The seeds we sow
Stephen Jones is an agricultural professor at Washington State University in Pullman. He holds a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Chico State University and a Ph.D. in genetics from UC Davis. He is opposed to the propagation of GEOs.
What is your background with GE crops?
I have been involved in biotech for about 20 years. I am a wheat breeder at Washington State University. In my program we use biotech as a tool to follow genes. We do not, however, do genetic transformation [take genes from different species and insert them into a plant]. We also do not accept any funding other than public money to do our work. We feel very strongly that corporations have no place on a college campus.
What is the danger posed by such crops?
There are many dangers. My main fear, though, is the control of the food supply and the ownership of what was once in the public domain. For 10,000 years farmers have had the right to plant back what they grow. Biotech aims to take that away. Biotech equals ownership. They plunk a gene into something, and all of sudden they own it.
Isn’t man simply improving on nature here?
No. Nature doesn’t put hog growth hormones and antibiotics into corn. Nature doesn’t produce goats that make spider silk instead of milk. Nature doesn’t make cows that produce human milk. Nature doesn’t make plants that produce plastic.
What do you know about the use of rice and human genes to make drugs?
Growing plants that produce drugs is stupid. Does anyone really think that they can contain this stuff? Anything that is done in a plant can be done elsewhere; they just think it’s going to be cheaper to use plants as the factory. It’s greed, pure and simple.
Can genetically altered crops be safely contained?
No, they can’t.
What is the driving force here—help for starving humans, corporate profit or some mix of the two?
Profit, pure and simple. We have plenty of technology, money and food to end misery today if we wished. Starvation is not an agricultural issue; it is a political and economic one. To say that this technology will end starvation is cruel. It offers a false hope. What part of human food-based suffering do we need biotech for? Vitamin A deficiency? Malnourishment? We have the food and resources today to end these problems. That our main solution is proprietary-based research tells something about us as a people. What are we waiting for?
Does banning them in certain counties, as we are looking to do in Butte, work? What about drift and nature’s other means of pollination?
A county ban is the first step in the public’s having a say in this whole process. The people have every right to say what they want and what they don’t want. Seems rather American to me. Scientists have always had a certain arrogance. Combine that with a touch of greed, and you have something that is moving a bit too fast right now.
Anything else we should know?
What has biotech done in 20 or 30 years? It is still mostly promises. Biotech is a classic example of having some answers and looking for a question. Pretty soon all questions and problems seem to have biotech answers. This is where they have overstepped their bounds.
To simplify problems like food-based human misery and say that a biotech miracle will fix it is either naive or callous or both. The problem then becomes compounded as regular things that work to help these people get ignored or under-funded because of the biotech miracle that is just around the corner.
Biotech may have some value, but it needs to be slowed down and discussed at the public level. Food safety, environmental and ownership issues have to be worked out before we continue willy-nilly down the current path.
Terms such as “sound science” are designed to take the public out of the argument. The soundness of science if judged by individuals with something to gain from their judgment, either monetarily or politically, should also be questioned.—T.G.