Week 10- GM plants, agriculture, and beliefs

This week we had a professor from chemistry, and a UC Davis Plant geneticist. What was interesting was the Plant geneticist had previously done a TED talk. Like a good speaker, her points were accessible even for those without much background knowledge. I had previously done an assignment related to plants and genetic modification, so I was familiar with the material. Her main point- instead of targeting the genetic engineering itself, it is better to focus on the agricultural aspect, and that of helping kids to grow up healthily (with genetic engineering as a tool to reach this goal).

We were told to choose and defend one of five stances regarding genetically modified organisms in NZ:

(i)    Research on genetically modified organisms should be prioritised and approved plants should be grown in NZ.

(ii)   Research on genetically modified organisms should be allowed but there should be no release of use of these plants.

(iii)  100% Pure NZ should have allow no genetically modified organisms at all.

(iv) The use of genetically modified organisms and organic farming are compatible.

(v) NZ’s future depends on replacing conventional farming methods with organic farming.

Most people went with the first choice (as expected of science scholars), but all the other statements had some backers too.

I chose to back the second statement for a few reasons:

  • As a country with large amounts of arable land and with agriculture as an important industry, research should definitely be done in NZ, so we can understand more about our crops and the land we plant our crops on.
  • GM plants shouldn’t be released, because of the possibility of horizontal gene transfer. If cross-pollination occurs, then herbicide-resistance or pesticide-resistance genes can enter the genome of species related to the original plant. An example is grass, which can form superweeds that are notoriously hard to control.
  • NZ, as a country, has an identity that is far from one that has GMOs. Additionally, there might be economic losses and complaints if we did start using GMOs. (Greenpeace has been opposed to golden rice for many years).

This was my stance before the talk, and this was my stance after the talk and after discussing with others in my group. At the end, a question was raised by Duncan, which was something along the lines of ‘Regardless of whether you changed your stance or not, are you willing to change your stance, if there was good evidence for you to do so?’

I didn’t put my hand up because I thought that I had pretty good evidence for my stance. However, so did the others- then why should I insist on my position over others? The fact that it came from me doesn’t make it better. I guess I am somewhat closed-minded.

As I read about the speaker today, I noticed that she had previously retracted two papers, because mistakes were made during the experiment, and these mistakes were only noticed later, when her group had tried to replicate the experiments.

Aren’t mistakes embarrassing and hard to recover from? If you bought some stocks from a new company, thinking it would rise in value, but it declines sharply, would you sell the stock then? Or wait till the season when the prices are ‘sure to rise’? Judging by my response today, I might stay stubborn and not sell the stocks. Humans are so loss-averse; while the money is truly lost when the lower-priced stocks are sold, there is potential for even more future loss by holding onto the stocks.

I think the article retractions by the speaker were respectable decisions, because while there is considerable short term loss (retracting a paper isn’t easy), there is long term gain (as a renowned research scientist, if the incorrect work remained published, the progression of science in plant genetics would be slowed). A good scientist doesn’t just strive for a good reputation; they do what’s best for science, and that is what gives them the good reputation, at least within the scientific community.

I still have a lot to learn, but being aware of my own weaknesses (eg stubbornness) is a good way to start improving as a person.

Thank you for reading!

(for more on her scientific retractions, read the Q&A with Pamela Ronald here).

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