In addition to holding basically a lifetime interest in agriculture I also happen to be a fan of science fiction. The two areas of interest occasionally converge, and frankly I am never sure if that is a good thing, or a bad one.
On the one hand there is the Gene Roddenberry vision of science fiction exemplified by his Star Trek works. Not everything in the world of scientific development is without its bumps in the Star Trek world, smaller bumps were seen pre-Hollywood, but humankind always dealt with such bumps in a way which left our species enjoying a rather enlightened future.
George Orwell in A Brave New World didn’t see things as rosily as Roddenberry, and it would seem most science fiction writers fall into the Orwell camp in terms of what lies ahead, even if many ultimately see the human spirit triumphing.
So by now, as a reader, you are wondering what this has to do with farming.
Well regular readers will know I am a pretty big proponent of genetic modification in agriculture, and that view hasn’t changed.
In a perfect world we might not need GMO but our species has long ago made sure Earth is far from perfect anymore.
That is why I shudder at a development such as the so-called ‘terminator gene’ technology which would have crops producing essentially sterile grain. It puts too much control of food production in commercial hands and takes it away from everyday people.
Now I read about Monsanto’s research and development work on RNA interference (RNAi) for pest management. Apparently RNA interference is a process to turn down or shut off the expression of certain genes, which suppresses the production of a specific protein in an organism, which I’ll admit is a concept well above Grade 12 biology taken 35 years ago even if Jim Weseen was a fine instructor.
“In the case of crop pests, RNAi could potentially shut down proteins related to metabolism or reproduction, thus killing or disabling target insects,” related a recent Western Producer article. “… RNA interference is alluring because it can be tailored to a specific pest, unlike pesticides that kill harmful and beneficial insects alike.”
So, yes I can see the faces of researcher’s and even those of farmers lighting up. The ability to attack particular insects with a specific RNAi created application, and have it be effective sounds great. We are, after all, aware that when you spray for a certain bad bug, you generally take all its beneficial cousins with it.
But there are inherent concerns which come with such science.
Nature has a way of mutating organisms, and we know too organisms inherently adapt, that is why some poisons now effects rats less than they once did, germs become resistant to certain medications, and weeds to certain herbicides. How nature might adapt to RNA changes over the long term is a mystery which harkening back to my science fiction interest, might not be particularly good.
One should always worry at least a little about what sort of applications a science might be being adapted for in a few military bunkers and madman labs out there. We might like to think such things are merely the stuff of fiction, but we only need to look at some of the research being undertaken in Nazi Germany to know science can be easily twisted.
The more that science flirts with changing the building blocks of life, the more diligent we need to be before accepting even the first step down such an uncertain road.
Calvin Daniels is Assistant Editor with Yorkton This Week.