Commentary: GMO-oh no, no

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John Hagelin, Ph.D., is a most interesting man.

The Harvard-educated quantum physicist-cum-public policy expert has conducted high-level research at both the European Center for Particle Physics and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. His bio states that, “His scientific contributions in the fields of electroweak unification, grand unification, super-symmetry and cosmology include some of the most cited references in the physical sciences.”

I don’t even know what all that means, but it’s a lot more impressive than anything appearing on my resume.

Hagelin is currently the director of the Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy, an Iowa-based organization he founded to “identify, scientifically evaluate, and implement proven, prevention-oriented, forward-looking solutions to critical national and global problems,” according to the group’s website.

In 2003, Hagelin advocated a unique solution to the war in Iraq, what he called “a non-military approach to peace-creation,” based on the idea that chaos and disorder in any society can be calmed by using large groups of peace-creating experts trained in “scientifically verified meditation techniques.” That approach, he sadly noted in newspaper editorials published at the time, has been “largely ignored by the media, the government and the military.”

Crazy? Maybe, but Hagelin’s argument that “war doesn’t create peace; war creates chaos, social disruption and generations of animosity” is tough to dispute.

The basics of biotech

More to the point for today’s livestock producers and farmers, however, is Hagelin’s viewpoint on the use of biotechnology. Even as bitter debate among policymakers continues and costly litigation initiated by anti-GMO activists slows its implementation, the science of genetic engineering continues to progress, albeit slower and with less dramatic results in terms of agricultural productivity than even its staunchest believers acknowledge.

Personally, I’ve always argued that biotechnology, properly applied, holds great potential for being part of the solution to global hunger and food shortages; that genetic engineering is still in its infancy, scientifically speaking, and revolutionary gains cannot realistically be expected less than two decades after plant scientists have fully engaged in the basic research needed to develop crops utilizing the complex genetic manipulations needed to create such traits as drought tolerance.

That perspective hasn’t changed, but I must be honest: After years of listening to both sides of the debate, from respected scientists who make compelling arguments, to well-meaning activists, whose fears are well-founded, Hagelin’s views on the subject have made me reconsider my position.

His argument is based on the Unified Field theory—“The most fundamental and powerful level of Nature’s dynamics,” as he calls it, based on the idea that the complex and interrelated dynamics observed in the sub-atomic realm of particle physics is the template for macro developments in the more visible world, ie, plant science.

Here’s what he says about applying the Unified Field theory to biotechnology: “I am deeply concerned that life scientists are implementing bioengineering technologies without adequately understanding the lessons we have learned from the physical sciences. One of the key revelations of modern physics is that phenomena unfold in a far less linear and predictable fashion than 18th and 19th century thinkers assumed. DNA is a complex, nonlinear system and splicing foreign genes into the DNA of a food-yielding organism can cause unpredictable side effects that could harm the health of the human consumer.”

In a way, that’s basically the “precautionary principle” dressed up in scientific clothing. Most Americans don’t subscribe to the idea that new innovations must first be proven safe with anywhere near the same passion as many Europeans do. And to be fair, genetic engineering as applied to the commodity food crops on which we depend—corn and soybeans, primarily—has yet to produce any tangible health effects that would warrant calling a halt to the biotech applications already in place and others currently under development.

But as Hagelin notes, “The refusal to recognize the risks of the unintended and essentially unpredictable negative side effects [of GMO crops] is just plain bad science. It is astounding that so many biologists are attempting to impose a paradigm of precise, linear, billiard-ball predictably onto the behavior of DNA, when physics has long since dislodged such a paradigm, and molecular biological research increasingly confirms its inapplicability to the dynamics of genomes.”

That’s a long-winded way of saying that we probably shouldn’t apply simple cause-and-effect predictability to DNA manipulations when they involve what plant scientists call “genetic stacking,” the use of multiple gene insertions to achieve complex, multi-faceted traits, such as tolerance to drought conditions or soil salinity.

Right now, “stacking” remains relatively primitive, limited to GE crops carrying herbicide-and insect-resistant traits. To accomplish the incredible leap in agricultural productivity virtually every expert concedes will be needed to nourish another three billion people this century, biotechnology will need to become far more sophisticated (and successful) than anything we’ve witnessed to date.

Does that mean that Hagelin’s notion that biotechnologists’ faith in the predictability of outcomes is, as he puts it, “not just scientifically unsound; but morally irresponsible?”

I sincerely hope not.

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator


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Toby White    
Houston, TX  |  May, 26, 2011 at 10:29 AM

You might want to look at Dr. Hagelin's Wikipedia entry. In addition, viruses have been pulling the same splicing and stacking routine for over a billion years without human help. Given the role natural gene-splicing plays in the evolution of disease organisms, for example, the balance of risks easily favors developing this technology

Mindi Klein    
Rochester, MN  |  May, 26, 2011 at 02:00 PM

"And to be fair, genetic engineering as applied to the commodity food crops on which we depend—corn and soybeans, primarily—has yet to produce any tangible health effects that would warrant calling a halt to the biotech applications already in place and others currently under development." Well, a recent study has found toxins from GM food in human blood and umbilical cords, showing the toxins are passing through the placenta and being passed to developing fetuses. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21338670 The goal of the study appears to be whether these toxins, which GE crop producers insisted would break down via the digestive system, would in fact persist and absorb into the human body. So it hasn't identified what affect these toxins have on human health, but this leaves me with a bit of distrust toward the biotech industry. "Well, yes this food has poison in it, but the proteins will break down in your gut, so don't worry. It's safe. ... Oh, wait. They're not breaking down? Well, we're sure they're harmless. Trust us. Really. We know what we're talking about." No thanks. Until these crops have been better studied and truly proven to be safe, I'd rather steer clear.

zrzzz    
flan, france  |  May, 26, 2011 at 10:15 PM

War is not all bad. If we all held flowers when the panzers rolled through Europe, we'd be German-speaking anti-Semites now. Morality is subjective and circumstantial. Men of science should be measuring and analyzing, not making blanket statements about war and peace.

Joe D.    
Tempe, AZ  |  May, 27, 2011 at 02:22 PM

By definition war signals an inability to solve problems peacefully; wherever you see war occurring you know one thing for sure - resources are being diverted from creative and constructive ends to murder and mayhem.

James Baker    
Canada  |  May, 29, 2011 at 11:09 PM

Errr... this guy is well known as an utter quack. He believes in magic, and then dresses it up as "quantum physics", knowing that the majority of the people he's talking to know so little about physics that they'll believe anything he tells them (no matter how absurd) as long as he throws the word "quantum" in there a few times. Just to give you an idea of what this guy sounds like to someone who *actually* knows something about advanced physics, here's what he'd sound like if he were talking about sports: "The Toronto Canucks faced off against the Moscow Rangers today in football. The score was 23-love after 7 innings. The Canucks scored a field goal against the Rangers." Yes there were sportsie sounding words in there, but it was gobbly-gook to someone who has even a cursory understanding of football, hockey, and baseball. But someone who had never been interested in those sports might well be left with the impression that the speaker knew what they were talking about, just because it sounded vaguely sportsie. Most people know something about sports, so they wouldn't be fooled by someone spouting such nonsense. But most people know next to nothing about physics, so they can be easily fooled. Sure John Hagelin throws some sciencish words in his statements, but they're not even all related to the same subject, never mind placed in the right order, and certainly not coherent. Everything he says is utterly nonsensical. Hence my initial statement about this guy: quack.


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