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A Dive Into The Gene Pool

A Day At The Royal Commission On Genetic Modification.

Both the Rotorua and Hamilton public sessions were worthwhile - and entertaining.

Listening to fears being expressed by those with sufficient courage to face the Commissioners - notably the women folk - I began to wonder if they were justified.

I was determined to get to the bottom of the debate and get a ‘specialist’s’ view. During the tea break I managed to corner one of the more vociferous and bright-eyed young gene jockeys munching a biscuit.

“John*,” I said. “I’ve always wanted to check this stuff out.”

He looked threatened.

“Tell me, can we really remove a gene from a toad, or whatever, accurately?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied looking relieved. “We use restrictor enzymes as our “scissors” to accurately cut out the gene we require.”

Wait for it, I thought here it comes.

“And then we simply slot it into the plant.”

“But you can’t be sure of placing it accurately into a plant’s DNA. Do we know what the effect will be, upstream or downstream, from the insertion point?”

“No, but we can test for that,” he quickly intoned.

They always make a dash for this, their ‘emergency exit’. I continued, “But you know even after breeding up several generations things are still going wrong.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he quickly responded.

“What about all that cotton that Monsanto sold to the US farmers1? They must have tested that for generations, but I’d heard all the bolls fell off. And what about engineering yeast for the brewing industry? It made a nasty poison instead.”2

John was getting visibly edgy. “Look, there are risks doing almost everything in life, driving a car for instance.” They seem to like this analogy.

“Yes I appreciate that, but don’t you think it’s dangerous to use all these nasty viruses?”

“No, of course not,” he jumped quickly to the defence. “We always disarm them. Think of the car example. We take the wheels off.”

“Yes, I replied, “but I’ve never known a car find a new set of wheels, bolt them back on, then career off down the road of its own violation.” (Viruses can recombine.)

“I have to go,” he said. “You just don’t understand,” he threw over his shoulder as he scurried through the door.

I left the meetings knowing one thing for sure. Diving into the gene pool may be OK, but
there’s going to be no lifeguard.


*A pseudonym has been used to protect the innocent.


(1) In Missouri, in the first year of approval, almost 20,000 acres of the glyphosate tolerant cotton malfunctioned. In some cases the plants dropped their cotton bolls, in others the tolerance genes were not properly expressed so that the GE plants were killed by the herbicide.
(2) They engineered yeast to increase fermentation rates for the brewing industry it produced toxic quantities of methyl glyoxal.

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