Faustian Frankenpoodles Sighted

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In the recent debate on sustainable agriculture, I noted that “The likelihood of pollen from GE cotton causing harm to the environment is about as likely as a poodle escaping into the wild.”

Amidst the avalanche of comments, noone rebutted the peer-reviewed data indicating that biotechnology has already contributed to enhancing the sustainability of our farms as measured by environmental and socio-economic benefits. But there were several people who were concerned about the poodle.

Let me explain.

The farms here in the great Central Valley of California supply 50% of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. We grow many exotic species–tomatoes and corn from Central and South Americas, cotton from what is now Pakistan, safflower and alfalfa from the Near and Middle East, and rice from China. Our farms are surrounded by the blue-gray foothills of the inner coast range harboring some of the wildest land in California (where mountain lions and bears still occasionally surprise visitors).

Notably absent from these foothills are crop species. Despite the proximity of farms and foothills, none of our crops have gone wild at any point during the 150 years of farming. This is because any residual weediness in these species has been eliminated through many years of breeding and domestication. The traits that make these plants good for farmers make it impossible for them to survive in the wilderness.

Furthermore, genes from GE corn and cotton crops plants cannot be shared with the native populations nearby, because the GE crops grown here have no sexually compatible relatives in the foothills. This means that the GE species grown in this great valley are trapped. It is as if California were a large, oval-shaped, flat-bottomed platter with steep, slippery sides holding all the GE crop plants at the bottom.

But apparently the poodle is another matter. Several readers commented that poodles, once they are free from their owners, interbreed with wolves, roam in packs and threaten children.

poodle.jpg

And Joanna pointed out that Goethe’s Faust uses the poodle as a symbol of unexpected and approaching evil.

Faust: D’you see a jet-black dog now scampering wide
Through corn and stubble?

Wagner:
Him I have espied
Some time ago, but gave him not a thought.

Faust
Look closer now, with care, and say what sort
Of beast you think he is.

Wagner:
Why, Sir, a hound
Of poodle breed who snuffs his way around
To find his master

Faust:
Mark the spiral trail
With which he comes from far, yet ever nigher
Encircling us: unless my senses fail
His track is traced with little tongues of fire.

Wagner:
Some optical illusion, Sir, maybe:
He’s nothing but a poodle-dog to me.

Faust: It seems like magic tracing of a snare,
Or meshes in our future pathway spread.

Thus, I amend my statement to say, GE crops are much safer than poodles.

Follow Pamela Ronald:

Pamela Ronald is Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the role that genes play in a plant’s response to its environment. Her research focuses on the genetics of rice. With her husband, she co-wrote Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. She writes a blog of the same name.