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.