The critics are, of course, repeatedly dismissed by the biotechnologists
who claim (in public at least!) great precision in their knowledge and
its application. Here, however, are some excerpts from a New Scientist
interview with one of the pioneers of the "GM revolution", Richard
Jefferson who heads CAMBIA, a non-profit plant biotechnology research
centre in Canberra, and guess what? He's saying very much the same
Jefferson makes plain that someone needs to ride herd on the broad mass
of biotechnologists who are, as he himself states, lemming-like in their
behaviour and are failing to think through what it is that they are
Curiously, as you'll see if you look at the interview as a whole (url
below), this analysis hardly leads Jefferson to adopt a cautious
approach. He even boasts in the interview about plants CAMBIA is
creating that will allow farmers to turn on and off individual genes in
crop plants at will -- and this after Starlink!!! Jefferson sees this as
democratising plant biotechnology!
Similarly, Jefferson argues that there is no reason for concern about
food safety given the fact that we do not seek to control peanuts which
are a known allergen that kill hundreds of people every year. That might
strike some as more of an argument for being wary of peanuts! It's also
a bit like saying we accept the sale of cigarrettes, which are a massive
killer, so why try and control the sale of anything else on the grounds
that it might be dangerous. It might also be noted that a known allergen
is a heck of a lot easier to deal with than potential unknown allergens
produced by the insertion into foods of elements that have never
previously been part of the human diet.
But despite the gung-ho attitude, the general drift of Jefferson's
comments is both interesting and surprising from within the biotech
establishment. According to Jefferon, the creators of so-called smart
plants are largely uncritical conformists in dire need of some smart
For how biotechnology can be applied creatively without any use of GM
SEEDS OF DISSENT
Q: You launched CAMBIA a decade ago promising to do science differently.
What's the difference between CAMBIA's approach to research and that
at any other biotech lab?
A: There's a tendency in science to ignore the development of methods
and make it secondary to the elite act of gathering knowledge. Even a
inspection of the history of science will show that the vast majority of
scientists exhibit a lemming-like tendency--which I'm told that lemmings
do not have--to define problems in terms of what they can solve, not
what needs to be solved...
Q: You're a critic of that other holy grail: sequencing the genes of
important crops like rice. Why?
A: Imagine the keys of a piano. There are 88 keys on a piano. But they
tell me absolutely nothing. I know what every key means but it doesn't
how to do Beethoven. It doesn't tell me how to do Brahms or Mozart. Yet
all of that is locked up in those keys. The secret is not in the keys by
themselves, but their combinations, the order, the duration and
intensity. It's the same way for genes. We're not going to get to the
secret that's locked up in the genome from DNA sequencing. That's just
like looking at the keys of a piano. I sometimes liken DNA sequencing
and the hugely fashionable work lumped into the term "genomics" to a
drunk guy underneath a street light late at night. He's crawling on his
hands and knees looking for his car keys, when someone walks by and
says, "Hey buddy, what are you up to?" The guy looks up at him and
slurs. "Well, I'm looking for my car keys." The passer-by bends down to
help and they both spend 10 minutes looking, when he says to the drunk:
"Are you sure you dropped them here?" The drunk guy says, "Jeez no,
buddy, I dropped them farther down the street but it's too dark to see
there." We're doing DNA sequencing because we can do it, not because
it's going to necessarily give us what we want.
Q: But what about all the effort going into sequencing plant genomes,
like rice and maize. Can't it be put to good use?
A: Of course it will be put to use. But the question is: is it anywhere
near as useful as having a different style of doing science? People will
say: "Look at all the things that have come out." But that's because you
have got lots and lots of people doing sequencing, and lots and lots of
money being thrown at it.
I'll give you another example. There's a great maize geneticist at the
University of Wisconsin at Madison called John Doebley--I don't even
know him but his work's great. He's looking at the genetics of maize and
teosinte, the ropy little weed-like thing that happens to be the very
same species as the big, proud corn plant of the American Midwest. It
turns out that almost all the differences between the two are caused by
only a few genes, and a huge amount of the difference in shape between
the two plants is associated with just one, single gene. After
exhaustive back-crossing, Doebley sequenced that gene and what did he
find? Much to everyone's amazement, he found that the protein sequence
of the teosinte gene is exactly the same as in the maize gene. There was
a difference between the two, of course, and that was in the way each
gene was expressed. In other words, how each gene regulates other genes.
But you'd never find that information from a gene sequence.
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