Re: SOC: Activism and the "Anti-GM" Movement

Robert J. Bradbury (
Tue, 5 Oct 1999 21:48:00 -0700 (PDT)

On Tue, 5 Oct 1999 wrote:

> While the news regarding Monsanto's decision to not deploy the "Terminator"
> gene may actually be seen as a good thing by those advocating "open source
> genetics", I think it may mark an important and negative watershed.

I saw this and was disappointed by it. Because if Monsanto had decided to deploy seeds with that characteristic, I was thinking about how difficult it would be to develop a plant virus that "unterminated" the terminator. ... Sprinkle "Grow-again" on your seeds and never have to buy seeds from the local seed company ...

Wonderful marketing possibilities -- you either sell at really low cost to the farmers or hold Monsanto up for the big bucks not to release it...

I think the saner minds within the company may have prevailed. Perhaps in part because of negative public opinion (or feedback from the farmers) but also because in genetic engineering the gene wars go to the smaller, faster, cheaper. Engineering a virus to correct something is probably much easier than engineering a plant to have a particular feature. If you can engineer sterility, it should be easier to "unengineer" it (because more than likely you know how it was engineered or can determine that with relative ease).

It is worth noting that Monsanto was *not* the developer of this approach. They got it from a seed distributing company that they purchased when they decided to get into Ag-biotech. If I'm reading the history correctly, they wanted the company for its market penetration (not for its genetic technologies).

> One source they interviewed quoted
> figures to the effect that instead of the 25% increase in planting of
> genetically novel crops in 1999 in the US that had been projected last year,
> the figure is likely to be a 25% decrease, now that Gerber's baby food and
> leading Japanese beer makers have said they won't use any genetically
> modified food products in their processes.

It all comes down to price differentials. If the GE crop is only 5% cheaper to market, then you play to public opinion. If it is 50%, you as a manufacturer are going to start to be *real* worried about being undercut by the competition. So you offer both. Then the consumer gets to decide. Back to what I said -- GE products are operating at the margins now and because they don't have clear cut market advantages so the luddites can "claim" some success.

> No
> doubt they looked to how quickly and easily the great mass of people took to
> computers and advanced communication and entertainment technology and simply
> assumed that the same attitudes would ease consumer acceptance of their
> products.

Greg, this is off the wall. First the average biologist doesn't know anything about computers or advanced communication tech. You have to keep in mind lead times -- everything being announced by the biotech industry today was set in motion 3-8 years ago. They don't grow millions of seeds *overnight*! You should keep in mind that I haven't really been to any biotech conferences in the last 2 years (before the TIGR conference) and there is *virtually* nothing coming out that wasn't in the works 4-5 years ago. The majority of the GE backlash is due to the Mad Cow fiasco in England and that wasn't on *anyone's* radar screen 5 years ago. The only thing that I'm surprised about is that biologists are slowly waking up (a few at a time) to the potential applications of computer and automation technologies.

The majority of consumers accept products on price, price and still more price. At the margins they go for quality or something different. The advantages in GE crops are simply not high enough at this point to make the price differentials that would move consumers out of "perceived" quality areas into the price realm.

With regard to the anti-GE folks, the proper response in all cases is "So what?" You have to trace down through human history and point out the cases where we have been breeding crops (and humans via selection paths we generally do not like to acknowledge) for millennia. Then you simply confront them with the paradox that isn't conscious engineering of desirable traits more efficent than choosing betwwen what nature has been willing to bequeth to you?

> Organized groups opposed to rational use of genetic technology have made the
> complete banning of genetically modified food and the use of advanced genetic
> technology in human medical applications a key policy objective.

Please cite references here for "use of advanced genetic technology in human medical applications" (unless you are refering to the "cloning" debate). I was absolutely floored to read that even the Catholic Church did not find Ventner/TIGR's work to "create" a bacteria out of of order (so long as you weren't trying to create "humans"). That to me says that we have a green light from the only body that could offer signficant resistance. Everyone else is a fringe organization.

> By and
> large, their media targets are not scientifically literate and come from an
> essentially anti-science background in university training in the humanities.
> There is no opposition to these anti-science groups that is nearly as well
> organized and, at least so far, nearly as articulate and effective.

Your point is proved by the Kansas situation, but the response to that was pretty loud. It isn't the humanitarian reporters that we have to watch so much as the people who are trying to pass off works of historical drama as reality.

> Losing battles over genetic engineering of food products is a major
> setback for disseminating the fruits of scientific progress into wide
> application in society, both because it will deny the benefits of that
> technology to the people who need it the most and also because it sets
> a precedent in public policy and public opinion.

Horse puckies. While Monsanto was playing "big" & "friendly" to the public, the U.S. House was trying to out-do the U.S. Senate in increasing funding for the NIH. Genetic engineering of your food doesn't do much for you -- giving your mother or father a GE replacement heart does. Public opinion rises & falls on the degree of relevance to the individuals -- when economic times are good, incumbants get reelected, when they are bad, Hasta la vista babiee. When your life is on the line or the life of someone you care for, people will move heaven and earth to find new approaches or solutions. Public opinion is irrelevant in the light of highly motivated people -- witness the progress on prostate cancer driven by a single individual - Michael Milken.

> The forces of enlightened scientific and technological progress MUST become
> more effective in communicating their message or, I believe, the luddites
> will succeed in significantly slowing the pace of that progress.
In GE plants maybe, but that is only of "real" significance in 10-20 years when the population and agricultural productivity start to collide in a real way. If nanotech trumps biotech by that time, then the loss of GE plants *is of no significance*.

> Investors will not be willing to risk funds to support advanced biological
> research if they fear that laws banning the development of the fruits of
> that research into valuable products will be passed.

When talking to a recent potential investor (from the computer industry) about Biobots and their prospects, the response I got was, "Well at least you have a better plan for something concrete than the yahoos down the street" (refering to Internet startups). We have gone from the software industry's "vaporware" to the Internet industry's "vapor-market-share". Anyone involved in this *knows* this and the appeal of something concrete from the biotechnology industry (even with long lead times) means that funding will not disappear. If I could make a reasonable case for demonstrable organ preservation technology based on GE in a few years it would be sellable. There is a *big* difference between selling someone a better tomato and selling someone a better heart.

> I believe that the people who maintain that adoption of advanced genetic
> technology is inevitable are being proved wrong even as I write these words.

Within certain cultures (i.e. the Native American culture) that I have previously discussed, I will grant this may be true. Within the techno-geeks where I can tell them you can drink all the Coke you want all day long, never get fat or bald and look like [substitute desiriable other-sex entity] you are absolutely wrong. Case in point -- given the significant press and noise over the problems with silicone breast implants you would expect that women would have stopped having them. Is this the case? From my read, for a very brief period yes, but now they are more common than they ever were previously.

> Believing that the life-saving power of advanced biotechnology alone
> will be sufficient to overcome opposition is naive: Most Western
> democracies have already accepted the idea of government rationing of
> health care.

Yes because health care, is just that "care". It is assumed that you are going to die anyway, so why not get it over with. As the ideas that you do not have to die (cryonics) or perpetual immortality (uploading) creep up on individuals, they will put their own hard earned dollars on the line and then their active support behind these ideas.

> Extension of that power to outlaw medical technology that is portrayed
> as "unnatural" is a small step and, in the case of human cloning
> (admittedly not medically or scientifically significant in it's own right)
> is a step that's already been taken in most Western countries.

Exactly, because cloning doesn't (obviously) benefit you personally. However you don't see efforts to outlaw organ transplants (except perhaps by the insurance companies. In contrast you see efforts to governmentally mandate organ donation)!

People who are really aware realize that the actions in an individual country are irrelevent. So the luddites gain the upper hand in the U.S. or Mexico, do they also do so in the Bahamas or Lichtenstien?

> Write to your congressman. Write to your local newspaper or television
> station. Write to your friends and family. Post messages to email lists
> outside of the scientific and technological community. Be an activist.

I agree with these sentiments. There should be a voice for the futurists. I endeavor to communicate with those scientists so far down in the trenches that they have little perception of the bigger picture. Others should communicate through the channels available to them.

It *is* important however to be well grounded. The case Greg makes (Ag-biotech to Human-biotech resistance) is stretched in my opinion (for reasons I've cited). Given that, the best strategy is to raise the questions of whether people really understand the tradeoffs in Ag-biotech or whether they want the trends in Ag-biotech to extend to their own personal well being. It is useful to point out the *present day* legitimate uses of cloning (providing bodies for people who are born as Siamese twins). It is useful to explore the slippery slope -- if it is a good thing for a physician to use donated hearts, livers, lungs, kidneys, etc. to make a functiong system for an individual, would it not be good (and cheaper) to grow that collection of those organs as an integrated unit (or provide them from pigs that we already grow as food)?

It is important to take the high ground -- wouldn't it simply be best to construct systems that can grow replacement organs without resorting to stem cells from fetuses? While people could object to my having a heart from an "aborted potential human" -- can they object to a heart grown from the cells harvested from a biopsy of my thigh?

Force the issue on -- while I accept your premise that doing with [potential] others may be questionable, can you say doing with myself is prohibited? Force the issue on the fact that you as an individual have the ultimate right to control your body and your destiny. If they say this is not acceptable, then they are "controlists" and in a "kind" world you simply wait for them to die, in a dog-eat-dog world you attempt to disembowel them [figuratively or in reality]; (realizing of course there may be negative consequenses for yourself) { life is full of tradeoffs }.