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Published on February 25th, 2010 | by Steve Savage

14

The Other “Party of No”

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The Obama administration is struggling to follow through on promises with regard to health care and climate change because of a Republican party that seems to have no interest in constructive efforts to solve problems for the American people.  But the Republicans are not the only “Party of No” that will make it difficult for Obama to deliver on his promises.  Soon after he came to office, the President gave a speech to the National Academy of Sciences pledging to have an administration that supports and listens to science (something that was notably lacking during his predecessor’s term). The scientific community was very encouraged, but we also knew that many of Obama’s supporters are themselves highly selective in their support of science,  and so it would take some real courage to follow through on the pledge.  Nuclear power is the most prominent ”test case” underway, but there is a much less publicized ”politics vs science” test underway right now for the USDA.

The Question Before The USDA

The question is: will the USDA authorities allow a permit for Arborgen to conduct field tests including flowering for a GMO Eucalypus hybrid?  These are trees that have been genetically engineered to be tolerant enough to frost to someday become a new bioenergy and pulp crop for the Southeastern US.  The purpose of the test is to get real-world data on an important question: does this new crop have any potential to become an invasive species?  Invasiveness is a very real phenomenon, but what we already know about these trees suggests that invasiveness is very unlikely.

This particular hybrid is widely grown in Brazil and has shown no tendency to spread outside of the plantations on which it is grown.  This tree has also been modified so that it does not make pollen.  The hypothesis that this tree will be a well-behaved crop is quite reasonable, but in science you test your hypothesis.  That is what these field tests are intended to do – on a small scale (300 acres over 7 states) and with close monitoring.  If the trees show a tendency to spread, it would not be hard to get rid of them on this scale. The USDA is not being asked to make a final determination about whether to allow this to become a commercial crop, it is just being asked for permission to do the next logical scientific step.  The second public comment period on this question recently closed, so now it is up to the regulators to decide.

Opposition To The Permit

Vocal opposition to this test has arisen from the expected set of environmental groups who uniformly oppose any application of biotechnology to crops.  These are the same groups who have been warning of dire threats from GMO crops for more than a decade.  The fact that their predictions of disaster have not happened after 14 years and billions of acres of GMO planting, seems to have no effect on their opinion or on the ominous tone of their rhetoric.  Even more than the Republicans, they are simply in the “No Business.” And its a good business at that!  In a society where very few people have any involvement in farming or forestry, and in a society which understands very little about the science of genetics, it is possible to generate a substantial donation income based on the cause of GMO opposition.  These groups have actually been successful many times at blocking GMO commercialization.

Why This Is A Much Bigger Issue Than One Permit Request

In this case, the “Party of No” uses arguments that boil down to this: “There is not enough data to decide if these trees could become a weed, therefore you shouldn’t do the experiment to get the data to decide if the trees could become a weed.”  Because this is their logic, this seemingly minor USDA decision actually takes on a far greater importance and is a very significant test of the Obama administration’s science policy.

The Precautionary Principle

The voice of the “No” industry is, in effect, asking the USDA to adopt the “precautionary principle” (which is the direction that the Europeans have gone).  That principle says, “if there is an unknown regarding environmental or health risk of some new technology, then it must be avoided as a matter of precaution.” Once the precautionary principle is adopted, it has a severe chilling effect on technological innovation. It is a “risk avoidance” strategy rather than a “risk management” strategy.

What Is At Stake?

One of the reasons that the US is such a leader across a wide variety of technology platforms is because we have traditionally been willing to thoughtfully manage risk, not just avoid it.  The “No industry” and their supporters consider suppression of new technology to be a good outcome because they distrust virtually any money-generating activity (except of course fund raising for themselves).  For the USDA to give-in to this anti-technology, anti-science, anti-innovation cadre would be a terrible precedent and a complete violation of the spirit of Obama’s science speech.  It won’t be easy being a USDA regulator because these organizations have the financial wherewithal and inclination to heap up lawsuits.  It is sad that we seem to be moving to “regulation by litigation.” That will serve us just about as well as a Senate that routinely filibusters.

These trees would be a desirable diversification option for landowners in the deep South who grow Loblolly Pine today.  They can be harvested much sooner than the other forest options, and they produce more biomass. They take less bleaching chemicals for pulping.  They would be an excellent option for renewable electricity generation, and could eventually be tapped for biofuel.  It is definitely worth doing a careful test to get the data to decide if this is something that could be safely grown on a large scale.

You are welcome to comment on this post or to email me directly a feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com




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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)



14 Responses to The Other “Party of No”

  1. You really think genetic engineers thoughtfully manage risk? What a joke! They do their damnedest to sweep any evidence of those risks under the carpet! Not to mention making it rather difficult for independent researchers to test their inventions! But you needn't worry about Obama; he loves genetic engineering. What do you think he means when he touts "advanced biofuels?"

    Anyway, thanks for linking to my blog, even though your implication that I'm part of this "anti-technology, anti-science, anti-innovation cadre" is grossly inaccurate. I'm against the ABUSE of science, of which genetic engineering is a prime example.

  2. Steve Savage says:

    Angry,

    You are welcome for the link. I think that site gives a pretty good summary of your position and it certainly sounds just like the others. You talk about 260,000 trees which is good emotive language because almost no one knows these trees are planted 600-800 to the acre. You say this sets a precedent for pines and poplars, but that isn't true unless someone had an excellent sterility system for those species with native populations. I was at meetings in the mid 1980s where scientists were "thoughtfully" considering such issues, 10 years before any GMO commercialization. I stand by the assertion that this technology is a remarkable example of deployment of something on a giant scale with so few issues or mistakes.

  3. Interesting that you choose to cite assertions I quoted from the Global Justice Ecology Project as things I said. Of course what I quoted sounds like "the others;" I posted that because I agree with GJEP that this experiment is a bad idea, not because I'm familiar with all the particulars. If these trees are actually sterile, that is a wise, and unusual, precaution. There are plenty of issues and mistakes plaguing genetic engineering, especially for people who like organic food, which will eventually be ruined by cross-pollination. But the industry has been rather successful in covering up the problems, with the help of friendly government officials.

  4. Steve Savage says:

    Actually I've added a link to GJEP because they are really one of the major "No industry" groups on this issue. The trees are not totally sterile, just male sterile and there are not many compatible females in the region.

    As for GMOs hurting Organic, it has really been quite the opposite. Organic marketing has been greatly assisted by being able to instill fear of GMOs. The "contamination" issue is a red herring. All seed production is already done with sufficient buffers to avoid cross contamination of the genetics – something that needed to be dealt with long before there were any GMOs.

  5. Oh, so this article (http://www.grain.org/hybridrice/?id=165), just for instance, about contamination of Hawaiian papayas is all BS? How did Round-Up Ready Canola get into Percy Schmeiser's fields? If that didn't happen, why did Monsanto sue him?

  6. Steve Savage says:

    Brendan,

    You don't have to philosophically adopt the precautionary principle to assign some things as too risky. For instance it was decided not to pursue insect resistant GMO sunflowers in the US because it could out-cross to wild sunflowers making them potentially a weed. Cell phones are an interesting negative example. It didn't take a rocket scientist to imagine a risk of drivers being distracted while using them. A true precautionary approach would have said, don't do it. In that case we didn't even manage the risk and only belatedly and impotently tried to do something about it. Cell phones have killed a lot of people.

    To me, you look at the risk/reward and if you are not fairly confident that you can manage the risk, you don't do it. If you think you can manage it, you ideally test that theory on a small scale as in this example. Building a mine is not something where you can do the experiment, so the threshold of confidence in the mitigation has to be a great deal higher – both from an environmental perspective and from a capital investment perspective. It would be irrational to build a very expensive mine if there was even a slight chance of it being shut down. Of course this is assuming a good regulatory system.

  7. Steve Savage says:

    Angry,
    The article puts an inflammatory spin on a manageable issue.http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/BIO-1.pdf
    Ringspot virus was threatening to wipe out the Hawaiian papaya industry. The virus resistant papaya was developed by scientists at Cornell. Monsanto gave the licenses to their technologies that were used for free (I know, my business partner was involved in the process). The link above explains how those that still want to risk getting the virus can maintain non-GMO status.
    As for Percy, he had his day in court and his explanation was not convincing. He was “brown bagging” the seed

  8. Brendan McLaughlin says:

    I’d like to hear more about the idea of risk avoidance vs. risk management, which seems to me to be at the heart of this issue. Steve, can you point to an example of where the precautionary principle is warranted? While I agree that often people’s fear of the unknown is often taken advantage of, there are some situations where it is needed and can be applied astutely. For example, if a mining company wants to put a mine in the headwaters of an economically critical fishery, should the mine be permitted, even if all the studies say it will be safe for fish? I would say that in a case like this, the precautionary principle can work. In other words, if used selectively, the principle is a sound way of safeguarding ecologically sensitive places.

  9. Steve,

    Was this blog was down Friday evening, for several hours? I see you have dismissed my examples. How predictable, as is your characterization of the article I cited as inflammatory spin. What you call manageable, others might consider a major problem. I could say your statement of the precautionary principle is inflammatory spin. Where did you find that definition? I found this definition, which sounds much more like what I had always heard, i.e. a common sense approach: (http://www.mindfully.org/Precaution/Precautionary-Principle-Common-Sense.htm)
    “While we realize that human activities may involve hazards, people must proceed more carefully than has been the case in recent history. Corporations, government entities, organizations, communities, scientists and other individuals must adopt a precautionary approach to all human endeavors.

    Therefore, it is necessary to implement the Precautionary Principle: When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

    In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

    See, it isn’t a matter of genetic engineering just having some unknown risks. Some of the risks are unknowable, and some are known. You might want to dismiss all those as manageable or red herrings not meriting slowing down the march of science, but others have different priorities and are not so trusting of the motives of corporate scientists, for good reasons.

    By the way, Percy Schmeiser is far from the only person Monsanto sued after discovering the engineered genes in their crops. Were they all brown-bagging, or otherwise attempting to cheat Monsanto? That’s Monsanto’s story. CBS News did an investigation a couple of years ago into Monsanto’s peculiar methods of protecting its patent rights. (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/04/26/eveningnews/main4048288.shtml) “In fact, in Feb. 2005 the Runyons received a letter from Monsanto, citing “an agreement” with the Indiana Department of Agriculture giving it the right to come on their land and test for seed contamination.

    Only one problem: The Indiana Department of Agriculture didn’t exist until two months after that letter was sent. What does that say to you?”

    So, seed contamination is a red herring, huh? It’s one way Monsanto makes money. It’s no secret US government officials have been extremely friendly to biotechnology. Why, CREDO Action has just issued an alert about USDA accepting Monsanto’s safety protocols for their variety of alfalfa, despite acknowledging “that GE alfalfa is virtually certain to ‘contaminate’ normal seeds.” But I’m sure you’ll think their article (http://act.credoaction.com/campaign/monsanto_alfalfa) is just more inflammatory spin. However, I must say I don’t agree with the next sentence of that article: “Cross-contamination is the number one concern with genetically engineered crops.” I have bigger concerns, for instance, my health. I have a bunch of food allergies, and occasional life-threatening asthma attacks, so my concerns are not just theoretical.

  10. Steve Savage says:

    Angry,

    Yes, this whole site has been down a lot lately because it has a new owner who is making modifications. It probably won't be fully functional until sometime later this month. The statistics function isn't working because they are changing to allow tracking with Google analytics, but with little new content I'm guessing the traffic is way down.

    Yes, Monsanto sued quite a few farmers who were brown bagging in the early days of this technology, mostly with soybeans. Percy was the only one that turned that into a career. What Monsanto was doing, licensing a patented technology to farmers, wasn't entirely new (even Universities had patented lines of things like wheat), but the "technology fee" and the replanting restrictions were more significant than in the past. Many in the trade thought it would never work. Today I doubt that there are any mainstream farmers who would say this has been a bad thing. Instead it has created a vigorous and competitive seed industry that is bringing better and better options, particularly with soy which had previously seen a much lower level of investment. Industries like wheat that have not been allowed this advance are organizing to overcome the objections of people like yourself so that wheat can become a more competitive crop.

    I'm sorry you have food allergies, but genetic engineering is the least risky source of new crops for you. In that case whatever proteins are new are well known and testable (for instance, a seed storage protein from Brazil nut was considered as a way to increase the lysine content of corn. Very early in the research they tested the protein to see if it was the one to which some people were allergic. It was so the work was stopped). Conversely, George Washington Carver had no idea he was putting a potentially life threatening allergen into the food supply when he first developed peanuts as a modern crop.

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  12. Larraine says:

    It's bad enough that we have so many non native species. Let's not bring yet another. You said that these trees have been shown not go go beyond the borders of their plantations in Brazil. Maybe so. However the results might be very different here. Witness Kudzu and Nutria, both foreign imports into the South. Bringing foreign species into a non-native habitat is dangerous. I don't think this is about risk management at all. Sorry. I just don't agree.

  13. Steve Savage says:

    Larraine,

    I completely understand your hesitancy about the introduction of non-native species. There have been plenty of bad examples there, but there have also been a lot more examples that went fine. Wheat, Barley, Apples, European Grapes, Potatoes, Citrus, Kiwis, and Almonds represent just a few of the plant species that were not native to the US but now grow here without becoming like Kudzu. For a forestry example, the Monterrey pine was introduced to New Zealand and Chile and has become a very successful and non-invasive crop there. Eucalyptus came from Australia to Brazil and has been well behaved there. We know a lot more about what makes a plant "invasive" than back when most of the big mistakes were made. We also know to do small-scale tests first like this one.

    So yes, this is not something to take lightly, but it is not an automatic "no."

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