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June 12, 2000


Anthony Trewavas - GM is the best option we have


AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

as an interested layman on the issue of biotechnology and genetically
modified organisms, i've enjoyed reading the various opinions expressed
here so far. in that spirit, i'd like to offer my own comments to this very
erudite and passionate article by dr. trewavas.

At 11:24 AM 6/5/2000 -0000, you wrote:
>AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com
>GM is the best option we have
>Anthony Trewavas FRS.FRSE
>Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology
>University of Edinburgh.
>I have been a plant biologist for 40 years. What drew me to the subject
>was love of the organism. All those
>that deal with plants will know this feeling of pleasure and peace that
>comes from contact. We use plants in
>many different ways; for food, clothes, timber, cooking and drugs and to
>beautify our environment. To improve these uses for human benefit we must
>first gain better understanding of the way such complex
>organisms work. My respect has grown the more I have come to understand
>the beautiful and intricate way in which plants function. Our role on
>this planet is to act the good gardener. Like all such gardeners or
>stewards we seek to provide a planetary garden which survives in harmony
>with itself. But this garden can
>only be in harmony when all our fellow men and women, the other stewards
>of this planet, can enjoy a complete and fulfilling life enabling the full
>flowering of the potential in all of us.

"our role on this planet is to act the good gardener. like all such
gardeners or stewards we seek to provide a planetary garden which survives
in harmony with itself." so your claim is that the "purpose" of people is
to be "good gardeners" and make the planet a great "planetary garden".
hmmm. with all due respect, this is religious mysticism, not science.
there's nothing necessarily wrong in viewing people and the world in this
manner (mystically), so long as you recognize it. as an aside, i'm curious
to know why you chose the specific metaphors of "garden" and "gardener". be
that as it may, it would seem, then, that this debate is really about two
fundamentally different religious points of view, one that views man as
being called by the gods to tame nature primarily (though not necessarily
exclusively) for human benefit, and the other that views man as NOT being
called by the gods to tame nature, but rather to leave it in as wild a
state as possible. these two worldviews strike me as fundamentally
irreconcilable, and may at some point lead to war between the two sides.

>There are some people in this country that stereotype scientists without
>ever knowing any of them; that ascribe ulterior motives to scientific
>endeavour and surround themselves with acolytes of similar limited
>experience. These people commonly rate the wisdom of nature as superior to
>human ingenuity and survival.

well, here in the states, most of us assume that scientists are no
different than anyone else, meaning that they're in it mostly for the
money, not ideology. the money from working in science allows them to drive
big-ass, gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, live in 3,000-4,000 sq. ft.
houses (far, far more than they actually need) on land far from the
"problems of the inner city" (land that was, until recently, farmland),
fill these houses with expensive stereos, tvs, vcrs, appliances, and
furnishings (all placed in accordance with proper feng shui principles),
eat in nice restaurants (all too often on the company's or university's
tab), and send their children to nice, private schools. science may very
well still be a noble calling in england, but over here, it's mostly a
well-paid trade, like plumbing or cabinet-making, and consequently,
scientific motivations tend to be driven more by the attitude of a
tradesman than a nobleman.

>But we investigate nature so that we can stop the natural things that
>destroy our lives and curtail our stewardship.

maybe in england. in the states nature is investigated so that we can make
money off of it.

>I am talking about natural
>things like child death, leprosy, disease-ridden water, starvation or
>floods that are clearly part of nature and nature's wisdom.

they're certainly natural things. but from the religious perspective that
sees man as gardener called to create a planetary garden, are these
"natural things" good or evil, i.e. do they further the creation of the
planetary garden, or detract from it?

>ingenuity, which our opponents cast so easily aside, has given us
>antibiotics, anaesethics and warm houses to prolong and protect life,
>security of
>food supply, transport to places so that we can share in the pride and
>glory of human achievements in arts, music and architecture; and has even
>taken us to the moon. All these ingenuities derive from knowledge of the
>world in which we live and result from experimentation and improvement of
>nature, the 'good gardening' which opponents denigrate.

you are using "improvement of nature" in a religious sense, which again is
ok as long as you recognize this. i personally would prefer the more
clinical "human alteration" of nature, but given that what you're doing is
putting forward a particular religious point of view, i'll let it go for
now. it's certainly true that human ingenuity created all of these things.
i should also point out that human stupidity has needlessly made a wide
variety of antibiotics useless, the stupid desire of humans to needlessly
keep every room in a house at the same warm temperature in the winter has
resulted in a tremendous waste of fossil fuels and contributed
significantly to global warming, and ease of transport has also led to
easier transmission of disease and easier introduction of foreign plants
and animals that are destructive to their new environments. the coin has
two sides; the sword has two edges.

>There is a desire
>by some to reverse history, to recover some mythical golden age when life
>expectancy was under half what it is now; when people died needlessly and
>painfully from a variety of unknown causes (some most certainly from
>diseases in their poor quality food) and when, for example in the UK, half
>the young men called up for the Boer war were refused on the grounds of
>serious underweight, height and poor health identified as resulting from

the malnourishment you speak of also allowed the boers to continue the
fight much longer than otherwise would've been possible, and give england
one hell of a bloody nose to boot. as an englishman, you no doubt find that
uncomfortable. what would a boer say?

>When problems develop we must continue to rise to the
>challenge to tackle them as we have done in the past with
>nobility and intellect.

that depends. resources are limited. which problems are likely to generate
the most money if tackled?

>Do not listen to the siren voices that say "stop
>the world I want to get off". There are many such voices in the UK at

there are few such voices in the states at present.

>A decade ago, as a university plant biologist, I thought that genetic
>manipulation GM would be publicly funded and used for the benefit of

has something happened since then to change your mind? are you concerned
that gm might now be used for the detrement of mankind? in what way?

>Indeed I share in the general distrust of GM commercialisation
>and I know this is a major complication in the UK.

why do you distrust the commercialization of gm?

>But this is the world
>we live in; if you don't like it change the economics, don't demean the
>knowledge. We can't eliminate knowledge simply because someone makes a
>profit out of it.

"if you don't like it change the economics". this sounds like a suggestion
that a more socialist form of economics may be necessary to save gm.
careful dr. trewavas. you're flying awfully close to the sun.

>Two recent reports of publicly-funded, university GM research now indicate
>its true potential. US scientists in collaboration with Japanese workers
>have genetically improved (GM) rice to increase seed yield of each plant
>by 35%. Why is this important?

cite please.

>One of the most certain facts about the human population is that it is
>increasing. By 2025 there will be 2.3 billion extra souls on mother earth;
>50 times the current population of the UK and they will have to be fed.
>Our current numbers of some six billion have already placed dangerous
>burdens on the ecosystems of spaceship earth and threaten our
>bio-diversity on which we are all interdependent. Global warming may
>indeed be global warning. So ploughing up wilderness to feed these extra
>people is no option. We can also eliminate organic farming as a meaningful
>solution. Organic farmers rely ultimately and only on soil nitrogen
>fixation to provide the essential nitrate and ammonia for crop growth and
>yield. Rainwater provides the other minerals. Since the maximum yields of
>fixed nitrogen have been measured numerous times we can estimate that by
>taking another 750 million ha of wilderness under the plough we could feed
>just three billion. When Greenpeace tell us to 'go organic' I ask myself
>which three billion will live and which three billion will die; perhaps
>they can enlighten us when they have finished tangling with the courts.

perhaps greenpeace is just as aware of this (that "going organic" can't
possibly produce enough food to feed the current six billion people, let
alone the additional 2.3 billion people coming along by 2025) as you are?
perhaps greenpeace views gm foods as like a gerbil running on a wheel,
meaning that "mother earth", as you call it, was never meant to carry a
human population this large, and gm foods will never ultimately solve this
fundamental problem. perhaps greenpeace believes that a die-off of three
billion people is an acceptable price to pay now to forestall a complete
ecological collapse down the road when the human population is 12-15
billion and the gm option is no longer viable. greenpeace has never been an
organization for those of moderate temperment.

>Clever plant breeding in the early 60's produced rice and wheat plants
>with well over double their previous
>yield; such progress enabled a parallel doubling of mankind, without
>massive starvation.

true enough. but from the religious perspective that sees man as gardener
called to create a planetary garden, was the doubling of the population of
mankind as a consequence of clever plant breeding good or evil, i.e. did it
further the creation of the planetary garden, or detract from it?

>But this option is
>now exhausted.

it's certainly not what it used to be.

>assuming that
>Ignoring the problem, leaving billions to starve in misery,
>the worst of all tortures
>according to Amnesty International, is not an option either.

not an option for those who follow the religious perspective that sees man
as gardener called to create a planetary garden, certainly.

>"Every man's
>death diminishes me because I
>am part of mankind; ask not for whom the bell tolls..." is a philosophy I
>know many here will share with
>John Donne.

with all due respect, this is most certainly NOT true. the death of general
george armstrong custer and the annihilation of the 7th cavalry at the
battle of the little big horn enhanced mankind. the assassination of SS
governor-general reinhardt heydrich by czech partisans in 1940 enhanced
mankind. death can enhance as well as diminish.

>So where one grain grew before we now again have to ensure
>that two will grow in the future.
>Currently GM is our best option to achieve this difficult task. This first
>report is very encouraging.
>Critics say to me there is enough food to feed the world and they may well
>be right; at present. We
>produce sufficient to feed 6.4 billion people but the excess is largely in
>the West and it is far easier for
>scientists to conjure more food from the plants we grow than to persuade
>the West to share its agricultural
>bounty with its poorer neighbours.

this brings up an interesting question. why are western peoples so
reluctant to share their agricultural bounty with their poorer neighbors?

>But the excess will not last long; our
>population increases by 1.3%
>/year, current annual cereal increases are only 1.1%. We live on the
>residual excess produced by the green
>revolution. At some point catastrophe beckons.


>Our second report deals with a problem that kills one million young
>children in the third world every year
>and leaves many millions permanently blind. For a variety of reasons,
>babies can be prematurely weaned off breast milk. It's not a problem in
>the West, a variety of other foods and milk are available. But in the
>backwoods of the Far East, the usual option is rice gruel. Rice however
>contains no vitamin A and such
>babies rapidly become deficient. Either eye development is permanently
>damaged, (we all need vitamin A
>for sight), or they succumb to childhood diseases that any western baby
>shrugs off in a week. Scientists in
>a Swiss university in a 'tour de force' have genetically improved rice to
>make vitamin A. This golden rice
>has been given to the International Rice Institute in the Philippines for
>distribution to help ameliorate this
>serious problem and ensure a better life for parents and children...
>Those who stand
>to benefit in the third world will
>then be enabled to make their own choice freely about what they want for
>their own children.

one thing i've noticed recently is that those in favor of gm foods
constantly talk about "golden rice" as the savior of asia. you use it like
a talisman to ward off anti-gm foods people, who presumably are supposed to
respond like vampires retreating before the upraised cross. first of all,
noone has any idea whether asian peoples will even be willing to eat golden
rice. what if they think it tastes like shit? what if they don't like the
texture? what if they don't like the color? what if they don't like the
smell? dietary habits are deeply engrained in a people's culture, and
trying to rapidly change them is one of the hardest things in the world to
do. don't believe me? See this url:


over the past 30 years, enormous resources have been put into a campaign to
encourage americans to eat wheat bread, which has a lot more fiber in it
than white bread. in spite of that, americans still eat five loaves of
white bread for every one loaf of wheat bread (and my suspicion is that a
portion of the wheat bread consumed is solely a consequence of peer
pressure--the two guys ahead of you in line at the sandwich shop ask for
wheat bread and you allow yourself to be intimidated into asking for wheat
bread as a result). so conagra has come up with a way to mill white wheat
so that white bread will have the same amount of fiber (and texture) as
wheat bread. what we have here is a western equivalent to golden rice. it
will be interesting to see what the response of the american people will
be. will they eat this new, high-fiber, healthy white bread, or stubbornly
and irrationally stick with traditional white bread? stay tuned.

>But these are foreign examples; global warming is the problem that
>requires the UK to develop GM
>technology. 1998 was the warmest year in the last one thousand years.
>Many think global warming will
>simply lead to a wetter climate and be benign. I do not. Excess rainfall
>in northern seas has been predicted
>to halt the Gulf Stream. In this situation, average UK temperatures would
>fall by 5 degrees centigrade and
>give us Moscow-like winters. There are already worrying signs of salinity
>changes in the deep oceans.
>Agriculture would be seriously damaged and necessitate the rapid
>development of new crop varieties to
>secure our food supply. We would not have much warning. Recent detailed
>analyses of arctic ice cores has
>shown that the climate can switch between stable states in fractions of a
>decade. Even if the climate is only
>wetter and warmer new crop pests and rampant disease will be the
>consequence. GM technology can
>enable new crops to be constructed in months and to be in the fields
>within a few years. This is the unique
>benefit GM offers. The UK populace needs to much more positive about GM or
>we may pay a very heavy

here in the states, most people are fairly skeptical that any global
warming is taking place at all, and if it is, that people have anything to
do with it (the contributors to this list from the hudson institute and the
hoover institute will back me up on this, i'm sure). arguing that gm
technology is necessary to counteract the effects of global warming doesn't
cut much ice with us yanks, i'm afraid.

>In 535A.D. a volcano near the present Krakatoa exploded with the force of
>200 million Hiroshima A bombs. The dense cloud of dust so reduced the
>intensity of the sun that for at least two years thereafter, summer turned
>to winter and crops here and elsewhere in the Northern hemisphere failed
>completely. The
>population survived by hunting a rapidly vanishing population of edible
>animals. The after-effects continued for a decade and human history was
>changed irreversibly.

i saw this show too on american public tv. the 535 ce date is still
speculation, not fact. in the states we call this kind of tv "speculative
documentary". a lot of people here saw it as clinton administration
propaganda (since it was shown on public tv) to shape public opinion in
order to pressure the american congress to ratify the kyoto protocol on
global warming and the nuclear test ban treaty. we yanks are in no mood to
give up either our sport utility vehicles or our ability to live test
nuclear warheads.

>But the planet recovered. Such
>examples of benign nature's wisdom, in full flood as it were, dwarf and
>make miniscule the tiny
>modifications we make upon our environment.

if the modifications we make upon our environment are really tiny and
miniscule, then why worry about global warming due to burning of fossil
fuels? If there's no need to worry about it, then there's no need to combat
it with gm foods, no? The Cato Institute is certainly in your corner on
this one (that human modifications on our environment are no big deal).
Check out the following url:


>There are apparently 100 such
>volcanoes round the world
>that could at any time unleash forces as great. And even smaller volcanic
>explosions change our climate
>and can easily threaten the security of our food supply. Our hold on this
>planet is tenuous. In the present
>day an equivalent 535A.D. explosion would destroy much of our
>civilisation. Only those with agricultural
>technology sufficiently advanced would have a chance at survival.
>Colliding asteroids are another problem
>that requires us to be forward-looking accepting that technological
>advance may be the only buffer
>between us and annihilation.

i dunno about that. if we are to believe the conclusions of the
"speculative documentary" you mention, civilization took the alleged 535 ce
volcanic eruption pretty much in stride. civilization certainly didn't come
to an end. and colliding asteroids are NOT a significant problem. you know
that as well as I, so stop saying that right now.

[nice historical summary of GM snipped]

>Within five years, vaccines against the killer E.coli,
>hepatitis B, cholera and other
>diseases will all come in GM food. Even now they are in human trials.
>These vaccines will be very stable, be easily distributed world-wide, need
>no refrigeration or injection; merely consumption. The great campaign to
>eliminate world-wide disease, as we have with smallpox, will be well under
>way. Apocalypse now? Hardly.

five years? you're being a bit optimistic, aren't you? at any rate, the
great campaign to eliminate world-wide disease is already well underway,
thanks largely to the bill and melinda gates foundation. by the time some
of these gm food vaccines are ready to come to market, the diseases in
question will already have been eradicated. talk about boutique science!

>Many of you may think that environmentalists are synonymous with
>ecologists. You would be mistaken.

i know they're not synonymous. environmentalists are eco-reactionaries, and
fellow travelers with neo-marxists, feminists, and those who press for
racial equality. :-)

[lots of good stuff snipped]

>Experts tell us that cancers that occur under the age of 65 are avoidable.
>30% of these cancers are thought
>to result from poor diet. Over 200 detailed investigations have shown
>that a diet high in fruit and
>vegetables cuts all cancer rates by at least half. But only 10% of us eat
>the recommended fruit and
>vegetable requirements. Increasing the price of these essential foods
>will reduce consumption; particularly
>in the poorest families for which the food bill is a much higher
>proportion of their weekly wage. The
>consequence, higher avoidable cancer rates, premature death and soaring
>health bills.
>Organic food, whatever it's supposed environmental merits (and
>incidentally these merits are shared by
>many conventional farms), is less efficient and more wasteful of land.
>For a variety of reasons it comes at a
>much higher price and will continue to do so. Any attempt to 'go organic',
>to thus increase the price of fruit
>and vegetables and thereby reduce consumption will have the consequences
>on cancer and death I have
>listed above. Let us hope it is not your child. My fear is that
>unsubstantiated claims and incorrect
>assumptions about organic food will lead those who strive upwards on weak
>incomes to buy organic but
>eat less fruit and vegetables because of the expense. The only
>justification left for buying organic food is
>that farmers apply less pesticide in its production. But that is
>precisely what the current GM crops offer us
>but at conventional food prices or even lower! Whose food is the real
>benefit now?

the issue of eating fruits and vegetables is an interesting one. in the
states, organic fruits and vegetables typically cost about 50% more than
the corresponding non-organic variety. most non-organic fruits and
vegetables that are purchased by americans are left to rot in the
refrigerator and thrown out, while most organic fruits and vegetables
actually do get eaten before they spoil. why? my own opinion is because of
the expense. the low price of non-organic fruits and vegetables results in
their being valued less by americans, so letting them rot and throwing them
out is no big deal, while the higher price of organic fruits and vegetables
results in their being valued more by americans, so letting them rot and
throwing them out is, well, kind of sinful. which is the better choice, to
buy a bag of cheap non-organic oranges, eat one or two, let the rest rot in
the refrigerator and throw them out, or buy organic oranges at a 50%
premium, but eat all of them? ironically, the people who buy non-organic
fruits and vegetables often end up paying significantly more than those who
buy organic fruits and vegetables as a result of this deeply entrenched
american cultural behavior. an even more intriguing question is whether the
eating of organic foods is a possible "marker" of more healthful living in
general, i.e. are those who eat organic foods also significantly less
likely to smoke tobacco, drink much alcohol, ingest illegal drugs? are they
more likely to exercise regularly, meditate to relieve stress, and take
simple precautions like wearing seat belts. my hunch is yes, and it's my
understanding that american insurance companies are beginning to take a
serious look at this.

[Interesting stuff about ICM and farmers snipped]