Sunday, May 20, 2012

Have a cuppa pesticide and #dontdestroyresearch

Earlier today, biologist Mary Mangan (@mem_somerville) shared the bad news that anti-biotechnology activists had succeeded in breaking into and damaging a publicly funded research project at Rothamsted Research Station in Harpenden, England. The vandalism happened only a week ahead of a planned demonstration organized by the Take the Flour Back environmentalist group (which I wrote previously about here).

Mangan wrote on her Google+ page:
Sadly, the destruction has begun. Forces opposed to science have vandalized a research project in the UK that has been underway for many years. It is a publicly funded project, and it attempts to use a biological method of control of insects on wheat plants. It could someday help reduce the use of pesticides and improve food security.
This led to a series of comments from people who mostly expressed sadness and anger about the damage. But, then, there were both of these comments:

Thank god for this!!! GMO anything is not healthful to the environment or to us as humans! You are altering the genetic chemistry of that plant and when it cross-breeds with another plant (yes I said when), that one now has insect resistance, and soon insects will develop a way to eat these plants and then we're back to square one, but worse for wear because now we have to come up with some new ingenious way to keep insects from eating our crops.
We may have been altering the genetic makeup of plants, but only through natural selection and never through any artificial genes that were never supposed to exist in a specific species. Insect resistance is not a gene normally found in any living plant species that I know of. There are poisonous plants which I suppose could provide insect resistance, but you don't see them cross-pollinating with any other species that we eat.
That's when Mangan, as she puts it, spit out her "carcinogen-laden coffee" and decided to "help this person understand the reality."

Clearly, what the person above didn't understand while making these comments, is that plants have been in arms race with pests for millenia. Part of a plant's defense are often thousands of natural pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides. It's a common misconception that "all-natural" and "organic" means "free of pesticides." They may simply mean not grown with synthetic pesticides, although organic crops are often grown with plenty of organic pesticides, and are likely to contain more naturally produced pesticides than conventionally grown plants.

I might've also made light of the situation with this person, as I have to others with similar arguments, that pesticides shouldn't always be thought of as a "bad thing." After all, humans have long enjoyed consuming pesticides with glee (healthy and nonhealthy). For example, Mangan alluded to the fact that caffeine and other bitter compounds in a cup o' joe are themselves, in fact, natural pesticides. The coffee plant produces them with intent of simply repelling, paralyzing, or killing insects. Resveratrol and piceid, the bitter stilbene compounds produced by grape skins in response to stress, are pesticides that end up contributing to the flavor of red wine (and they may account for some of its health benefits). There's also tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound of cannabis, a pesticide that some enjoy along with a load of carcinogenic compounds. Nicotine, too, is a natural pesticide from tobacco.

In response to the uniformed comments, Mangan posted links and quotes about plants producing their own pesticides naturally. That's when I joined the conversation, via Twitter, because I thought it would be a good idea to house a few of the links relating to natural pesticides in one place. Graciously, Mangan put her bookmarks together and posted them all on the Biofortified forum entitled "Plants making pesticides". It will be useful for helping educate people about naturally produced plant pesticides. In the forum post, she includes references to work from biochemist Bruce Ames, who famously triggered controversy by writing:
We calculate that 99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves. 
Getting back to the purpose of this post -- there needs to be more intelligent conversation about pesticides. Without doubt, there's a need to reduce use of pesticides on plants to protect biodiversity. The overuse of pesticides and herbicides, unfortunately, kills off both harmful and beneficial insects and plants and can lead to pest resistance.

Overall pesticide reduction is what makes the Rothamsted research so important. The publicly funded project tests a variety of wheat genetically engineered with a mint compound that leads to emission of a pheromone that acts as a aphid repellent. As a crop, wheat is one of the world's most important crops and an aphid-repellent variety could significantly reduce pesticide use across the globe.

These are the reasons why I signed the Sense about Science petition to support the appeal scientists at Rothamsted.