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Genetic Pollution
Alex Steffen, 26 Sep 04

Jargon watch --
Biological pollution: living things found in the wrong places.
Genetic pollution: new genes found in the wrong living things.

Traditionally, biopollution refered to alien, invasive species, like the kudzu which now covers millions of acres in the American South, or the zebra mussels which have run amok in the Great Lakes. But with the introduction of genetic engineering, and the careless release of transgenic plants and bacteria into the environment, we're now seeing a whole new kind of biopollution: genetic pollution.

Today's NYT reports on the increase in genetic pollution:

"Such concerns came to the fore last week when scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency reported that a type of creeping bentgrass modified to resist Roundup, a popular herbicide, could pollinate conventional grass 13 miles away, much farther than previous studies had shown. That raised fears that the new gene could spread to wild grasses, creating weeds immune to the world's most widely used weed-killer.

"Bioengineered crops seem to have a way of turning up where they are not wanted, through cross-pollination, intermingling of seed or other routes. StarLink corn, approved for animal feed but not for human consumption, ended up in taco shells and other groceries in 2000, prompting big recalls. Tiny amounts of corn engineered to produce a pharmaceutical got into 500,000 bushels of Nebraska soybeans. And engineered genes have apparently been detected in traditional varieties of corn growing in Mexico, the ancestral home of the crop and site of its greatest diversity, though the findings are disputed."

The big fear that creeps through this debate is that some arrogant lab somewhere will release something really, really bad, triggering a "genetic Chernobyl" or "biotech Bhopal." Some think that the coming boom in industrial biotechnology makes this all the more likely.

But I think differently. Industrial biotechnologies, undertaken with even the slightest understanding of the precautionary principle, have the potential to be much safer than the every day activities of Big Ag today, which basically involve a series of open air experiments in the release of untried, untested transgenic organisms. In industrial biotech, you want the critters to stay put and do work for you. In agricultural biotech, you have to let them loose in field and fen before they can do you any good.

Back in the early days of the Atomic Era, radium girls painted glow-in-the-dark numbers on watch faces with radioactive paint, licking the tips of the brushes to sharpen the point. Many later died horribly, and radium watches were for many years afterwards the archetypal example of "dumb thing done with new technology." Uncontrolled, transgenic agriculture is the radium watch of our day.

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