Tuesday, June 15, 2010

GE clover like pulling a Cat out of a Hat

When I heard AgResearch today announcing a breakthrough in the genetic engineering of white clover I was reminded of Dr Seuss. Not his explicitly environmental classic 'The Lorax' so much as 'The Cat in the Hat Comes Back'.

I still remember the sense of panic in the book as a pink stain in the bathtub grows bigger and badder from the grotesque attempts by various cats to clean it up, until it has turned into a major disaster.

The attempt to fix greenhouse gas emissions by genetically engineering clover for pasture fills me with a similar sense of alarm.

There is no doubt that something needs to be done to address New Zealand's agricultural emissions. New Zealand has the 11th highest per capita emissions in the world and around half of that comes from agriculture, in the form of methane and nitrous oxide.

The massive growth and intensification of dairy farming is pushing that contribution up, both by cutting down forest carbon sinks to grow pasture and by converting relatively low intensity sheep and beef farms into high intensity dairy farms.

On the face of it, then, genetically engineering white clover to reduce greenhouse gas emissions seems a good idea. By identifying and then manipulating a genetic 'switch' which allows clover to concentrate condensed tannins in its leaves and stems; AgResearch hopes to be able to reduce methane from stock.

This has enormous commercial potential for AgResearch both here in New Zealand and in the international market. The recent Global Research Alliance meeting in Wellington (see http://www.3news.co.nz/Feeding-the-world/tabid/1341/articleID/150090/Default.aspx) is testament to that.

There are a range of other potential benefits from this work. AgResearch claims that it will mean less bloat in stock.

This is good from an animal welfare and economic point of view, since bloat can be both painful and fatal. In addition the animals will produce more meat and milk, presumably as a result of the reduced methane production.

Conventional clover makes stock more productive anyway, but farmers tend to keep clover cover limited since it can cause bloat. If genetically engineered clover does not cause bloat then farmers can have a higher proportional of pasture in clover.

This is likely to lead to less nitrogen fertiliser being used as well, since clover is leguminous and fixes (or rather hosts a bacteria which fixes) nitrogen in soils.

From an ethical point of view the fact that this is intragenic genetic engineering rather than trangenic may comfort some people. The insertion of human genes into sheep is highly offensive to many.

The manipulation of clover genes and reinsertion of clover genes into clover does not lead to the same level of abhorrence. The genetic engineering industry has been playing on this, with international apologists such as Caius Rommens arguing that intragenic genetic engineering should face less stringent risk assessment procedures than is usual.

New Zealand's own Tony Connor similarly argues that intragenic genetic engineering is not really genetic engineering at all and so is not, or should not be, covered by the legislation.

Since AgResearch says that this new clover is at least 10 15 years away from commercial release, expect to see them lobbying heavily around this issue over the next few years.

This approach only makes sense, however, if all concerns about genetic engineering are irrational by which term I do not mean spurious. If the concern is solely about inappropriate boundary crossing then intragenic genetic engineering must be acceptable. However the genetic engineering debate was never just about emotion versus science.

While I do not for one minute seek to belittle the emotional response of many people that genetic engineering 'just doesn't seem right', I also know that a number of scientists, geneticists even, have grave concerns about the way that genetic engineering is developing.

Those concerns are not blunted by whether the source material comes from the same species or another.

Professor Jack Heineman likens the process of genetic engineering to cutting a few sentences out of a magazine and inserting them randomly into a book. Most of the time the resulting pages makes no sense.

Occasionally they do, but we don't always know all of the resulting changes. Similarly the organisms created by genetic engineering are usually not viable, but occasionally they are.

It doesn't matter whether the inserted words are from the same book or a magazine; the context of the words has changes sufficiently to make the results uncertain. For that reason he rejects any notion that intragenic genetic engineering be treated any differently from transgenic.

New Zealand should be particularly careful about the commercial release of a pollinated pasture plant. Should this clover be released it is almost certain to spread across the country very rapidly and affect surrounding non-genetically engineered varieties and species.

In addition, as the Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering pointed out, we know very little about the effects of genetic engineered organisms on living soils.

AgResearch's solution to methane emissions run the risk, like the cats in the Dr Seuss story, of creating even bigger problems than what we started with. Just as importantly, though, it falls prey to the problem of reductionist thinking that is a significant cause of the ecological crisis we are in and I don't just mean climate change.

By attempting to fix methane emissions by genetically engineering pasture AgResearch is likely to exacerbate the many other environmental problems associated with dairy farming in this country.

The unwillingness to accept any limits to dairy expansion has become a national psychosis and has already led to a government sponsored coup against Environment Canterbury.

It is time to accept that the best all round solution to the problem of unsustainable dairy farming is to de-intensify, and even better, to go organic.


EvolutionaryKiwi said...

I have to apologise Nandor. I was expecting this post to be the kind of knee jerk reaction I saw from Russell Norman on the news. I'm glad that you have taken the time to actually do your research into genetic engineering. That said, I do think you're missing an important factor of this development.

All the developers have done is switch on a single gene. That's it. The magazine analogy of 'taking a sentence out and putting it somewhere else' fails when it comes to the complexities of genetics. Rather, picture a magazine where the first, second and third drafts are still present, just not able to be read. The scientists have made it so one of those sentences is being shown, rather than inserting a new one. It was always there. That's still a poor analogy, but a more apt one.

This happens constantly in nature. Old genes are reexpressed, new genes are formed from old or repeated predecessors. This happens all the time. In fact, this is how we got broccoli. Broccoli is what we got when we took advantage of new genes arising in the cabbage plant. That's also how we got cauliflower and brussel sprouts.

Humans have been guilty of genetic engineering species for thousands of years. Without it, we'd never have got to the level of development we are at now. We've figured out how to do it faster. You're right. We need to be careful with their use. 15 years should be enough time to figure out long term implications shouldn't it?

Nandor Tanczos said...


Thanks for your considered comment.

I'm not sure that your reworked analogy is correct. I'm only going by what's been reported but on the TV3 clip both the guy from PGG Wrightson and the guy from AgResearch said that the procedure consisted on inserting a gene from one type of clover into another (I think he said Rabbits Foot Clover into White Clover). Of course it's hard to speak with much certainty in this situation.

I agree that analogies necessarily over-simplify complex matters. I guess thats the point, to make something explicable to non scientists. Part of my objective here was to demonstrate that, contrary to the impression created by some pro-GE advocates, there is still much uncertainty in the procedure - and therefor risk.

15 years may be long enough time to consider implications - if people are asking the right questions of course. Part of my concern with GE has always been that it may be impossible to know that we are asking the right questions. Certainly I would be concerned about any attempts to shortcut the process. As I have pointed out, some of those attempts have already started. It sounds like you may support me on this?

Finally I'm not sure that its correct to say we've been guilty of GE for thousands of years. We certainly have been modifying domesticated crops and animals, but I do think that GE is a qualitative difference. I guess that's in many ways the crux of the debate.

Anonymous said...

GE to me always smacks of a way to control the production of seed & monopolize the outcomes.. I prefer to be able to plant the NATURAL alternatives.. thankyou..
By the way, selective breeding is not the same as genetic engineering.. in the modern sense of the word.


Danyl Strype said...

Kia ora Nandor

It occurred to me some time back that agricultural emissions are a bit of a white elephant. Let me explain.

I remember the 'ah-ha!' moment I had during a hitch-hiking trip when a man pointed out to me that burning wood for energy in a house is carbon neutral. Yes there are carbon emissions, but the tree had to soak up all that carbon from the atmosphere in the first place, and as long as you keep planting trees, the net carbon emission is zero.

It occurs to me that the same is true for agricultural emissions. Yes, cows fart, but the carbon in those farts comes from their feed plants, which in turn comes from the atmosphere. Again, a reasonably closed loop. Admittedly my argument hinges on whether grass is able to absorb the carbon from methane, or whether the methane breaks down into forms which it can absorb.

Also I suspect that most of the research on cow farts (thanks Lockwood ;) is done in the USA and Europe on CFOs (Concentrated Feeding Operations), where cows are fed on surplus corn. The corn clashes with their digestive system, and produces much more fart/cow than would be the case with a grass fed cow.

Most people will know from bitter experience the amplifying effects of stress on flatulence. I suspect that a cow raised in the sort of relaxed, permacultural manner described in Michael Pollan's writing on Polyface Farms would fart even less.

Considering all this, genetically engineering clover as a solution to agricultural emissions is a classic example of GMO solutions in search of a problem.

Ngā mihi nui
Danyl Strype

robertguyton said...

Tena koe Nandor
I hope you'll take a moment to look at this post


though it's a minor one. I hope you'll browse the other posts, where you might well find something to interest you.

Kia ngawari koe e hoa


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