RSB's picture
Since Nature has had several million years to modify plants and animals to the most life-sustaining tolerances, on a scale of 1 to 10 what is the level of arrogance required to believe that a non-human entity, ie: corporation, armed with nothing more than money and lawyers and less than 50 year old technology can do better?

A:Expert Answer

First off, I should say I disagree with the premise of the question.  Nonhuman entities don’t breed plants and animals for agricultural production.  Humans do―plant breeders, scientists, farmers...and the list goes on.  Does anyone really think if they walk into an agricultural facility that the only things to be found inside will be dollar bills and lawyers?  GMO, conventional or organic plant breeding and research have decades of research and trials behind a product that growers can readily purchase.


To the point of whether we can do better than nature, which has spent eons and not mere decades perfecting crops and animals, I would have to say, for the intended purposes, yes, we sometimes can. Without regard to production method, humans have been tailoring crops and animals to their liking for thousands, if not millions, of years. Not every variety or every breed is suited to every situation. I’m pretty sure there aren’t wild herds of Jersey cows running across the fruited plains. 


Corn is another example. Corn as we know it does not really exist in nature, yet it is a staple grain across the globe. What everyone recognizes as corn today is the result of thousands of years of selective breeding going back to a plant called teosinte, which barely looks like corn. In more recent history, most corn hybrids have been bred to have upright leaves versus droopy leaves, because upright leaves intercept sunlight better.


Norman Borlaug is credited with saving a billion lives or more because of his research with wheat resulting in crosses with high yields and disease resistance. 


As for the idea that humans aren’t part of nature, at least not in the way a redwood tree would be viewed as part of nature, I would argue that agriculture itself is not natural. Once you start lining up plants in rows and assisting them in their fight against weeds, pests, bugs and even precipitation, or fence in livestock to shelter them from predators, I don’t think that’s quite the same as hunting and foraging while living in a cave.


With GMOs, we aren’t doing things nature doesn’t do already. Herbicide resistance exists in nature. The most obvious example is spraying a lawn with 2,4-D to kill dandelions. The grass doesn’t die. Cereal rye kills weeds with an herbicide of its own creation. Are biotech crops made to express traits they don’t normally have? Yes. Breeders also employ mutagenesis techniques, even in organic crops. The genetic manipulation of the things we grow isn’t limited to biotechnology.


I’m inclined to believe it is human nature that keeps driving innovation forward. 


Awakeaboutgmo's picture

excellent question but alas will not be answered.

rickspalding's picture

I am guessing 10^10th power.

Mike Lewinski's picture

I'm not clear what is meant by the word "tolerances" here in the question:

"Since Nature has had several million years to modify plants and animals to the most life-sustaining tolerances"

Earlier in our evolutionary history, human beings used to have functional genes to make the important vitamins we need for survival. Due to disuse, mutations have accrued in them, but they are still there in a broken form that closely resembles their functional form in other animals.

Because we got those vitamins from our food sources, we survived mutations that made those genes unable to synthesize the vitamins we need directly. In short, we became dependent on particular food sources that were rich in some vitamins by consuming them over many generations. For more on this, see "Learning From the History of Vitamins" by Carl Zimmer freely available on the New York Times website, published December 12, 2013.

If Nature's goal were to perfect the human design, we wouldn't get scurvy (like some of our mammalian cousins who still synthesize Vitamin C just fine).

So the belief that long time scales produce optimum tolerances (again however that is defined) is probably a mistaken one. Indeed, the long time scales of evolution allowed for the degradation of previously evolved functionality into what can only be classified as dysfunction.

I too used to believe that there was a perfect order to nature. "Look, she gives us food with just what we need in it!" No, she let's our bodies grow weak, unable to produce their own vitamins when we grow accustomed to food sources rich in them.

Rickinreallife's picture

Mr. Scott -- some good points. There is not any form of agriculture that is not a disruption or displacement of pristine nature. There are very few if any domesticated food animals or food crops that would survive outside of the managed environments that humans provide for them, whether bt corn or heirloom tomatoes, or if they do, they revert to feral forms that are less than optimal to useless as sources of human food. When the settlers first came to the plains, they did not find waving fields of wheat that nature produced just for man's benefit. In fact, our roads department often plants a seed mixture containing native grasses and forbes, but also wheat and rye, in disrupted soils from road construction. The wheat and rye sprout quickly to help stabilize the soil and are prominent the first year, but after the second year, the wheat and rye are quickly displaced. They are just not suited to withstand the hazards nature throws at them, insects, fungus, and competition from other plants.

How much of nature's perfection would be left if we had to survive on just what nature provided. Thanks to the increasing productivity of agriculture, in large measure aided by our ability to instill genetic changes, from simple selection to modern biotechnology, that would not have occurred in nature, we can preserve a lot of nature.