April 24, 1998

Genetic Engineering

To the best of my knowledge, in many centuries of plant breeding, not one single variety has been produced that has supplanted the variety that it was derived from in the wild.

By about 1860, when Gregor Mendel started his monumental work with peas that revolutionized our understanding of how traits are inherited, there were traveling salesmen for seed companies who were selling their brands of plant seeds. Most domestic plants had been bred for a variety of traits including flavor, fruit production, hardiness and size. This kind of selective breeding still continues in both home and commercial gardens. Those breeding programs are largely responsible for the quality of the fruits and vegetables that are readily available today. Compared to what existed before man's intervention, modern plants as food are immensely improved. The apple that you buy today bears little resemblance to the wild apple, which has pitifully small sour fruit. In nature, growing a fruit that is bigger than necessary to propagate the species is wasteful.If man suddenly disappeared from the earth, all of the modern fruits and vegetables would be replaced by wild-type fruits and vegetables. This is also true of animals, and the fancy cats and dogs would soon cease to exist in favor of types that resemble the wild kinds of animals. A Persian cat wouldn't stand a chance in the wild. What remained of the domestic dog would come to resemble the wolf or coyote.

To the best of my knowledge, in many centuries of plant breeding, not one single variety has been produced that has supplanted the variety that it was derived from in the wild.

All of the species that have proved to be superior to existing wild types have been plants and animals that have been transplanted from one part of the world to another part where they were previously unknown. In other words, nature does a better job than man does as far as survival is concerned.

A friend of mine gave me a jar of star thistle honey. It was the most delicious honey that I have ever tasted. What is a pest to horse owners can be a blessing to bee keepers.

I think that genetic engineering is neither the boon nor the curse that many people think that it is. A genetically engineered tomato(Flavor Saver) that supposedly had more flavor, got a lot of publicity. Consumer's Union did some blind taste tests on those tomatoes and compared them to other varieties. The engineered tomatoes flunked the tests. They were not as tasty as tomatoes purchased in farmer's markets. Chalk up a win for the small grower who propagates his own seeds. The organic farmer who gets his seeds from commercial suppliers is likely to produce as tasteless a tomato as is sold in the supermarkets.

If genetic engineering could produce a better fruit or vegetable, I would say more power to it. So far, they haven't done so, while selective breeding and cross breeding have produced some very wonderful edible plants and fruits.

As for the struggle of the farmer to control the creatures that also like to eat his produce and which he considers to be "pests;" all of modern technology has not succeeded in exterminating a single one of them. They have merely selected resistant varieties. At the same time, the pest has also changed to a form that the plant isn't resistant to. Nature is invariably on the side of both the pest and its victim. Genetic engineering is not likely to do any better, although there will probably be some short-lived temporary victories.

A long-time farm agent once told me that the birds get the top cherries and the deer get the bottom ones. The farmer has to content himself with the ones in the middle.

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