Wednesday, December 1, 2004

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Whatever shall global civil society do?

It's dangerous to ascribe a common set of preferences to the heterogeneous collection of NGOs, social movements, activist networks, charities, churches, and even some individual philanthropists that comprise "global civil society." But most people who study these entities would acknowledge a rough consensus among these groups that a) genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) should be regulated to within an inch of their existence; and b) land mines are evil and should be banned.

So I wonder which side of the fence these groups will fall on when they read about this tidbit blogged by Warren Ginn:

A Danish company, Aresa Biodetection, has developed genetically-modified flowers that change color when their roots come in contact with nitrogen dioxide in the soil. Explosives used in mines produce NO2 as the chemicals gradually decay. The company plans to sow fields of NO2-sniffing Arabidopsis thaliana (Thale or mouse cress) in areas riddled with long-forgotten ordinance from Angola to Cambodia.

Link via Virginia Postrel.

Aresa's web site has this to say on how these GM products would accelerate land mine removal:

There is only one method with global validity for the removal of landmines. This method (prodding) consists of putting a stick into the ground, locate the mine, remove it and detonate it. It is highly time consuming and risky....

By adding our process to the current prodding or other processes, we expect to represent the most cost efficient method ever invented, and increase speed for projects by a factor of 10 times. At the same time the risk will be reduced significantly, as mines will be located before prodding and removal takes place.

Pretty cool.

posted by Dan on 12.01.04 at 11:32 PM


That's very cool indeed. I know it's a severe character fault, but I do just love it when didacts are forced to choose between two non-negotiable in their "goodness", but mutually contradictory positions.

But maybe it's only because I'm at ease putting worms on hooks.

posted by: John on 12.01.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

Link via Virginia Postrel.

Normally, that's all I'd need to know.


The company plans to sow fields of NO2-sniffing Arabidopsis thaliana (Thale or mouse cress) in areas riddled with long-forgotten ordinance from Angola to Cambodia.

Sounds good. But, what about the animals - from aphids to zebras - that feed on those flowers? Won't they notice something a bit different? Certainly, some natural genetic variance is probably built in to their circuits, but I'm sure there are some animals who key off specifically-colored mouse cress. What if they refuse to eat the mouse cress, and as a result their population sharply declines? Won't that affect other populations? What of the humans who rely on animals lower down the chain for various food products?

Somehow I don't feel to comfortable taking the assurances of "dynamists" that everything is just going to be A-OK

posted by: / Lonewacko on 12.01.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

And, in completely off-topic news: we've already got their bridge here, we might as well import their political system. Buckingham House, anyone?

posted by: / Lonewacko on 12.01.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

Um, Dan, it's actually what real life among real people is all about (you should try it sometimes). We *always* have to do these uncomfortable choices between mutually contradictory positions - and hope that we made the best possibly choice.

posted by: Oscar on 12.01.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

This sounds great, and I sure hope it works, and has no unintended consequences. Among other things, I'm a gardener who is not a philosphical ideologue but rather a pragmatist on issues of pesticides and genetics.

But it's important to note that the biological conservatives who counsel reluctance regarding things such as genetic engineering and the introduction of foreign species feel this way because of the vast numbers of fingers that have been burned in the course of the history of experimentation with such stuff. What sounds great today very often becomes tomorrow's newest item on the long list of cautionary tales.

People are insightful to point out that the real world is the one with the difficult choices, and this is one such choice. If one understands the scope of all the issues involved, one becomes respectful of the true primacy of the "difficult real-world choices" paradigm.

I respect this paradigm, and I respect the biological conservatives who counsel extreme caution. Many among this group are people who understand genetics much better than I do, for one thing. And I know that many of the biological liberals who oppose them are marketers, businessman, and impatient problem solvers. I still generally fall on the side of making the choice to carefully try new things, but I accept the wisdom and counsel of the biological conservatives. They're not just didacts, they have a genune viewpoint that is not without merit.

posted by: bk on 12.01.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

If you want to know where the bulk of the NGO's will go, look no further than the case of golden rice. Golden rice is a genetically modified strain which contains vitamin A, lack of which is a leading cause of malnutrition in much of empoverished Asia. Replacing other varieties of rice grown and eaten with golden rice is a virtually zero cost way of reducing a significant human disease. So the poverty fighting NGO's are happy, no?

If you google 'golden rice,' the front page shows one technical article and one positive mention from Reason magazine. The rest are screeds against golden rice. Now golden rice is not perfect, and its creators undoubtably put a postivie spin on its benefits, so some of the points in these articles may be valid. However, the conclusion isn't to improve golden rice, nor to caution that other nutrition efforts are still necessary. They want it banned and any furhter research stopped. They are also full of ad hominim attacks on everyone involved with golden rice.

The reaction to a land-mine finding GMO flower? To use it as publicity to denounce GMO scientists on one hand and the US (for not signing the anti-landmine treaty, despite its role as the largest force in landmine removal) on the other. Count on it.

the genetically-modified varients of rice which promise to end - at virtually no cost -- several types of vitamin deficiency. Are they happy about the millions of human lives which will be saved? No. They denounce

posted by: marc on 12.01.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

"The company plans to sow fields of NO2-sniffing Arabidopsis thaliana (Thale or mouse cress) in areas riddled with long-forgotten ordinance from Angola to Cambodia."

I assume the sowing process doesn't involve *raking*.

posted by: Jon H on 12.01.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

A major reason to question the companies that do agricultural work is the way they respond to the spread of their product.

They make plants. Plants spread pollen. The pollen is carried away uncontrollably through various means, and pollinates other plants, allowing reproduction.

This is unavoidable.

But when it happens, they act as if it was somehow not supposed to happen, as if they thought the field was hermetically sealed. If a neighbor's farm ends up cross-pollinated with patented plants, the neighbor might just end up in court and forced to pay for the use of the genetic intellectual property he never wanted in the first place.

If they don't want this spread to happen, they shouldn't be working on plants. If they didn't *expect* it to happen, they shouldn't be allowed to do science at all.

Golden Rice is nice and all, unless it puts the farmers of the developing world under a heavy financial burden due to uncontrolled spread of the modified genes.

Genetic engineering of plants probably ought to be limited to government-sponsored work, where the results could be considered a public good, and allowed to disseminate freely, rather than used for profit, which depends on scarcity, whereas living organisms are, by their nature, working to reduce scarcity.

posted by: Jon H on 12.01.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

Jon H, you're under arrest,
for puncturing neolib political correctness with unauthorized facts.
You are barred from the U Chic premises.

posted by: Barry on 12.01.04 at 11:32 PM [permalink]

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