AgResearch should be commended for advancing transgenic cow research in order to create new commercial options for New Zealand farmers.
The research is very tightly monitored and contained so that no genetically modified material ever leaves the facility.
Only the fruit – the milk proteins that carry enormous commercial value as pharmaceuticals or nutriceuticals – have the possibility of making it outside the 2-metre high fences.
This ought to be great news for everyone concerned. Sadly though, the usual noise makers have come out and opposed the research solely because the terms “GE” or “GM” cropped up.
Why such opposition to apparently harmless science? AgResearch, to their credit, have spent most of their communication about transgenic research encouraging people to educate themselves first about the subject. They have excellent resources on their website, all of which checks out as valid science and is backed by international studies.
Anti-GE groups on the other hand, have encouraged emotive responses to everything transgenic and actively encourage ignorance.
Opposition to the research mainly consists of groups whose ideology states that anything unnatural is way uncool. This begs the question, what is natural? Does natural guarantee something is good or safe? Is anything human beings do natural?
Instead of analysing every claim made by anti-GE activists (which would take weeks) I am going to strip away the value judgements and look solely at the evidence. After all, if someone feels strongly enough about an issue then the science tends to take a backseat role to the agenda – political or otherwise.
Firstly, it is necessary to point out that no amount of evidence, safety assurance or benefits will ever satisfy extreme green fundamentalists. If they say it is unnatural then to them it’s off limits.
Of course we know that a lick of superphosphate on a paddock is, to some activists, completely unethical. There may be good reasons to look at reducing fertiliser use but like GE, the fertiliser isn’t the issue. It’s man-made, unnatural and can’t be done – science or no science.
The act of growing crops is unnatural in the first place. We are in essence playing with nature by selecting certain crops over others. We then further modify nature by selecting the best plants within those crops for future crops and weeding out others.
Todays Hereford is completely different to the Hereford of the 1940’s and before. Todays fruit and vegetables are completely unlike anything our ancestors would have recognised thousands of years ago. In the case of the humble carrot, it was only a very small sweet root.
Today’s often large and juicy carrot variety only appeared after ancestors took a shine to the juiciest, sweetest and largest of the roots. Todays carrot may not have even appeared if some mammal didn’t like it.
Breeding and selecting based on traits is a simple and imprecise form of genetic modification.
Secondly, genetic modification happens all the time naturally. Genetic modification is a naturally occuring process taking place all the time.
Human intervention in this process is simply steering the direction genetic change takes in a direction that benefits humanity.
Australian scientist and author John Wilkins says it better than any other I have encountered: “Genes are trafficked between species, kingdoms and even superkingdoms all the time. They do this mostly via viruses that take up genetic material from one host and carry it to another. In plants, this is so frequent that to claim GE in itself is an environmental threat is to evince total ignorance and willful stupidity.”
GE, like many branches of science has been overinflated by activists to be a boogeyman of their own creation.
This trait of distorting the science is a common feature in ideological opposition to abortion, contraception, global warming, stem cell research and in medical science.
Some environmental groups are fundamentally against GE and therefore no amount of assurance will ever be enough.
This oppositional stance is at odds with their own goals. GE research is aimed at improving crop yields (which leads to less deforestation) and less reliance on pesticides and fertilisers.
Sure there are potential risks – every new science raises some ecological and ethical questions. That’s exactly why there is research to be done.
AgResearch is performing transgenic research that won’t lead to any genetically modified material leaving the facility.
They comply fully with regulations and are experiencing success in producing proteins in a natural way that will lead to health benefits for consumers and economic advantages for farmers.
We owe it to ourselves to leave the armageddon arguments out of the GE debate and educate ourselves to the true nature of the science.
Education in this area, however, is currently the most unnatural thing of all.