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June 5, 2000


Natural Law Party: Biotechnololgy and sustainable agriculture


See below a proposal from Mr. Mark Griffiths of the Natural Law Party
(which is opposed to biotechnology). Prof. Tony Trewavas and I debated
with him and Mr. Patrick Holden of the Soil Association (which
certifies organic farming) last week at Royal Agricultural College
which is close to Prince Charles' organic farm in UK.


biotechnology debate at

Cirencester on Friday and hope you found your trip to the UK a useful
exercise. I especially appreciated the opportunity for a private
discussion with you at the end of the conference.

The impression that I got was actually that all the speakers (and many

the audience) were all motivated in a very similar way - to make use

natural resources in the best interests of the planet and the people

other species that live on it. I particularly liked Tony Trewavas'

overriding goal of working towards creating a world where everyone is

to express their full potential (as it happens that is ultimately the

and only reason the Natural Law Party was formed and everything it does

ultimately with that purpose in mind).

So I do not feel the debate about biotechnology is about ultimate

rather it is about the means to achieve them. There are many areas of

knowledge that can be utilised to help achieve these goals, but it is

question of identifying which are the most appropriate to use. I am
sure by

now you have a reasonable insight into my perspective on some of these


I hope it is clear that the objection is not to biotechnology in its

sense (or even to some of its most modern developments such as genomics

although there are others who may take a different view even in
relation to

this aspect). My concern is specifically about the deployment of

recombinant DNA technology when released into the environment (I am

relaxed about its non-germ line use in medicine in contained
conditions, although

personally I believe it represents a continuation of a symptom based

approach to health which ultimately produces the least amount of health

each dollar spent - for example,
Times_New_RomanI think I am right in saying
that the US has

the highest per capita spending on health of all

nations, but despite this has the worst levels of average health of

whole developed world.).

So what do we do about recombinant DNA technology? I of course

that huge amounts of intellectual and financial capital are already
tied up

in its pursuit and that it is asking a lot of the scientific community

let go of its deployment at this stage. I am not a molecular
biologist. I

have merely a bachelor's degree in rural land management. Nonetheless,

have read quite a number of molecular biology papers - many in fact

even the most ardent anti-gm campaigner will not have read. Some of

papers are written in a technical language which it is impossible for

a non-specialist like me to penetrate. Others, however, are written in

accessible language.

I know from my own reading of these papers (and not simply because I

subscribe to a particular view of life or environmental concern) that

science of recombinant DNA is a science which is absolutely in its days

infancy. I sometimes become very distressed at the large gap I

between: on the one hand the reassuring statements we often hear from
the scientific

community made in public about the safety of deploying this technology,

on the other the implicit or explicit admissions of technical ignorance

the scientific literature about the behaviour and knock-on effects of

inserting novel genetic sequences into organisms using rDNA processes

to say in this respect I regard the process used as central to the
issue of risk).

If they have read the same literature I cannot believe that there are

molecular biologists who do not share these concerns in private. I

however, understand the pressures that are placed upon them when they

not to expresses them publicly. It IS possible to get these scientists

acknowledge these concerns in private (I have personal experience of

but they will not open their mouths in the same way in public.

I am not going to trouble you immediately with why I have fundamental

philosophical and technical difficulties with accepting recombinant DNA

appropriate technology for us to be deploying for the benefit of

and our environment (although one of the attached files is an attempt
to do

this if you have the time to read it). From a purely technical point

view I believe it is at the very least a question of competence.

In my opinion we are at least two generations of scientists away from

understanding what are the real implications of intervening in this way

such a fundamental level of biological functioning. My instinct is
that the

more the science of rDNA develops the more we will begin to understand

the error of breaching a wide range of genetic boundaries, some of

may well already have been broken.

The particular current danger is that the science is not sufficiently

yet to identify those boundaries at present. For what it is worth my

opinion is that those boundaries will be far more restricting than

has anticipated. For the moment, however, the use of rDNA is a

which recognises few if any boundaries. In fact it could be said that

whole purpose of its current deployment is to make most biological

boundaries porous.

So what am I saying? I am saying that we are moving from an infant

to applied technology with only tiny fraction of the necessary
knowledge. I

am saying that we cannot afford to deploy the technology at this early

in the science's evolution given the fundamental level at which we are

operating with recombinant DNA. We are trying to run before we have

to walk. Just like an infant child we are in severe danger of falling
over and

injuring ourselves. We at the very least should stop environmental

deployment until the science is allowed to mature.

But the hungry are hungry now. I agree. I am not saying stop

biotechnology. I am saying we should for the moment at least restrict

ourselves to the use those aspects of biotechnology which do not break

boundaries on such a fundamental level. We should stay at least

those boundaries that the organisms themselves recognise, even if we do

(or cannot) recognise them ourselves at this stage. Are we to say our

intellects are more sophisticated and intelligent than the

sophistication and organising power of the genomes of the organisms
themselves? I don't think

any scientists would try to make that claim.

In practical terms I am saying that (although there may be some finer
distinctions) that the

sexual breeding mechanisms inherent in them are a fundamental aspect of
the biological

quality control systems of those organisms. Without more knowledge we
by-pass them at our peril.

Does this place unacceptable limits on the deployment of biotechnology

the benefit of mankind and his environment? In my opinion, no. It is

becoming increasingly clear that the application of genomics to plant

breeding can provide huge advances without having to by-pass that

'quality-control' system. Does this make the job of the molecular

no longer useful and of value to the wider society? No. Genomics offers

new territories for molecular biologists.

At the Cirencester event I quoted Monsanto's global head of plant

from an article in a British farming paper. He stated that the future
of wheat

breeding lies in genomics (although he didn't use the word the rest of

article made it clear what he was referring to). But it is not just

Monsanto who are saying this. This idea was also put, at least in
relation to

oilseeds, to the annual conference of the British Association for the

Advancement of Science as far back as 1998 by the head of oilseeds at

John Innes Centre, Professor Dennis Murphy. He proposed that we could

most, if not all, of the plant breeding benefits we seek using genomics
without the need

to deploy recombinant DNA technology. This is from a man who has major

teams working under him and is a world leader in plant molecular

So what is my proposal to you in your role as a leading representative
of the

biotechnology world, and also to you as a son of a developing country

whose citizens faced enormous problems of sustainabilty both now and

seemingly far into the future? My proposal is as follows:

1) We should postpone the further deployment of rDNA organisms in the

chain and the environment until the science is more mature. rDNA

science need not be stopped (if people think that is the best
deployment of

our research resources, although personally I do not) provided it is

confined to contained conditions.

2) In the meantime biotechnologists should put their energies into

genomic methods to conventional breeding techniques to achieve many, if

all, of the genetic improvements that are sought. There have already

open-minded discussions between Monsanto and the Soil Association on


3) We should further consider my proposition that improved genetics is
not the

principal constraint to the development of sustainable agricultural
systems capable

of feeding a world population which is not forecast to reach its peak

the middle of the century (although therein lies another discussion

which I will not trouble you now). There are considerable
opportunities for

improving global agricultural productivity by carrying out a

of our land management practices. This is also part of my proposal.

4) I believe there are huge strides to be made under items 2) and 3)
and I

do not believe it is necessary to consider engaging in the risks

with deployed rDNA technology until these other options have been
explored and


5) Finally rDNA deployment should only be considered after this process
has been

completed and it is established that there is no further suitable

alternative (I personally believe that this process will demonstrate

rDNA deployment is unnecessary).

To start to examine these possibilities in more depth, therefore, it
would be useful

to organise a multi-disciplined conference where this type of

strategy could be discussed (I got the impression the OECD Edinburgh
conference was mainly

populated by molecular biologists - although I could be wrong on that.)
Is this something that

your university would be interested in? I think it could be quite a
prestigious international event.

I should point out that this proposal is one from me personally rather

(at least at this stage) as a representative of any particular

as you are the first person I have articulated this approach to in this

of detail. I am aware that some environmentalists have objection even

the genomic approach, although as far as I can tell these reservations

revolve mostly around issues of intellectual property rights. That,

however, is a social and legal issue which can be resolved at anytime

through the relevant political processes (whereas I see rDNA deployment
as an

issue of biological phenomena beyond the control of man and his

institutions). All this needs discussion in order to identify what is

Whatever one's perspective I think it is difficult to imagine a subject

important to the future of humanity than this one. How the scientific

wider communities address this subject is vital to everyone on the

My hope, in writing to you in this way, is perhaps to stimulate the

development of a constructive partnership between molecular biologists

land managers (and whoever else is relevant) for the benefit of all
concerned. I think

it is vital that we have a multi-disciplined approach to this subject
to which everyone can contribute.

I hope you had a good trip home. Please feel free to contact me at any

My work number is + 44 1962 842233.

With best wishes,


Mark Griffiths BSc FRICS FAAV


Dear Mark:

I was pleased to hear from you and indeed it was a pleasure to talk to
you after the debate. I very much appreciate you taking time to write
to me and share me your thoughts.

As you correctly point out, knowledge of genomics would help us to
alter endogenous DNA sequences within a plant to produce most of the
desired result without transgenics but please remember that such a
manipulation would still require some sort of genetic engineering
albeit a precise surgery of such sequences. I would still take an
issue with your suggestion that we should not pursue transgenics route
because we do not understand its implications fully. It is like saying
that Wright brothers should not have flown until they completely
understood the aerodynamics. Science is always improving and adding
new knowledge and there is never a point when we can say that we know
it fully, especially in biology. There is however a concrete a priori
reasoning now that assures us that the current transgenic approach,
while still in infancy, will not lead to any negative consequences
beyond what we have already been doing in conventional breeding
including wide species hybridization and mutation breeding where we
have produced high yielding plants while groping largely in the dark
with our knowledge on the structure, function and location of genes
involved. Biotechnology including transgenics is the FIRST time where
such genetic manipulation is being done with a complete knowledge of
the genetic basis of traits in crops.