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March 16, 2000


Tony Trewas on Two Botanies


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

From: "Tony Trewavas"
Subject: commentary on Two botanies article

Commentary on the article two botanies by Lovins.

There are so many errors in this article. It is the familiar litany
which starts with nuclear power, goes on to superweeds and so on. It
is as well informed as any green propagandist lierature which says
very little. These are pages written with blinkers on and no


1. Novel life forms..... aren't recallable. What do you call a novel
life form? We have been domesticating hundreds of plants for ten
thousand years and these have shared their gene s with weedy relatives
since that time. Are these novel life forms; yes. But nature has
produced enormous numbers of different plants; we have produced very
few. But if so there are novel life forms out there by conventional
technologies they donít worry about. Gene flow did not start with GM
but has always been there. Why start to complain now? Just because it
is quicker? Reports that weeds take on the mantle of their crop
brethren are virtually non existent because the genes we put into
domestication are of value to u s but not to weeds. When we used dwarf
rice and wheat did all the related weeds suddenly halve their heights
and increase their yields? Those genes are of no value to a weed which
has other things to consider for its survival. Later on they complain
that we donít understand what we are doing. When has a plant breeder
actually understood what he is doing except in gross terms of choosing
the parents of a cross. Do plant breeders understand hybridisation or
back crossing or hybrid vigour. He crosses things and hopes that some
of the progeny have the right characteristics. And the plant breeder
has not a clue what happens at the molecular level. But even so,
where is the evidence that such novel life forms are not recallable?
Crops do not survive in fallow fields because we have ripped the
genetic guts out of them which gave them the capability to compete
with weeds. Wheat disappears in two years in a fallow field. If a
herbicide resistance gene from a GM plant exchanges into a related
weed... frankly, so what. Unless the herbicide resistance gene is of
value to the weed (and it won't be unless it lives in an area where
herbicides are used i.e. a cultivated field), then the gene will
disappear. Real measurements (not supposition) by Scott and Tomlinson
Nature 1999 examined the situation in Brassica napus and their
conclusions are salutary. Hybridisation with B. rapa its nearest
relative occurs in only 1 in ten thousand wild plants and in the w ild
this gene disappears in five to six generations because there is no
selection for it. Maize is not a plan t that will survive in the wild
(GM or not) because it has lost the ability (thanks to us) to abscisce
its seeds.

I accept the arguements in their article about the speed with which
things are done and the commercialisation of it. These have led to
crops being produced solely for profit and I would have preferred
strongly public funding. But then I have to recognise that com mercial
organisations can get things done quickly and that public private
arrangements are probably the best as arranged recently by the

2. The article uses the terms natureís wisdom and implies peoples
cleverness is somehow evil and wrong. Whatever way you look at it,
this is just another version of original sin. It is the same attitude
that says synthetic pesticides are damaging, natures pesticides are
not. That of course does not stop the authors of the article
profiting substantially with long life, an abundance of food and
medical treatment from peoples cleverness. There is a good biblical
term for this attitude. This common attitude assumes that natural
things are good and pure ( things like typhoons, child death, disease,
poison ivy, the heroin poppy) whilst man made things are bad (like
wine and the internet and the computer on which they wrote their
article, electricity, antibiotics, anaesethics, etc)
3. These authors donít understand the first word about systems and
their behaviour. Systems tolerate enormous degrees of variation at the
lowest levels i.e. in the genes of individual species and remain
stable. The shuffling around of the genome which occurs every breeding
cycle still produces recognisable individuals belonging to the
species. Ecosystems tolerate loss of major species and remain stable
if that term can be used. (see Trewavas The Importance of
Individuality in H.R. Lerner. Plant Response to Environmental Stress,
1999). Iíve spent 20 years looking at the way systems behave and the
one thing I can guarantee is that greens donít understand them at all.
4. US researchers have tested 4500 GM crops! Well.... evidence... .
none. There are only about 10 major crop species. That implies 450
genes for each...!!!
5. Over half the world soybeans and one third of corn contain GM genes
? I think this is a misinterpretation of USA for the world. The do
grow soybeans and maize elsewhere.
6. The new botany mechanically transfers genes.... note contemptuous
use of the words reductionism and mechanical very common in green
literature. What this is meant to imply is nasty, ignorant, blinkered
white-coated scientists in labs out to unthinkingly destroy the world
by failure to see the real bigger picture (which of course they can
see effortlessly) by methods which treat life with contempt.
Stereotyping at its worst. I have studied plants all my life from love
of the organism, of the nature of trees and landscapes moulded by the
very organism I study. I also have a social conscience which says that
priorities are feeding people. I notice how quickly the authors skate
over the difficult question of ten billion in 2050. Why? because they
donít have an answer to population problems.

7. You have only one life, there is no second chance. Holism is quoted
as a sort of mantra by the green contingents like Om Mani Padme Hum
which is supposed to be the seal of purity. No wonder the Canadian
ex-greenpeace leader Patrick Moore described the current green
campaign such as by these authors as junk science and pagan myth. To
coin a phrase ...Let them eat systems... if they think they are so
marvellous. Having myself studied systems behaviour on and off for
some 20 years one things these authors dont understand is basic
systems behaviour.

8. We crossed the species barrier some 50- 60 years ago with Triticale
an d have been doing so frequently ever since by techniques that are
not GM. These authors donít know that like so many other facts about
plants. No-one had any idea what crossing agropyron with wheat would
do. No-one worried. So the natural barriers were breached some while
back. The authors are ignorant of basic plant biology; but I wish
they had a little humility to appreciate that.

9. The flounder gene done by people who never study ecology and
evolutionary biology... they of course are trained ecologists, oh
sorry, physicists. So what do they know about ecology? The flounder
gene is supposed to be an antifreeze. I doubt if it differs much from
natural antifreeze genes in plants of which there are plenty. In what
way is GM with a flounder gene (if it is to be done) different from
selective breeding for freeze resistance. Except that GM is tested ,
standard breeding is not, GM is much quicker and cheaper.

9. Transgenic manipulation inserts foreign genes at random... so does
nature; why wait around for it to turn up the right individuals by
chance. The whole of the green revolution was built on a deletion
mutant (foreign gene) inserted at random by nature and exploited by us
for breeding. We are awash in a sea of natural mutant variants. The
genome is fluid and transposable elements change things around each
time we go through a breeding cycle. Anyone would think we donít
examine and test the progeny produced by GM just as we do with
conventional crosses and like conventional breeding discard those
which are aberrant.

10. Common crops can hybridise with completely unrelated weeds. Th at
offends everything I know about biology and species. Evidence...none.

11. Superweeds are merely herbicide resistant weeds. The term is de
signed to make you think a triffid is going to come up the garden path
and bite you. Worldwide about 100 weeds are resistant to some 16
different herbicides in total; all natural resistance. There are now
some four crops with natural herbicide resistance built in. If you
spray a field of naturally resistant with a field of GM resistant
crops there is no ecological difference or pollen spread differences
between them. Why pick on GM rather than conventional breeding? The
difference is that we now know in much greater detail what we are
doing than we did before. It allows the human imagination to work
nightmares in much greater detail. Ignorance is clearly bliss for
these people. The true superweeds are introduced plants which in the
UK have destroyed woodland and river banks. 12. Bt insecticide can
build up in the soil; spraying with live Bt bacteria doesnít of
course lead to long term survival of Bt bacteria. Like hell it
doesnít. The organism is a s oil bacterium so spraying with it, which
the authors think is innocuous and assuming nothing happens, is not
only n ot based on any evidence, it contradicts what we do know.
Instead the likelihood is that there will be long-lived live Bt
organisms in the soil for many months if not years from spraying.
Roots have of course bee n secreting proteins into the soil ever since
roots have evolved and we have produced plenty of insecticidal plants
which excreted proteins. But then of course we didnít know about it
then and that is the major di fference. But if we have been doing it
for ten thousand years and nature has been doing it for a lot longer,
why the sudden concern. Sinful man again?

13. Natures way with pathogens where they learn to behave properly by
not killing the host...Black death, plague, ebola virus, leprosy,
influenza, AIDS. A few more myxamatosis, dutch elm disease Yes they
all allow a few of the host to survive; well just a few. 14. Its hard
to eradicate an unwanted gene, we've only done it once wit h smallpox.
Weíve only tried seriously once but polio is next and then malaria,
cholera... One of those one shot jobs that is supposed to characterise
reductionist science and as any green will tell you does n ot work.
Other one shots that work.. antibiotics, chlorination of water,
vitamin C on a scurvy sufferer etc.etc. They donít understand systems
behaviour at all. Smallpox is of course a virus not a gene.

15. Its unwise to assume that 90% of the genome is junk. Who has
assumed it is? Its given the name of junk because no function has yet
emerged. This mysterious , messy ancient stuff is the context etc etc.
Evidence? Well they dont know any. Some genes are overwhelming no
matter what genetic background they are found in e.g. sickle cell
anaemia or anthocyanin genes in pea, but many other traits more
complex. So what is new? We donít understand the genome; well we donít
understand and life either. Doesnít stop us trying to make things
better for mankind. Anyone would think that GM plants are not tested.
Whereas the reality is that GM are subject to detailed testing of
safety; the other conventional plants areínt.

16. Nuclear technology . Obligatory mention for greens. Of course if
we had not developed nuclear then we would have burnt more coal and
gas and global warming would be much more advanced and variations in
climate now much more extreme. More would have died in places like
Mozambique, Peru, Venezuela. If we went organic then all the necessary
cows would contribute greatly to global warming methane. I bet the
authors donít like the green revolution either, contaminated pristine
nature with nasty human-produced crop plants. The fact that the green
revolution has fed billions of people is incidental to many, and to
too many on this side of the political spectrum if its not your life
that is o n the line.

17. Fairer distribution of food.... Yes, what a new idea... Wasnít
there someone two thousand years ago who suggested it. Perhaps the
authors will care to give up all that they eat and own, in particular
their computer, and give it to the poor. Deny yourself your weekly
visit to the local supermarket (surplus courtesy conventional farming)
and send instead your weekly food produce t o Indonesia. But it is
easier for scientists to conjure plants to make more food than get the
rest of the world to evenly share out what it grows. The fact that
these authors are in the USA and living on the fat o f the land whilst
trying to deny others in the world the means for their survival
through biotech, amongst other useful things man has produced, says
everything. Give the means to grow food; that is what is needed and
that includes GM if it is wanted. But exporting disastrous western
green ideas to the third world is just another form of patronising
neo-colonialism, at least so my Indian and Philippine friends tell me
and I agree with them.

It is contingent on all scientists to be objective about what they
study. All the ideas in the article have been acquired from other ill
informed individuals without any critical thought whatsoever. If I
lived in the third world and my child was vitamin A deficient because
I live on a dollar a day (like two billion others) I wouldnítí care if
Adolf Hitler had made the vitamin A rice provided I could get my hands
on it and save the life of my child. Green reaction to vitamin A rice
has been disgusting to say the least of it (build roads to give them
tablets, feed them chicken etc) and I am ashamed that I live on the
same planet with individuals with such closed mentalities and so
indifferent to the fate of their fellows elsewhere in the world and
who place environmental correctness over life.

Anthony Trewavas FRS
Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology
Mayfield Road University of Edinburgh