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A bit of good news about GM crops

April 2nd, 2005

This story about GM cotton designed to resist pests without the application of pesticides illustrates the potential benefits of GM technology, applied carefully. On this issue, I think Australian policymakers have struck pretty much the right balance between involuntarily exposing the public to risks they may not choose to bear (as in the US) and stifling technological progress (as in the EU).

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  1. April 2nd, 2005 at 14:34 | #1

    Thanks for that – an important development.

    But this is a slack and lazy article. All the little weevil praise and blame words – “free for the first time”, GM pioneer Monsanto first won permission”, ” strident opposition from environmental and consumer groups.”

    Who wrote the press release that was based on, do you think? The only science person quoted was “Mark Buckingham, a Monsanto spokesman..”

    Everything is seen as a battle against nature, with the “risk” of resistance and a refuge crop as an “ongoing safeguard”.

    What is interesting here is what is missing. It is CSIRO, which has spent millions of our taxpayers dollars in a terrific effort to understand the Helicoverpa armigera moth. I think a fairer way of describing the research is to say that Monsanto isolated the Bt gene, which was available to be put into plants.

    CSIRO then did the splicing, development and testing work. The research was part of an exemplary multifaceted approach to the problem, which started with HEAPS, a computer program which enabled farmers to calculate exactly when and where to spray so as to hit the moth at its maximum points of vulnerability. They did a huge amount of work which revealed the importance of cotton stubble as a refuge for the beast. Which looked at refuge and companion crops.

    Which insisted, based partly on our bitter experience with rabbits, on the need for a multifactorial approach because the moth would for sure develop resistance.

    CSIRO is pushing ahead with TwinGardâ„¢, a new second generation cotton strain, and actively looking for other mechanisms in plants which are toxic to insects and expressed in a single gene.

    I think it is a bit hard to think of Monsanto pushing for the use of transgenic cotton without CSIRO; in fact we might guess that our national science organisation might have a bit more clout in Canberra than a multinational chemical company.

    We might also think that the high bars and hard questions asked by the environmental movement might have made sure that a multinational did not nip in for a quick profit. Indeed, the multivalent, knowledge based strategy that CSIRO uses is basically the environmentalists’ mindset.

    Ecology not threat. System not product. Wisdom not force.

    Apologies in this rant for not mentioning the CRC partners I did not come across; I did some film work on this but that was over ten years ago.

    More about this here.

    CSIRO’s own efforts to explain what it does is still a shambles, by the way. That article is just one scattered across their system, none of which seems to describe the whole effort clearly.

  2. Peter McBurney
    April 2nd, 2005 at 21:43 | #2

    I think it is a bit hard to think of Monsanto pushing for the use of transgenic cotton without CSIRO; in fact we might guess that our national science organisation might have a bit more clout in Canberra than a multinational chemical company.
    . . .

    CSIRO’s own efforts to explain what it does is still a shambles, by the way.

    A corporation has a direct, economic incentive to explain itself in the best possible light, especially to powerful Governments. A Government agency, facing guarantees of continued funding, has no such incentive. We should not be surprised that Monsanto is more successful than the CSIRO at public communications and relations.

  3. April 6th, 2005 at 17:18 | #3

    Interesting you should say that Peter; you are helping to explain the mindset behind the extensive moves to destabilise CSIRO funding. No more guarantees and many program closures.

    I personally think that CSIRO’s public relations breakdown began over twenty years ago. When my generation were children, the “brand” had fantastic cache. Once it became necessary to tend it, no-one had a clue what to do.

    It is fair to say that the scientists, at the most general level, were not good at managing communication. A lot of work was done to bring in “experts” from outside with bookloads of neat theories to fix it. They didn’t have a clue either.

    CSIRO communications suffered too because it has to be the tool of government. All government enterprises have that problem, which becomes most acute when their political masters run a strongly ideological line.

    When you go from explaining yourself to making the government look good, your long term communications policy is in trouble.

    I also think the general communications approach is fraught because it became an instrument of change, tied up with managerialist rebuilds of the organisation.

    I had the privilege recently of working on a website for a Flagship, so I had direct experience of the problems. We were trying to advertise programs that were causing great resource shifts in the organisation which were destructive for some peoples’ life’s work. I was impressed by their tolerance, but you can see why they didn’t line up to cheer at my work.

    On some level, the problem here can be reduced to the single paradigm that happens again and again.

    We get told to “reform” a program at the same time as it is cut. At the time when we need the most money, we have even less. As soon as that rule is set up, we are f*cked.

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