This name has already been taken

This is another archival repost of something originally written for the old blog in Oct 2007.

I apologise for the half-hearted post. I had hoped to write a lot more, but was foiled by migraine, and ran into the deadline: today is “Blog Action Day“!

New words are created every day for the description of political or social viewpoints. This is because, over time, the old words become associated with a whole catalogue of additional opinions and concepts, and unfair conclusions will therefore be made about those who describe themselves with these terms. We have, for example, the “pro-war left”, “compassionate conservatives”, and a whole dictionary of obfuscatory terms for what used to be socialism. For years, we environmentalists have been victims of this problem. Environmentalism is — or was until recently — seen as an anti-science, anti-technology and anti-progress movement. Environmentalists were hippies, who believed that “nature” was a synonym for “good”. Environmentalists wanted us all to live in the bronze age, but with a vegan diet. One of the reasons for this portrayal of environmentalism is the way in which organisations like Greenpeace deal with technologies like genetic engineering and nuclear power, which are dealt with as black and white issues. Fortunately, this view of environmentalism is changing, as a more sophisticated and scientific environmentalism rises. But, it is not enough to convince the environmental lobby that genetic engineering is not a black and white issue: we have the added problem of the tabloid fueled health scare.

The genetic engineering that most people are presented with is in terms of plants. In fact, genetic engineering of bacteria has been routine for several decades. The technique is part of several standard laboratory protocols which are used in medical and basic biological research, and is taught at undergraduate level. Genetically engineered bacteria and yeasts have been put to work for decades producing medicinal chemicals which can not be produced outside of a living cell — such as insulin — at a fraction of the cost of extracting them from primates, farm animals or corpses. Not all genetic engineering is the same: there are several different types of modification which can be made. The technique is often portrayed as “creating life”, but more often than not, it is a case of shuffling a few things around rather than creating something new: a human gene is expressed in a bacterium, or a promoter is changed (a promoter contains metadata for a gene, which tells the cell’s molecular machinery where, when, and for how long the gene should be expressed, thus determining the amount produced).

All of this happens in laboratories or sealed vats in factories, and nobody showed much interest until the technique was applied to plants and put into the field. There were genuine environmental concerns here, for some good reasons (discussed later), but there was also a lot of vague concern expressed about the intrinsic safety of the technique, which rather caught the scientists by surprise. The reason it caught scientists by surprise was because little of this concern made any sense if one understood the science. But it made sense to the Prince of Wales, who adopted the issue, and was listened to. Vague intrinsic safety concerns are still widely cited as a major objection to the technology, despite the lack of any new discoveries or specific examples to justify them.

The reason that genetic engineering became a byword for environmental disaster is because of some rather unethical practice by a hand full of commercial entities. The genetic engineering that everybody hears about is for herbicide resistance and pesticide production in crops. Varieties of these crops have since spread, or the genes travelled by horizontal transfer to other species. Many are pessimistic about the potential environmental disaster of increased herbicide spraying, lower plant biodiversity, and lower insect populations. I am a little less so: plants have been evolving natural pesticides for millions of years, and resistance to pesticide and herbicide doesn’t take too long to develop, so the producers are merely speeding up the process of making their own products useless. These crops may not be environmentally friendly, but are probably no worse than traditional pesticide and herbicide use. The internet has dozens of pages telling us about how GM is killing this butterfly and that wildflower. This is a sleight of hand: GM is the innocent medium for old killers. As for the human health issue of having crops produce potentially harmful pesticides: plants produce a whole apothecary of poisons naturally, and new ones come along by mutation all of the time. The fact that these particular ones are man-made should mean that we have a much better understanding of their safety than we do for many natural chemicals. There are truly unethical practices here — suing farmers for patent infringements after genes were blown onto their land in seeds or pollen, for example — but they are not intrinsic to the technology, and are relevant only to the specific examples.

To think that this handful of seed and chemical companies are all there is to GM is equivalent to believing that The Times newspaper or Tesco online grocery shopping are the internet. The seed companies are, like Web 1.0, old companies using new technology to deliver an old product that most people preferred in its original format. But like Web 2.0, this new technology allows us to do things that could never have been done in the past. We can, for example, take a promoter whose “when” condition is “in the presence of chemicals which leech out of landmines”, attach it to a natural gene for red pigmentation, put the result in a fast growing weed, and spray the seeds over minefields. We can design enzymes to help clean up sites contaminated with toxic waste, produce fuel from refuse, or perhaps even to sequester carbon into long-term stores. And none of the criticisms of “GM 1.0” apply to these.

The black-and-white view of GM goes hand-in-hand with another variety of environmentalism that often makes me cringe: the organic movement. The organic movement’s core goals are admirable: improving biodiversity and nutrition, reducing energy and water intensity of farming, and so on. However, rather than pursue these goals directly, surrogate aims are often substituted without any evidence that they are representative of the real aims. In particular, people are too often tempted by the simple, easy to follow rules like “natural equals good, technology equals bad”. And organic status currently depends more on ticking boxes than on objective measures of how well the core goals are met — for example, people are currently discussing making low food miles a condition of organic status: a surrogate for low energy intensity. The fact is, we’re in a bit of a situation here, and we haven’t much time left to get out of it. You can be the sort of environmentalist that thinks that our problems will just go away if we all pretend that it’s the 1930s and none of the problems ever arose, or you can be the sort of environmentalist that seeks solutions that work. Evidence-based environmentalism? New-environmentalism? Post-environmentalism?

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