Tuesday 16 May 2006

Quandaries for morons.

Five years ago, some dead clever scientists called Blumwald and Zhang came up with my favourite bit of genetic engineering ever: tomatoes that remove salt from soil:

A new genetically-modified tomato plant could convert barren, salt-laden soils into lush productive farmland. The plant takes up salt from the soil but stows it in its leaves, leaving the tomatoes non-salty.


Not only can the tomato plant tolerate salt, but also it also remediates the soil by wicking salt into the plant. "A farmer can clean the soil and grow a crop and make a profit, all at the same time," says Blumwald.

The reason I like this so much is that I have a deep love of anything that makes stupid people look even more stupid. Not only is this utter genius, not only can it turn currently unusable land back into lush meadows, but it presents an awkward dilemma for half the anti-GM crowd. Not the posh, chattering-class, "I want everything in my centrally-heated, electrically-lit house to be completely natural" half — why would they give a damn about some soil in South America? — but the environmentalist half. One of their big bugbears has for years been the permanent destruction of once-fertile land through dodgy farming methods, deforestation, and the like. Now along comes a brilliant solution, something that, if they didn't know where it came from, they would hail as one of the greatest gifts Mother Nature has bestowed on mankind. Except that, because it's actually a gift that mankind has bestowed on Mother Nature, they oppose it. Genetically modified plants have been undergoing constant testing since 1981 and not one iota of evidence has been found that the process renders them in any way harmful. Salination of land, on the other hand, is proven to be harmful to every single life-form on that land. You'd think it'd be an easy choice. Even if genetic modification were slightly dodgy, picking the lesser of the two evils should still be an easy choice. Apparently not.

Remember: the EU puts pressure on Third-World producers never to use GM crops, and closes its markets to any that do. Europe is full of lush, fertile, arable land and has no problem producing so much food that the EU throw rather a lot of it away. Many parts of the developing world have crap salinated soil that helps to keep them poor and hungry. Sometimes they have famines. The EU will fight tooth and nail to stop those parts of the world using this, the only solution ever discovered to salinated soil other than giving up on farming and building skyscrapers on it instead. Shame on them.

Anyway, here's an even better one:

In this particular [genetic] modification, [Arabidopsis Thaliana (thale cress)] is genetically sensitized to the nitrogen-dioxide (NO2) that leaches from buried explosives. The plants that grow on or near a land mine would flush a warning red rather than their usual cool green. The seeds could be sown from a plane, and could show within six weeks whether the land is covered in mines. Genius.

The scientifically ignorant-but-opinionated chattering classes may not give a damn about Third-World soil, buy they do care about landmines — which were one of Saint Diana's pet projects, after all. What to do, what to do? Let children's legs get blown off for no reason or sow completely harmless seeds? It's a tough one, all right.

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