soybeans made possible a net reduction of 19 million
applications of herbicides. An innovation that decreases agricultural
"inputs" ˜ all the factors that contribute to the costs of food production
˜ benefits everyone involved in the pathway from the dirt to the dinner
plate. Increased yields are environmentally important because they obviate
the need to put additional land such as forests under cultivation. In
addition, they permit water to be used more efficiently, decrease erosion,
and encourage wider use of environmentally-friendly no-till cultivation.
But in spite of these achievements and an extraordinary safety record, the
row has been tough to hoe. In Europe, there is widespread public and
political opposition to importing grains grown from gene-spliced seeds.
Gene-spliced foods have been banished by major supermarket chains.
Vandalization of field trials by environmental activists is commonplace --
and goes largely unprosecuted. Governments have imposed moratoria on
commercial-scale cultivation of plants, and regulatory approvals have
ground to a halt. In the United States as well, regulators have imposed
overly strict, unscientific rules on agricultural and food research that
hinder new product development.
The coup de grace may have been administered to agricultural biotechnology
by two recent UN forays into regulation that will slow agricultural
research and development, raise their costs, promote environmental damage
and bring famine and death to many developing countries.
Last year, delegates to the UN-sponsored Convention on Biological
Diversity completed a "biosafety protocol" for the regulation of
international movement of gene-spliced organisms. It was based on the
bogus "precautionary principle," which dictates that every new technology
must be proven absolutely safe before it can be used. It shifts the burden
of proof from the regulator, who once had to demonstrate that a new
technology was likely to cause some harm, to the innovator, who now must
demonstrate that the technology will not. Under this new standard of
evidence, regulatory bodies are free to arbitrarily require any amount and
kind of testing they wish, and to create trade barriers under the guise of
health or environmental protection.
Another example of the UN's malign influence are three task forces of the
165-member Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint food standards program
of the United Nations' World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture
Organization, which are considering issues related to biotechnology and
food. The Codex task forces are en route to codifying various procedures
and requirements more appropriate to potentially dangerous prescription
drugs or pesticides than to gene-spliced tomatoes, potatoes and
The prospect of unscientific, overly burdensome Codex standards for
gene-spliced foods is ominous, because members of the World Trade
Organization will, in principle, be required to follow them, and the
standards will provide cover for countries that arbitrarily deny its
markets to certain products. A country that claims it is merely following
a Codex standard cannot be challenged for unfair trade practices.
Earth Day provides an opportunity for reflection about our planet --
including the well-being of the humans who populate it. Science and
technology must play vital roles, and anyone who mindlessly rejects and
disparages them is out of step with the occasion.
Henry Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a fellow at the Hoover
Institution. He was an FDA official from 1979 to 1994.
Vitamin A Deficiency A Major Killer In Uganda
David Kaiza; The East African; 08 April 2001; The Ministry of Health has
been lobbying the processed food industry to fortify all its products with
Up to 65,000 children in Uganda die due to lack of Vitamin A, a tragedy
reflecting the widespread malnutrition afflicting the country's
population. Poverty and ignorance are to blame for the debilitating
condition, which health experts say is easy to avert but is complicated by
a host of other health factors. A Ministry of Health report has stated
that lack of Vitamin A alone contributes to 25 per cent of childhood
deaths in Uganda.
The same figure is also quoted for malaria. An ongoing study is trying to
establish whether the deficiency contributes to maternal mortality as
well. Growing evidence suggests that it increases a woman's risk of dying
during pregnancy as well as cause miscarriages, stillbirths, low birth
weight. It may also speed up the progression of HIV infection to Aids.
To reflect the seriousness of the problem, the Ministry of Health, in
collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development
has kicked off a polio-style campaign to combat Vitamin A deficiency in
the country. In addition, the Ministry of Health has been lobbying the
processed food industry to fortify all its products with Vitamin A.
These include producers of processed fruit drinks, maize millers and
bakeries. Similar action in Ghana and Malawi has increased Vitamin A
intake by 80 per cent. Another initiative by USAID is to distribute two
vitamin A supplement capsules to all children in Uganda every year.
Experts say that the deaths attributed to Vitamin A can be averted with an
investment of only Ush100 (5 US cents) a year. "Like the polio, we have
started a mass campaign to make people aware of the problem," Ms Louise
Sserunjogi, coordinator for the Micronutrient Operational Strategies and
Technology (Most) project told The East African.
"Vitamin A deficiency is a hidden hunger. Nobody sees it, nobody will know
it until the child goes blind, until the child is dead," she said. Studies
done throughout the country show that one in two children in Uganda, or 54
per cent of the under five population, suffers from lack of vitamin A.
This makes Uganda one of the worst affected countries in the world.
It means affected children have less protection against common infections.
Those who suffer from severe cases of Vitamin A deficiency often lose
Copyright 2001 The East African All Rights Reserved
THAILAND SAYS GMO MAY HELP BOOST CROP PRODUCTIVITY
April 12, 2001 Reuters
(From Agnet Douglas A Powell )
BANGKOK - Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was cited as telling reporters
on Thursday that Thailand does not oppose genetically modified organisms
(GMO) and thinks the technology might bring benefits by boosting crops,
adding, "We should not say that we want or do not want GMO. GMO is not
always harmful to humankind. People are just suspicious of the technology.
The technology could possibly bring benefits to Thailand as the country
still grows crops with very low productivity, and crops that could survive
without pesticides and resist diseases would be useful." The story notes
that Thailand is the world's largest exporter of rice, rubber, pineapple
Thaksin was further cited as saying that due to anti-GMO moves, Thailand
could use this opportunity to grow non-GMO crops to export to those
countries at premium prices, adding, "At the same time, we could not rule
out the possibility that GMO (crops) could also harm humans, and more
studies need to be conducted."
Thailand has banned the planting of GMO crops, but it has no objection to
importing genetically modified corn, soybean and cotton for human and
livestock consumption as well as products made from GMO grains.
Thailand imports soybean and corn from the United States, Brazil and
Argentina, where GMO crops are progressively replacing traditionally-grown
crops. The grains are used as feedstuff in the food industry, especially
for chicken for exports to Europe and Japan, which are Thailand's major
importers. China and Thailand are the biggest chicken exporters in Asia.
Bill Moyers’s Bad Chemistry
by Michael Fumento
It’s too bad that "one-sided journalism" has become a trite term generally
used to describe perceived media bias. Because sometimes, as with Bill
Moyers’ recent PBS special bashing the chemical industry, it literally IS
Yes, in the course of the 90-minute long "Trade Secrets," Moyers found he
couldn’t squeeze in a single corporate representative. Instead, he stacked
the deck with the usual anti-corporate suspect scientists who hide behind
white jackets and glasses to assert without evidence that cancer and
probably even hemorrhoids wouldn’t exist but for the chemical industry.
Did the industry want a crack at the ball? You bet. They reasoned with
Moyers, they pleaded, they begged; they probably even sent him a box of
fresh fruit from Harry & David. Alas, to no avail. They knew the hit was
coming and could nothing about it, accept to accept Moyers’ most gracious
offer to make an appearance on a half-hour panel discussion after the show.
Of course, this was after Moyers’ 90 minutes of agit-prop aimed at
thoroughly prejudicing the viewer. Conversely, environmentalist activists
knew it was coming and could do something about it. Within an hour of
PBS’s first web posting of the announcement of the program, the websites
of several activist groups announced mature plans for a nationwide
Can you say "collusion," boys and girls?
So what do you get when you only let one side present its views?
For one, you build a show around a memo by a single chemical company, B.F.
Goodrich. That memo stated that their product used in making plastic,
vinyl chloride, "is going to produce rather appreciable injury" to full
Yet the evil industry bastards continued to expose their workers!
But what if the viewer had learned that the injury identified at the time
was only to hands, and that Goodrich immediately took the reasonable steps
of reducing worker exposure in general and especially making them wear
And considering that the memo was from 1959, it could hardly reflect
current industry practice.
After this, Moyers not only invoked a logical fallacy but used fabricated
data to compound it.
The fallacy is that because chemical use is on the rise, and some diseases
are on the rise, chemicals caused the diseases.
Hmm . . . Each summer, ice cream consumption goes up along with heat
stroke deaths. Therefore ice cream cause heat strokes?
Specifically, Moyers declared, "Half a century into the chemical
revolution, there is a lot we don’t know about the tens of thousands of
chemicals all around us. "What we do know is that breast cancer has risen
steadily over the last four decades [that] brain cancer among children is
up by 26 per cent. We know testicular cancer among older teenage boys has
almost doubled, that infertility among young adults is up, and so are
learning disabilities in children."
It’s not just that he carefully picked and chose his ailments, but he’s
even wrong on the ones he did choose. Rates for breast cancer and
testicular cancer leveled off in the early 1990s. Adjusted for age, total
cancer incidence is dropping. All these data are freely available from the
National Cancer Institute’s SEER program at:
(http://seer.cancer.gov/Publications/CSR1973_1997/). Childhood cancer,
according to an American Cancer Society document using the latest data
available, increased in the early 1970s, leveled off in 1991 and began
declining in the mid-1990s.
Yes, diagnosis of childhood brain cancers has increased. But according to
a September 1998 Journal of the National Cancer Institute article, "The
reported rise in the incidence of brain tumors in American children is
most likely a result of better diagnosis and reporting rather than a true
increase in cases . . . " (http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/sept98/nci-01.htm)
Meanwhile, rates for some cancers, such as those of the stomach and
cervix, have plummeted. May we therefore conclude that man-made chemicals
caused these drops?
What about infertility? "Rates of infertility have remained constant
during the past three decades (at 8 to 11 percent)," according to the New
England Journal of Medicine of February 2, 1995, using data from the
National Center for Health Statistics and the Princeton National Fertility
There’s no evidence that learning disabilities are actually increasing,
but rather that we’re turning things like inattentiveness into diseases
(attention deficit disorder), and that as with as with childhood brain
cancer, we’ve improved the diagnosis of real problems.
No doubt the chemical industry has done things it regrets over the last
four decades or more. But it probably doesn’t regret its crucial role in
making us the healthiest, wealthiest people in history. If the best its
detractors can do is to dust off and misinterpret 42-year-old memos,
invent cancer statistics, and refuse to let the other side make an
appearance, it seems there can’t be too many skeletons hiding in the
chemical industry closet.
- Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in
Washington, D.C., where he’s completing a book on advances in
"A Tale of Policy, Politics and Ethics: A European Perspective on
Wednesday, April 25, 2001, 5:00 P.M. until 7:00 PM
AAAS Auditorium, 1200 New York Avenue, Washington, DC
(Forwarded by "Cindy Lynn Richard, CIH" )
A lecture and discussion with:
Willy DeGreef, Head of Regulatory Affairs, Syngenta Seeds Basel,
Commentary by: Michael Rodemeyer, Executive Director, Pew Initiative on
Food and Biotechnology
Please RSVP to the Science & Technology Policy Institute at RAND,
703-413-1100 x 5010 email@example.com A fee of $5.00 will be charged at the
Speaker's Abstract: The bumpy ride of gene technology in agriculture is
often presented as a consequence of differences in the way in which
Europeans and Americans look at food and agriculture, and this is
certainly part of the reason for the controversy in Europe. Part of the
failed introduction of GM food in Europe has been accidental, occurring
concomitant with the year when BSE developed into a full-blown crisis.
This crisis, along with other impinging factors, has led to the most
comprehensive attack on the role of science and technology against an
essential part of the world economy of the past half-century. After five
years in the ag-biotech war, European agriculture policy is driven by the
motto that science and technology are part of the problem. The
consequences are felt far beyond the borders of "Fortress Europe." The EU
is exporting its uninformed views on the future of agriculture with a
missionary zeal to the rest of the world, in the process doing enormous
damage to the drive towards food security. As a result, now that we have
unprecedented capability to reduce the environmental footprint of
agriculture while increasing our chances to feed more people better than
ever before, we are philosophically rejecting science as part of the
About the Speaker: Mr. DeGreef speaks worldwide on the issues of
agricultural biotechnology and policy. He is the head of Regulatory and
Government Affairs for Syngenta Seeds (formerly Novartis). Mr. DeGreef has
been Director of the International Service for Acquisition of
Agri-Biotechnology Applications (ISAAA) and other research and regulatory
positions in Africa. He is a member of the Group of National Experts on
Biosafety convened by the OECD, and the Chairman of the Plant
Biotechnology Unit of EuropaBio. He has been a trainer and lecturer in
both biosafety and plant genetics. He holds an MSc in Botany from Brussels
These seminars are being sponsored by the Washington Science Policy
Alliance, a loosely-knit coalition of institutions that has banded
together to conduct seminars and meetings around specific science and
technology policy issues. WSPA member organizations and contacts are
listed below. If you would like to sign up for invitations to future
seminars, please complete the online form.
The High-Stakes Battle Over Brute-Force Genetic Engineering
- STEPHEN R. PALUMBI; The Chronicle of Higher Education
(http://chronicle.com) April 13, 2001
(I thank Greg Pence for this article...CSP)
Genetically modified crops stand at the center of an intense debate
between consumers and industrial developers, and between governments
touting the benefits of high-tech agribusiness and citizens unsure about
the safety of genetic manipulation. The biggest question centers on
whether gene-altered crops are any different from artificially selected
ones. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, considers genetic
engineering just another form of selective breeding, likening the
insertion of a bacterial gene into a sugar beet to artificially selecting
beets for the same characteristics. Consumer advocates and scientific
watchdogs such as the Union of Concerned Scientists are not yet convinced.
They call for more-comprehensive testing of potential genetically modified
crops, and more-careful consideration of potential risks before widespread
Some caution seems warranted. Already, genes for herbicide resistance have
escaped from their host plants to enter weed species through hybridization
with pollen from crop plants. Such genes have also been up your nose if
you've walked past a pollen-filled field of modified crops. Each bee
carries those genes back to the hive in pollen sacks: They will be in
honey. Each seed that escapes the thresher carries the gene into exile in
next year's hedgerows or roadside verge.
Worry about such escapes rings throughout the agricultural world. But do
these evolutionary manipulations differ from Mayan selection of corn
thousands of years ago? Or French vintners crossing different vines to
produce cabernet sauvignon grapes? Both artificial selection and genetic
manipulation are a kind of evolutionary change. The first is an accidental
mimicry of the forces of natural selection, the second a purposeful
mimicry of the imagined power of specialcreation. These similarities have
prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate genetically
modified crop plants in the same "generally recognized as safe" category
it uses for strains developed by artificial selection. Whether genetic
engineering and artificial selection are actually the same has turned into
a battle for a very valuable high ground.
The major difference between artificial selection and brute-force genetic
manipulation lies in the complexity of interlocking, multiple evolutionary
changes that underlies most of the important differences we see between
species. Brute-force manipulation seeks to alter a solitary gene in a
small number of plants and immediately produce a population wide desirable
trait -- but selection almost never works so single-mindedly.
Usually, several genes contribute to any given trait, including many that
control trait expression in an organism. For example, sexual maturity may
be expressed early or late in the life of an individual -- say, in a male
salmon -- which matures after six months at sea instead of a year and a
half. Or expression of a trait may occur only in certain tissues, like the
red color in Christmas poinsettias -- but only in leaves surrounding the
nondescript flowers. Virtually all genes are orchestrated by other genes,
and without such controls, gene expression would be like the whole
orchestra playing every note of a symphony at once rather than letting the
music flow out one harmony at a time. Because of this, a quick fix to a
genetic problem frequently is like a hasty patch of a tire blowout during
a road trip -- the fix will take you some distance, but probably not the
The Tibetan yak has a meaty magnificence coated in rough fur and wrapped
in stoic power. The term "beast of burden" perfectly suits these
biological machines of Himalayan survival, hooves and hair and lungs that
thrive in the thin, high air, ferrying immense loads through mountain
passes higher than many airplanes dare go.
Tibetan culture has marched on these animals' backs for millennia. Yak oil
and butter are household staples -- yak leather becomes clothing -- yak
horns are ground to make mortar. Yak strength powers the plow, spent to
pull iron through stony soil and till fields closer to the sun than any
other on earth.
Over the generations, Tibetan yaks have become so adapted to high
altitudes that they suffer poor health below 10,000 feet. Their coarse
hair, hanging in ragged, insulating cascades, combines with other
integrated features of yak physiology to protect these animals from the
rigors of the Himalayas. As described in Christopher Wills's book,
Children of Prometheus, they have immense lungs -- three times larger than
those of similar sized cows -- to pull oxygen from the miserly air. They
have less hemoglobin in their red blood cells and fewer red cells in their
blood than their lowland relatives. Thin blood allows higher capacity for
temporary dehydration in the dry air and prevents blood cells from being
forced out of ruptured capillaries by the high blood pressure required in
high-altitude environments. Even the microstructure of their lungs
differs. Yaks have thin-walled arterioles in their lungs, allowing better
transport of oxygen into their bloodstreams.
Yaks have been altered in many ways by artificial selection over the
centuries of Tibetan dependence. All these changes combine to allow yaks
freedom on the high Tibetan plateau -- no single change would suffice. The
search for a "high-altitude gene" that would make regular mammals well
suited to Tibetan rigors would fail -- because no such single gene exists.
This example is not unusual. Evolutionary changes brought about by natural
or artificial selection usually craft an entire suite of complementary
attributes working together to produce an effective change in lifestyle.
Seldom does a single genetic change suffice to create a major ecological
difference in an organism. Should unicorns exist, they would differ from
horses in more than a single "horn" gene. And in the heart of the yak,
artificial selection must have acted on many genes at once to produce a
domesticated beast where none other can live.
Artificial selection simultaneously selects for the genes providing a
trait plus all the genes that control it. This inclusion of regulatory
genes in the evolutionary process happens automatically because selection
acts on the whole organism, not just a single gene. Desirable features and
any potentially undesirable complications are balanced by the process of
selection, an evolutionary personification of the human adage "You have to
take the bad with the good." As a result, artificial selection must work
on the end-product of all of an organism's genes as they act together to
produce stems, roots, and flowers. The sum total is the most important --
the way the pieces fit together determining success.
Artificial selection for fundamentally new traits crawls along because it
must work on the balance of so many genes at once. While we can see rapid
evolution in a generation or two for many traits, selecting for wildly
different characteristics -- like single-stalked corn from a
candelabra-shaped teosinte plant -- might take many generations and
involve populations in the hundreds or thousands.
By contrast, genetic manipulation can be fast -- inserting a trait
never-before possessed by a plant almost instantly -- and might involve
the generation of only a few genetically modified individuals to act as
Adam and Eve of a new crop variety. In the first case, artificial
selection sorts among many genetically different individuals, each with a
slightly different version of the desired features. In the second case,
genetic manipulation generates a very small number of take-it-or-leave-it
These three differences between selection and engineering -- inclusion of
the necessary regulatory genes, selection for whole-organism success over
several generations, and large population sizes with multiple variants --
result in very different evolutionary processes and potentially very
Suppose your town wanted a practice area for the Girl Scout rifle team.
One option would be to develop a rifle range, complete with professional
operators, ear protectors, training classes, and unimpeded targets.
Different sites could be compared, evaluated, and tested. Regulations
could be developed to fit your community's priorities and altered as
needed to fit emerging needs. That's one way of proceeding. Another way
involves dropping the guns on Main Street and hoping that everything sorts
The brute force of genetic engineering is like dropping guns on Main
Street. Engineers drop the trait into the organism, loaded with potential
impact, and everyone hopes for the best. Usually, no regulatory genes are
added except the few that activate the new genes. The complex and
species-specific set of genes that control the timing of gene expression
-- or the tissues in which expression occurs -- are in general unknown.
As a result, engineering a new gene into a plant does not guarantee that
the plant will embody features planned by the molecular engineers -- or
envisioned by the stockholders. Engineering focuses on understanding the
single genetic mechanism that controls a desired change, not the total
regulatory machinery necessary to control it. Such engineering solutions
might produce the wanted change -- they might turn a plant into the
desired evolutionary product. But most of the engineering effort has gone
into the gene for the trait itself, not the regulatory genes. Because of
this tendency, many engineering approaches focus on the rifles, not the
Brute-force engineering has produced surprising results in one case. Joy
Bergelson of the University of Chicago discovered in 1998 that a
genetically modified mustard plant began to fertilize seeds of other
plants 20 times more commonly than normal. Normally these plants produce
pollen that fertilizes their own seeds, but in one mustard variety that
had a herbicide resistance gene, use of pollen from other plants increased
enormously. For reasons still not well understood, the gene-insertion
procedure had multiple effects on the plant's fertilization system --
effects not predictable by bioengineers.
Thus, when we use brute-force evolution, we must build in a stage for
culling and sorting. In the final analysis, inserting genes merely
engineers variation that can fuel the evolutionary engine. True evolution
still must select among these variants. But the biggest difference between
natural evolution and brute-force evolution lives here. Natural evolution
is profligate with its variants, and cavalier about failures of individual
experiments. For every successful mutation -- for every new trait that
fits harmoniously into the whole organism like a new soprano in the choir
-- many, many fail. Evolution in natural populations is a great tinkerer.
Selection sorts through hundreds, even thousands of combinations of
different genes to find ones that work best -- that work longest, in
different climates, at different ages. The winning regulatory genes and
trait genes function together in the plant to produce more seeds than
other plants with other gene combinations. The winners declare themselves
through higher levels of reproduction and survival.
Working within large populations, selection from generation to generation
patiently culls the failures, waiting for a truly successful new
combination of genes to arise. All mutant genes have to prove themselves
in combination with all the other genes. Many combinations are discarded
as failures before any are good enough to survive. Trial and error works
in this selection process because there are so many gene combinations to
choose from, and because the failures can die in droves. Evolution's
dustbin overflows with partial successes.
Brute-force evolution produces fewer variants for selection to sort among.
You wanted the gene to metabolize glyphosate in your soybeans? Here it is
-- inserted into a single plant, or maybe a small family. How many
different ways of inserting genes are tried? How many different genes are
employed? How many different ways to accomplish this crop goal are
engineered? The costs of molecular development being so high, I'd be
surprised if hundreds of different engineered products are generated for
the same new trait. I'd be surprised if there were 10 different origins
for the glyphosate gene in soybeans or the BT gene in corn.
When these variants are so rare they also become more valuable -- more
difficult to discard. Here lies the biggest difference between selection
of natural variants and a bioengineered crop -- the willingness to discard
products if they are not the desired result. Natural or artificial
selection weeds brutally among the partially successful variants, but
human engineers do not. Instead, human engineering has a long and
successful history of tinkering failures into successes.
If failures are not discarded -- if new gene combinations that have
surprising or dangerous effects are not detected and eliminated -- then
modern genetic technology differs enormously from evolution by selection.
Ironically, extensive field testing stands nowadays at the fulcrum of the
environmental debate. Gene-technology producers, eager to expedite field
trials, usually short-circuit normal evolutionary trial and error of their
products by producing genetically homogeneous stocks that cannot evolve.
Environmental groups, especially in Europe, object to the whole
field-trial business, and have taken to farm sabotage against experimental
crops. Ironically, both the bioengineers and the natural-varieties
advocates hold evolution prisoner on the sidelines, given no opportunity
to sort through genetic combinations that work best for the whole organism.
Humans use poisons to control the rest of the biological world, and
they've worked, increasing food production enormously, and preparing us to
feed the 10 billion people we expect for dinner within 50 years.
Toxin-delivery ability has grown along with our batteries of genetic and
chemical weapons, and now centers on the delivery of exquisitely designed
poisons through a handful of manipulatable genes. Evolution has already
played a prominent role in our development as chemical farmers, changing
the potency of most herbicides and insecticides by producing resistant
populations. Evolution certainly will play a more complex role in future
development of genetically modified crops.
The question is not whether to use this technology to help double the
world's food supply -- burgeoning humanity leaves us little choice. But
how do we best use genetic technologies? How will evolution of the crops
by brute force, and evolution of weeds and insects by normal selection or
escaping genes, change the face of agriculture? Biological engineers must
admit their profession differs fundamentally from civil engineering,
because bridges don't evolve but plants do -- often in unexpected ways.
The success of the unexpected is evolution's favorite trick, and
engineering solutions must learn to accommodate astonishment.
- Stephen R. Palumbi is a professor of biology and the curator of
invertebrates at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.
This essay is excerpted with permission from The Evolution Explosion: How
Humans Cause Rapid Evolutionary Change, to be published next month by W.
W. Norton and Company. Copyright ©2001 by Stephen R. Palumbi.
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