Mark Lynas The God Species – I can’t agree with this GMO nitrogen fix

Mark Lyna’s chapter on nitrogen and the nitrogen boundary (unlike carbon, not crossed yet) reads well.  To put it simply and clearly (as he does): Every living cell needs nitrogen: It makes leaves green, constitutes an essential part of all proteins, forms enzymes, and helps encode genetic information in DNA and RNA.  Without nitrogen our crops would die in the fields and our children would develop the awful starved potbellies of African refugee camps.

What is so tricky about getting nitrogen naturally – is that it comes from two places; electrical discharge in thunderstorms and from nitrogen fixation from leguminous plants (peas, beans and clover).  The nodules on these plants work symbiotically with the soil to produce this very precious resource.

Then we went and created synthetic nitrogen from synthesising ammonia in 1909 which enabled us to create better explosives for war.  It wasn’t until after WWII that we turned to nitrogen to boost our harvests.  The Green Revolution.  And the famines of previous centuries faded into history.

And now – every agrarian economy is fighting another problem.  Massive nitrogen runoff into lakes and rivers is creating dead zones of algae blooms and water depleted of oxygen, something the species living in our waterways regard with less than enthusiasm.  And having created the stuff, nitrogen cycles again and again, from rain to fertiliser to nitrous oxide.  (The only way to get rid of it is to stick it to another nitrogen atom and then it becomes, as Lynas says, a trouble free gas).

So what do we do?  All over the western world farmers are reducing their fert applications and understanding that there are good ratios of fertiliser to plant growth to reduce runoff.  In countries such as China, from what I understand, farmers are still applying too much but cost benefit ratios should reduce that reasonably quickly.

But ultimately we still need to reduce our nitrogen load.  Lynas suggests that organic farming is not the way to go – we need too much land which will ultimately take land away from protected forests as we seek to feed ourselves with another 2 billion in the next 40 or so years.  Fair point and worth the debate.  I’d like to talk more about that one.

But when he says that selective breeding is ‘hit and miss’, but with genetic engineering that scientists can make precise and rapid changes by selecting a gene from any species and insert it into the target crop to deliver a more nitrogen-efficient and higher-yielding crop, well, I just get all hot and bothered.

Selective breeding is slower but still definitely safer.  At this stage in the GMO debate have you heard about horizontal gene transfer?  And of course vertical gene transfer (more likely)?  Do you know that GMO’s can cross the species barrier?  Do you know that when a ‘cassette’ of traits is inserted into the plant there can be a rearrangement of genes at the site of insertation and that this can cause thousands of mutations and random modifications throughout transgenic plants?  That you can get ‘recombination hotspots’ where virus’s inserted into plants (a common way of ‘getting the traits in the plants’ ) make the plant unstable and prone to causing mutations, cancer and new pathogens?

And GMO’s are ‘GRAS’ – generally regarded as safe?   You’ve got to be joking.  Go on, do a search instead of watching your favourite reality show.  This one is bigger.

What is wanting, what is profoundly wrong about the entire GM debate – is that the science that supports the applications for approval of GM across the world, largely comes from the companies seeking to sell the product.

And until our politicians are sophisticated enough to facilitate large scale independent institutions, funded by these behemoths but uninfluenced by their enormous hairy tentacles, we will continue to see health issues squashed by the marketing machine that comprises the GM lobby and corporations – rather than fully researched and understood.  It is not for our long term benefit right now, fellow travellers.

And while this is happening and precaution is thrown to the wind I cannot support GM.

I support the idea of technology taking us into the future but our governments have increasingly assisted (and/or legislated for),  industry to fund GMO research and release applications – removing the independence of universities and research institutions to promote a ‘compromised commercially funded model’.

The God Species is a must read for both left and right wingers, and has transformed my opinions on nuclear and has focussed clearly on the planetary boundary debate.

I believe Lynas has a point with developing nitrogen fixation technologies in plants, but as respected genetist Dr Mae-Wan Ho says, flaws in the regulatory system (at least in the USA and the UK) present a scientific ‘nightmare’ because there are at least a dozen studies showing that GMO’s are hazardous to human and environmental health.

We’ve got a long way to go.

About Jodie

It is only by questioning and discussing and attempting to view the world our childrens children will live in, that we start to understand that life isn't a linear process - it is a room of dominoes falling. Our world has a lot of special interests and stakeholders that by default, keep science undone, and economics hooked in the 1920's - resulting in governments that don't address the complexity that is challenging our world. From pollution to mental health (and the cost of food) to the health of our freshwater - it's complex and dynamic. What equilibrium do we want to reach - a healthy vital one or a suffering one?
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One Response to Mark Lynas The God Species – I can’t agree with this GMO nitrogen fix

  1. “Mark Lynas The God Species – I cant agree with this GMO nitrogen fix
    | Mass Generalisation” was indeed a wonderful posting, can not help but wait to read even more of your posts.
    Time to waste a lot of time online lol. Thanks for your time -Joshua

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