Will the Genes Escape?

Patrick Whitefield has entered the discussion on genetic engineering over at the Small Farm Future blog.
Patrick is the UK’s leading permaculture teacher and author of The Earth Care Manual.

Patrick makes two main points: that he thinks there is evidence that GE can be as dangerous as some now-banned chemicals; and that with GE “The big difference is that once they’re released into the biosphere it’s not always possible to withdraw genes.”

“To me” he says, “this is the clinching argument. No amount of short term trials can tell us how gm will behave in the biosphere in the long term. We’re just taking a punt on it all turning out OK.”

Here is my reply:

“The big difference is that once they’re released into the biosphere it’s not always possible to withdraw genes.” I dont see why this is the “clinching argument” – surely also debatable at least?
There is no reason to think the risks of genes escaping and causing problems are a greater threat from GMOs than from other breeding methods, eg mutagenesis, of which there are thousands of varieties and these are accepted under organic standards. Even crop rotation has been known to put selection pressure on pests.


The whole 10,000 year-old project of farming has already changed the environment so much in ways that can never be undone, with or without GMOs. Nor does it seem reasonable to compare genetic engineering with dangerous chemicals, implying that they are all spawned of the same mindset- lets call it “Scientism” – and therefore must be equally bad. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that GE crops have reduced the use of pesticides, and allowed the substitution of dangerous chemicals with much more benign ones.

GE is a biological approach, in line with permaculture principles, and something Rachel Carson would have approved of, in line with organic principles of avoiding chemicals. Chemicals have also been unfairly demonized but this is much more understandable because as you say some were very dangerous – and have rightly been banned. I think we have to have some trust in the regulatory process- the anti-GE movement depends on a suspicion of science and flagrant scare-mongering.


GE is just another way of making new varieties and likely safer than more scatter-gun approaches including traditional breeding. It also has a lot of advantages over other methods and solves problems they cannot- eg with the Rainbow Papya. http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/feb06/aaas.gonsalves.papaya.sd.html

Also, Patrick your attitude does not explain the blanket opposition to all GE crops including potatoes which could save many fungicide sprayings each year and has negligible chance of “escaping” into the wild, a risk that is negligible for other crops as well.


The issue of escaping genes ironically is something that could have been addressed with Gene Use Restriction Technology (GURT) aka Terminator- too bad Monsanto were compelled under activist pressure to shelve it. But since we so have GE crops being grown over a larger area each year, would you prefer Patrick to see it resurrected?


There is overwhelming scientific consensus that these risks are no greater for GE than other methods, most likely less; I dont like the analogy with climate science but I still think you have to explain why you dont accept the science on this.


6 thoughts on “Will the Genes Escape?

  1. Well, we had that 30 year long trial in Italy, but it was destroyed by legal action of environmentalists. That was a really sad day.

    Pam Ronald had a good post on escape once: Faustian Frankenpoodles Sighted http://scienceblogs.com/tomorrowstable/2010/11/14/faustian-frankenpoodles-sighte/ I’ve been unable to shake that image ever since…

  2. good debate, just ordered the book on Organic farming, genetics and the future of food, how pleasing to have all this in one title, at last!!

  3. Graham didn’t you get the party memo ?
    – “4 legs good, 2 legs bad”
    – “natural good, manmade bad”
    .. Deadly nightshade, black widow spiders, rabies, malaria, miscarriages , plagues & starvation.. .good
    … Hospitals, education, anti-biotics, baby incubators.. Well never mind

  4. If genes were « escaping », whatever that means, we would already know from « conventional » varieties.

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