Saturday, March 13, 2010

The GM beat goes on

I just listened to an hour of yesterday's Science Friday on what GMO's can do for world hunger. As the intro said, Golden Rice isn't in any rice bowls yet. What advantages does "biotech" (is that a cleaner or sexier phrase than "genetically modified"?) have over conventional hybridization?

Well, I don't think they answered the question. I appreciated what the spokesperson for the Union of Concerned Scientists said at the beginning of the segment - the quick fix of GMing doesn't work so well for complex traits like drought resistance.

I did not appreciate the fact that every time this guy presented an alternative viewpoint to the Man from Monsanto, Ira Flatow told him to hurry up. The fact is that complex traits, and ecologically and culturally complex situations, require complex answers, not slick talking points.

Several times during the conversation GM cotton's introduction to and use in India was mentioned. I wonder how they could do this with no one - even the anthropolgy professor on the panel - mentioning the many suicides about farmers of GM cotton in India.

Well into the hour, a person preparing a talk on conservation raised a good question, and Glenn Stone, the anthro professor, made some good points, I think. He pointed out that the patenting of seeds makes it very difficult for independent scientists to do the research they would like, the experimental work necessary to test the environmental impact of GM seeds.

He also pointed out that the buying up of seed companies by agrochemical companies has caused seed prices to soar.

One of the things that fascinated me is that at Monsanto and in the institutes and foundations that are playing ball with them, the comparisons of GM crops (biocassava+, I think the new one which will be ready at the end of this decade was called) are to vitamin pills, rather than, as the Concerned Scientists rep pointed out, to agro-ecology. So doing gene transplants to get more iron and calcium and vitamin A or whatever into a staple root crop is better than "supplementation" - but is it better than developing diversified small scale agriculture? No foundation grants for that research.

The link to this podcast was broken, and I'm not sure how I finally did download it. Itunes might work better than the NPR site if you care to search for it and listen to it. If you do, try to stick with it - the next to last question from a listener in San Francisco is worth the price of admission - he brought it back to the context of global hunger. I wish the answers from the panel had been as good as the question.

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