Aug 05 2007

The Forest for the Trees

Published by Brian at 2:24 pm under science, politics, agriculture

frankenforest?Dara Cowell’s piece on Alternet about the genetic engineering of trees, “Frankenforest: GE Trees Threaten Ecosystem Collapse,” concerns me. Not because I’m in favor of genetically engineering plants or animals. To the contrary, I think it’s a bad idea and for all the reasons Cowell states–except, in my case, without the scare-language that permeates the piece.

What bugs me is that this yet another example of wild-eyed, doom-saying liberal anti-science journalism that (not surprisingly, considering it’s anti-science) ignores the science in favor of trying to scare the bejeezus out of us.

Cowell writes:

The United States leads the world in research projects, with 150 tree test plots — two-thirds of the world’s known research areas — and they are joined by Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

OK, so we have the U.S. in there twice; write that off to bad editing. But where are these “test plots”? Cowell never says. And it’s not even clear that she means 150 genetically engineered tree test plots. Sneaky, that, and really bad journalism.

Cowell does say that there’s a test sponsored by ArborGen “to let a field of genetically modified eucalyptus trees flower and produce seeds — a monumental move that has alarmed environmentalists worried about GE trees interbreeding with wild ones.” But, again, no information about where this is happening. And, in subsequent mention, ArborGen is spelled Arbogen; more bad editing?

Gene drift is a worry, as Cowell writes. But instead of backing this up with science, she produces more scare quotes (there are only a couple sources named in the piece), as in this one from “Ricarda Steinbrecher, co-founder of the London-based nonprofit science watchdog Eco-Nexus” and who “has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics”:

Compared to crops that have been cultivated for thousands of years, trees are ‘wild.’ If a GE trait enters a forest species, the implications could be absolutely horrendous. We could see the ecological system weaken and collapse. Without the forests, we’re sunk.”

Yes, without forests, we’re pretty well screwed. But even if there is gene spread from engineered to wild trees of a particular species, is there really a danger of “ecological… collapse”? More likely, the collapse of that species which, yes, is going to have a terrible cascade effect if it’s an important enough species. But it won’t bring down the entire “system.”

Cowell suffers from what Curtus White, in the current issue of Harper’s, ca;;s “The Idols of Environmentalism.” White’s beef is that eco-writers use the same language as scientists, and are thereby buying into the capitalist system that is poisoning and killing us (us meaning the planet). He’s got a point.

But what other language do we have? White wants a “moral” language, one of reverence for life as it is found. Fair enough. Except for one thing: most eco-writers aren’t using the language of science, they’re using the language of psuedo-science. Environmentalists have bought into a whole slew of bogus myths, most of which fall into the folkoric category of “Scare your children.”

Much better would be to teach our children, and ourselves, the science we need to arm and inform ourselves in order to take meaningful and informed action against those practices we view as dangerous. Make no mistake about it: GE is dangerous, but you’re not going to stop it by turning (or trying to, anyway) your readers into quivering bowls of jelly.

And that means when you do a piece of investigative reporting that you actually investigate beyond the first 10 google hits.

2 Responses to “The Forest for the Trees”

  1. K2on 19 Aug 2007 at 3:44 pm

    Amen, bro. Evolution is a balance of protection and invasion - we must do a bit of both to find our correct next steps, or corrent previous incorrect steps. We have not been effective in this in many ways, but have perhaps in others. Native medicine has not been exterminated because of laboratory synthesis of undeniable good stuff. Who is to say that a little GE might not balance out wicked/wonderful nature in her flora as other “invasive” steps have? I am happy that there is a synthetic antidote to the rattlesnake bite. I am also happy that rattlesnakes continue to bite and can still protect their domain.

  2. Brianon 19 Aug 2007 at 8:24 pm

    A Cornell U press release says, “Researchers at Cornell and elsewhere have determined that 97.9 percent of all white rice is derived from a mutation (a deletion of DNA) in a single gene originating in the Japonica subspecies of rice. Their report, published online in the journal PloS (Public Library of Science) Genetics, suggests that early farmers favored, bred and spread white rice around the world.” The mutation, the scientists figure, occurred about 10,000 years ago. Among other place, you can find the PR here:

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