Are you a lumper or a splitter? Both?

posted in: Commentary | 3

There are lumpers, who like to group things into broad categories, and there are splitters, who divide things into smaller categories. While both ideologies can be useful, lumping is more often overdone. People put things that don’t necessarily belong in the same category together, which can lead to great misunderstandings, particularly when it comes to science.

Lumping seems to be a particular problem when it comes to genetic engineering.

When a scientific study shows a certain effect (positive or negative) of a certain genetically engineered trait in a certain plant species on a certain animal species when it is consumed at certain dietary levels, it does not ever mean that all genetically engineered traits in all plant species have that effect on all animals.

Each trait is different, will act differently in different crop species and different farming systems, and could have different effects on different animal species. Rarely can we make broad lumping statements about science, including genetic engineering.

Strangely, splitting is also a problem when it comes to genetic engineering, even though it isn’t that much of a problem with science in general.

For example, there are concerns that herbicide resistance genes will flow into crop relatives. This is a real concern, but splitters here forget that herbicide resistance genes can be developed with breeding and mutagenesis as well with by genetic engineering. If you are against the spread of herbicide resistance genes, then you should be against all herbicide resistance genes, no matter how they were made. Here, lumping might be more appropriate than splitting.

Another splitting example that is a big pet peeve of mine is that of plant intellectual property. Patents on genes are a huge concern with genetically engineered crops, of that there is no doubt. Something feels inherently wrong about people owning a gene or patenting an organism. However, there are similar issues with other forms of intellectual property when it comes to plants.

With Plant Variety Protection, a breeder can control whether or not other people are allowed to use the protected varieties in their own breeding programs. They can take legal recourse if someone uses the protected varieties without permission. There are some allowances for farmers to save seed, but they are limited. Plant patents, used for plants that aren’t reproduced sexually, do not allow for farmers to save seeds. Seed from hybrid plants, due to their biology, can not be saved (if the seed from hybrids is planted, the resulting plants won’t look anything like their parents).

Some people reject all plant intellectual property and choose only open pollinated and otherwise unprotected plant varieties. This I respect as a consistent position. Many more people only reject plant intellectual property when it comes to genetic engineering and ignore all other forms of plant intellectual property (not to mention all other intellectual property law).

In order to really understand any problems or benefits of plant intellectual property, we have to look at how all of its various forms affect farmers and breeders by lumping, not splitting.

Knowing when to apply splitting or lumping isn’t easy, but has to be learned for us to gain better understanding of all science and specifically of genetic engineering.

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!