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The Fallacy of Seeking to Control Nature With Genetically Engineered Organisms

Haikai Tane

Professor, Watershed Systems
Centre for Catchment Ecology
Mount Cook Street, Twizel NZ



There is a viewpoint that sustainable development results from controlling Nature. From this viewpoint biological, chemical and genetic controls of living organisms are justified.

The question arises whether this position is compatible with UNEP Agenda 21 protocols for sustainable development of the environment. The 27 articles that comprise Agenda 21 are now part of international law. In essence, they require that human activities should work with environmental processes to enhance the potential of biological resources and environmental systems.

The use of genetic engineering to control human populations is deplored by civilised societies as unconscionable. In a display of hypocrisy that throws human intelligence into question, the very same instruments are being used increasingly in an insidious and expansive war against Nature. In landscapes that do not conform to cultural expectations like river corridors and watershed wetlands, they are transformed into polluted drains and derelict landscapes by an incessant barrage of burning, grazing, bulldozing, and biocides.

UNEP Agenda 21 does not endorse or support the use of toxic biocides to kill life on earth. Toxic substances are "poisons" and the various chemicals; biological and genetic agents used to maim and kill living organisms are "biocides". Sustainable communities worldwide are rejecting the use of toxic biocides to eliminate organisms and dictate environments. Increasingly, they are re-discovering the benefits of working with natural processes.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR Haikai Tane BA(Hons) LLB MSc MNZPI MAURISA is professor emeritus and co-founder of Watershed Systems Center for Catchment Ecology ~ CfCE is located in the south island high country near Mt Cook, In 1999, CfCE was elected the South Pacific Station in a pan-pacific network of R&D agencies undertaking Agenda 21 programs for sustainable development of watershed catchments. In May 2000, Haikai Tane was inaugurated full professor with adjunct status at UNITEC, Auckland. Haikai Tane is a biogeographer, resource ecologist and environmental planner with 30 years experience. He has practiced professionally in Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand.


Silent Spring Revisited

Since Rachel Carsonís Silent Spring (1962) exposed the brutish, shortsighted stance of governments and industries pursuing biocide control of natural processes, it seemed for a short while that things were changing for the better. With the benefit of hindsight what really changed was the subtlety and sophistication of their operations. Covert and cleverly disguised programs marketed as clean, green and as safe as motherís milk replaced previous proud and overt biocide programs.

As an environmental planner and watershed ecologist operating a South Pacific station in an international network for watershed research and development, it is my responsibility to apply UNEP Agenda 21 principles for sustainable development. What I see and hear proposed for genetic engineering in Australia and New Zealand causes alarm bells to ring loudly.

The history of science and civilisation demonstrates repeatedly that long-term cumulative impacts from indiscriminate and misguided use of radical technologies are disastrous. It is often observed that the worst consequences tend to haunt cultures that do not trust or respect nature, notably those that try to set performance standards on environments contrary to their nature..

Scientists pursuing causes like GE with passion and publicity, particularly those with a commercial vested interest in GE R&D, seriously worries me. Science should not be another belief system for controlling life on earth.

GE Undermines Sustainable Development

GE is a grave threat to achieving sustainable development of the environment not just because of the risks and hazards inherent in the technology. It is a serious threat to humanity and life on earth first and foremost because GE encourages the delusion that Nature can be tamed and controlled by genetically engineered biocides. There can hardly be a more arrogant or ignorant belief posing greater danger to life on earth.

It is a sad fact of life that most human societies cannot be trusted to respect Nature or protect the environment on which their livelihoods depend. Especially in Australia and New Zealand, preoccupation with technological and regulatory panaceas to human problems is commonplace. Arguably, problem solvers are esteemed more highly than those who create new prospects for sustainable development. This culture is rewarding failure.

I am deeply concerned that the scientific hyperbole and media publicity for genetic engineering is fostering a culture that favours indiscriminate sterilising and killing of living organisms. At the community and regional level, this culture is already flourishing, as evidenced by recent policies proscribing the main commercial timber species in the NZ high country as pest plants.

GE Threat to International Biosecurity

On Friday 27 October 2000, a NZ resource consent consultation was held in the Community Council room, Twizel, near Mt Cook. The biosecurity manager acting on behalf the Crown, sought blanket approval for the destruction of non-indigenous trees planted and naturalising around Lake Pukaki. In his position as the biosecurity agent for Crown land administered by Land Information NZ (LINZ), Mr Bill Chisholm, Landward Management Ltd advised the meeting that pines, firs and larches, poplars and willows were environmental pests that needed to be permanently eradicated.

The list of targeted species he mentioned includes the main commercial timber species in the NZ high country, (Douglas fir, larch and pines), and the most common recreation amenity and shelter species (poplars and willows). Mr Chisholm relied on alarmist weed arguments to justify applying for a 35 year resource consent that would allow him to kill the trees growing around Lake Pukaki, including commercial stands, school tree plantings, amenity plantings and forest arboreta.

While lamenting the high costs of getting rid of trees that he regards as pests, Mr Chisholm twice expressed his desire to see genetically engineered organisms released to kill pines, firs, larches and any other exotic tree that can reproduce successfully in the natural environment. His opinions were not questioned nor challenged by government representatives from the Department of Conservation or Environment Canterbury. On the contrary, to my utter astonishment, they supported the wholesale eradication of extensive plantings of trees and naturalised forests by the most effective means possible.

Threats to ANZ Biosecurity

It made me think of the release of the RCV/RHD virus, a deliberate and prejudicial breach of national biosecurity, to control rabbits on pastoral lands in the NZ high country. Those who proudly proclaimed their role in the release of this illegally imported virus are now legends to their pastoral peers. It would be foolish to believe that others will not use GE organisms in similar ways.

Imagine for a moment the international implications of a NZ genetically engineered organism proposed for eliminating opossums in NZ crossing to Australia where it is a national icon and protected species. The Director-General of the NZ Department of Conservation Hugh Logan defended his department examining whether a genetically modified "tool" for animal pest control could be used. Meanwhile the wider ramifications of GE are being ignored.

I confess that I have no confidence in the judgement of those who promote the wholesale killing of biota in pursuit of their own agendas, careers or policies. In circumstances where people are willing to engage in biocidal activities in pursuit of special interests and without regard for the life or livelihoods of others, GE poses environmental risks and hazards that make political terrorism with nuclear weapons seem relatively tame by comparison.

In this light, proposals for the biological control of possums and other declared pests, particularly those seeking genetic engineering solutions, strike me as incredibly shortsighted and down right silly. Dressed up in scientific language however, they seem clever solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Then I remember that in traditional Asian-Pacific cultures, cleverness is just another name for polished stupidity.

When possum meat is selling at $27 per kilo in Aucklandís Chinese groceries and possum fur is in strong demand for blending with fine wool to create added value products, clearly we have a substantial resource prospect. History records that the devastation to New Zealand forests by feral deer was solved not by treating them as pests but by valuing them as resources. GE scientists captured by the "pest and weed" mentality need to be reminded that a problem is a prospect wrongly considered.

Dr Moreau & Co versus Nature

Americans, Aussies and Kiwis seem incapable of maintaining clean water in their lakes, streams and estuaries, or clean fresh air in their communities - where they are unable to maintain fair and equitable societies. What makes them think the have the intelligence to get GE right Ė is it nothing but scientific hubris?

By my reckoning 10,000 years of human civilisations have demonstrated unequivocally that humans have more than enough trouble managing the complexities of their own social, economic and cultural systems. Mapping, modelling and managing complex environmental systems seems way too difficult for even the best scientists. So how do they hope to design successful alternatives to earthís dynamic living, organic systems when they still do not understand how they work?

Have they considered that releasing genetically engineered organisms into the environment is tantamount to a declaration of war against Nature? The odds of winning the war are worthless. History is littered with dead civilizations that tried to enslave Nature with clever technology. Who really believes that humans can win a GE war against Nature without destroying the integrity of organic systems on the planet?

The answer, it seems to me is only those with delusions of grandeur. Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics want to see GE kept in secure laboratories. They disagree strongly with unsecured genetic experiments or releasing GE organisms into the open environment.

Lust for Power

Because the response of the GE lobby to these ethical scientists and concerned physicians is perpetual ridicule and vilification, I am forewarned. These are the tactics of true believers and other zealots, certainly not sane scientists or concerned citizens.

In recent years, genetic science has built a prideful tower of techno-babble and utopian beliefs, the sort that inevitably leads to an almighty calamity. It is the pride of genetic scientists and biotech businesses revelling in their new knowledge that makes them think like Gods. If only they had a skerrick of common sense they would see that their newfound knowledge is a Pandoraís box. Ignoring unforeseen dangers, they open it at our collective peril.

The potential power of genetic engineering is so immense it attracts scientists like blowflies to rotting meat. The stench of power is strong and objectivity is lost. There are many signs of something irregular and many hints of potential hazards. Yet the media pr positively swarms with holy grails and miraculous cures.

The potential of genetic engineering is so immense it threatens Homo sapiens. After centuries of scientific benefits, today scientific hubris is becoming the nemesis of sustainable societies.

Haikai Tane

PS The first draft of this essay was a submission to the NZ Commissioner for the Environment in response to an invitation to comment on proposals for GE control of possums in New Zealand. The issue is not resolved. Your viewpoint or comments on this essay can be forwarded to the author at CfCE

PPS How many GE advocates declare their commercial conflict of interests, or disclose potential personal benefits they may derive from the GE industry? Are scientists, researchers, and resource managers exempt from these professional ethics?




PO Box 108 - 11 Mount Cook Street
Twizel New Zealand
Phone 64 3 4353 227

Fax 64 3 4353 227


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