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March 13, 2000


A Tale of Two Botanies


AgBioNews - http://www.agbioworld.org

A Tale of Two Botanies

Wired Magazine http://www.wired.com

By L. Hunter Lovins

Plants, shaped into incredible diversity by 3.8 billion years of
evolution, make possible all life and are resilient against almost any
threat - except human destructiveness. From botany came the genetics
of Mendel and Lamarck, formalizing the patient plant-breeding that
created 10,000 years of agriculture.

Now, however, in the name of feeding a growing human population, a
completely different kind of botany, in the Cartesian tradition of
reducing complex wholes to simple parts, strives to alter isolated
genes while disregarding the interactive totality of ecosystems. Its
ambition is to replace nature's wisdom with people's cleverness; to
treat nature not as model and mentor but as a set of limits to be
evaded when inconvenient; not to study nature but to restructure it.

The new botany aligns the development of plants with their economic,
not evolutionary, success: survival not of the fittest but of the
fattest. High-yield, open-pollinated seeds abound; the new crops were
created not because they're productive but because they're patentable.
Their economic value is oriented not toward helping subsistence
farmers to feed themselves but toward feeding more livestock for the
already overfed rich. Most worryingly, the transformation of plant
genetics is being accelerated from the measured pace of biological
evolution to the speed of next quarter's earnings report. Such haste
makes it impossible to foresee and forestall: Unintended consequences
appear only later, when they may not be fixable, because novel
lifeforms aren't recallable.

In nature, all experiments are rigorously tested over eons. Single
mutations venture into an unforgiving ecosystem and test their mettle.
What's alive today is what worked; only successes yield progeny. But
in the brave new world of artifice, organisms are briefly tested by
their creators in laboratory and field, then mass-marketed worldwide.
The USDA has already approved about 50 genetically engineered crops
for unlimited release; US researchers have tested about 4,500 more.
Over half the world's soybeans and a third of the corn now contain
genes spliced in from other forms of life. You've probably eaten some
lately - unwittingly. The official assumption is that they're
different enough to patent but similar enough to make identical food;
Europe's insistence on labeling, to let people choose what they're
eating, is considered an irrational barrier to free trade.

Traditional agronomy transfers genes between plants whose kinship lets
them interbreed. The new botany mechanically transfers genes between
organisms that can never mate naturally: An antifreeze gene from a
fish becomes part of a strawberry. Such patchwork, done by people
who've seldom studied evolutionary biology and ecology, uses so-called
"genetic engineering" - a double misnomer. It moves genes but is not
about genetics. "Engineering" implies understanding of the causal
mechanisms that link actions to effects, but nobody understands the
mechanisms by which genes, interacting with each other and the
environment, express traits. Transgenic manipulation inserts foreign
genes into random locations in a plant's DNA to see what happens.
That's not engineering; it's the industrialization of life by people
with a narrow understanding of it.

The results, too, are more worrisome than those of mere mechanical
tinkering, because unlike mechanical contrivances, genetically
modified organisms reproduce, genes spread, and mistakes literally
take on a life of their own. Herbicide-resistance genes may escape to
make "superweeds." Insecticide-making genes may kill beyond their
intended targets. Both these problems have already occurred; their
ecological effects are not yet known. Among other recent unpleasant
surprises, spliced genes seem unusually likely to spread to other
organisms. Canola pollen can waft spliced genes more than a mile, and
common crops can hybridize with completely unrelated weeds.
Gene-spliced Bt insecticide in corn pollen kills monarch butterflies;
that insecticide, unlike its natural forebear, can build up in soil;
and corn borers' resistance to it is apparently a dominant trait, so
planned anti-resistance procedures won't work.

It could get worse. Division into species seems to be nature's way of
keeping pathogens in a box where they behave properly (they learn that
it's a bad strategy to kill your host). Transgenics may let pathogens
vault the species barrier and enter new realms where they have no idea
how to behave. It's so hard to eradicate an unwanted wild gene that
we've intentionally done it only once - with the smallpox virus.

Since evolution is a fundamental process, it must occur at every scale
at which it's physically possible, down to and including the
nanoecosystem of the genome. It's unwise to assume, as "genetic
engineers" generally do, that 90-plus percent of the genome is
"garbage" or "junk" because they don't know its function. That
mysterious, messy, ancient stuff is the context that influences how
genes express traits. It's the genetic version of biodiversity, which
in larger ecosystems is the source of resilience and endurance.

Transgenics is showing disturbing historical parallels to another
problematic invention, nuclear fission. In both enterprises, technical
ability has evolved faster than social institutions; skill has outrun
wisdom. Both have overlooked fundamentals, often from other
disciplines wrongly deemed irrelevant. Both have overreached - too
far, too fast, too uncritical.

Our key choices now are not between unwelcome alternatives - nuclear
power or freezing in the dark, transgenic crops or starvation - but
between those bad choices and attractive ones outside the orthodoxy.
For crops, the best choice would be fairer distribution of food grown
by a respectful and biologically informed agriculture that stops
treating soil like dirt. But sound choices tend to emerge and get
adopted in time only if we take seriously the discipline of mindful
markets and the wisdom of informed democracy. Botanists have a
professional duty to help us all understand the vital differences
between biology and biotechnology - between the foundations of their
traditional science and the scientifically immature but commercially
hell-for-leather enterprise, a billion times younger, that aims to
replace it.


Amory Lovins, a physicist and MacArthur Fellow, and Hunter Lovins, a
lawyer and social scientist, are cofounders of Rocky Mountain
Institute, the copyright holder.
An unabridge