8. When we don’t know more than we let on

The belowground community that lives in topsoil and its importance to the health of plants is poorly understood. We certainly know there are any number of organisms that can have negative effects on plants and most of our treatment of farm soils is to attempt to control bad things. For example, it’s well known that if a certain crop plant is grown year after year in the same soil, herbivores and pathogens build up in the soil and result in unhealthy plants and lower yields. Thus, farmers treat the soil in an attempt to reduce the abundance of those organisms before they plant the crop. For example, one chemical widely used in the past was methyl bromide, as a soil fumigant and sterilizer, and which is toxic to most living things. It was useful for pre-treating fields prior to planting, especially strawberry and tomato fields.

However, as a broad-spectrum pesticide it kills most of the living components of the soil and thereby reduces the soil processes that support fertility and nutrient cycling. Soil that has been tilled and turned, exposed and compressed, and subjected to the air and daytime temperatures, is already tremendously damaged in terms of the ecosystem services it provides to farmers and plants. In particular, spiders, mites, worms, and beneficial insects are often completely eliminated (if they weren’t already). Without those inhabitants of the topsoil, unwanted pest organisms are not controlled by natural predators and the farmer is rather limited to using chemicals in any further attempts to control them.

Keeping soil healthy means maintaining the entire soil community from bacteria to nematodes to insects because of the important interactions that exist between them that keeps renewing the soil properties. Unfortunately, we know very little about how all of those organisms interact, how sensitive they are to chemicals and physical disturbance, and how the loss of even a few of them can disrupt important services that the soil provides to farming. So, despite our ability to catalog the contents of the soil community, we understand very little of it’s structure, inter-connectedness, stability, resilience, and how to repair it when damaged.

Having said that, I will say the same thing about biotechnology and the accelerating development of transgenic (GMO) crops moving onto the market every day. We know almost nothing about the consequences of disrupting genomes by adding foreign genes to organisms. That may seem like a bold statement especially give the success at accomplishing these changes and the absolute certainty of the industry in their technical abilities. But technical ability is not the same as understanding.

Consider this scenario: your 15-year-old son takes a driving lesson and then announces he is ready to take his friends to Ft. Lauderdale for Spring Break! You say he isn’t remotely prepared for such a trip, but he’s confident because he’s watched you drive for years and there isn’t anything to it. Technically, yes, he is capable, but he has no experience with any possible complications that could arise along the way. How well we handle stress is a measure of our preparedness and of our understanding, and stress is not something that can be easily anticipated. It is unlikely any parent would agree to such a proposal, but that doesn’t mean the 15-year-old isn’t absolutely sure of his ability to handle the challenge.

Biotechnicians understand the structures that make-up the genomes of plants; they have a very good understanding of DNA and protein synthesis, they know how to sequence and create desired DNA molecules, they are very good at inserting genes into chromosomes and evaluating their expression. The capabilities of this science are tremendously impressive. Unfortunately, in many ways, it’s not unlike you or I wanting to compete in a NASCAR race because, after all, it’s just a big oval with only left hand turns, right?

The process of doing the science to understand how complicated genomes are and the subsequent application of that understanding to the manipulation of life is a giant step. And yet, we have not hesitated to take that step. Biotech and its application to crop genomes is a giant test-tube; every new undertaking yields new understanding. Every new application is a link in a very long and very complicated network of interacting parts. How many parts and how many links there are is essentially infinite, but we are willing to move forward without really understanding the network. It’s like driving 20 feet behind the next car when our safe stopping distance is 50 feet. If the need suddenly arose, we could not stop safely. Our belief that technology will solve our problems is strong and ingrained, but can technology solve the problem of faulty technology?

In the world of biotech, we are capable of generating solutions to problems, but when those solutions eventually fail, we have a very poor understanding of why. We know how to generate new solutions, but we are not very good at understanding the failures. In that sense, biotech is not science because science is the process of learning from trial and error, of understanding how things work by learning from what doesn’t work. Biotech is interested in finding solutions to very specific problems and much less interested in understanding how all of the pieces work within the whole. This will ultimately lead to increasing distrust of the biotech industry and, as an unwarranted backlash, against science itself.

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One thought on “8. When we don’t know more than we let on

  1. Pingback: When We Don’t Know More Than We Let On

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