dr. david morris, biotechnologist
dr. david morris, biotechnologist
c-Um I f we could just begin, um talking a little bit about your background and some of the research that you've done. Maybe from the beginning just sort of an intro.
d-OK. Uhh let's see. Uh I got my undergraduate and graduate training at uh The University of Leeds in uh the UK. Um my research there for my PHD was um, uh based in molecular biology focus in bacteria. Uh and um I had a period where I dropped out of the education system limited and went back in to get a Post-Doc at the University of Edenborough where I worked on anti-biotic drug resistance. Uh then at Cornell in this country where I began to work with plants. And I continued that research and uh in a period of ten years at a state university then at this university. And at the moment, after a brief stint working with biofuels, I am back to my roots as it were working with once again anti-biotic resistant bacteria.
c-Um. And, so, I know a little bit about some of the uh research that you did in Iowa.
c-Relating to uh
c-some of the farming.
c-And so if you could just talk a little bit more about um maybe a little bit more in depth about what you did while you were there.
d-Um. I worked with uh maize, corn. And, um, I was fortunate actually working with um uh uh a researcher there called Don Robertson, who worked on a um controlling element system a transposable element system called a mutator. And, uh a mutator is um. Well in some ways its rather like McClintock's controlling elements uh uh the ACDS system uh SPN system it consists of a series of DNA elements which are able to uh translocate from one chromosomal locus to another uh and when they do, they often cause mutations. Uh but these mutations are very often unstable and uh during development uh they can transpose once again and this phenomenon is best known as when you see mitigation patterns on corn seed. Uh so a lot of my research was basic research uh we pointed to identify the elements that were involved in the mutator uh we wanted to analyze uh the mutations that caused but uh it also become apparent that um we could use them as well from all the practical purposes. Uh for instance the um the um cloning genes from corn. This is a technique known as transposon tagging. Uh in principle its uh fairly straight-forward. Um when an element jumps into a gene it knocks out that gene function and you recognize this as a mutation so you have a-a-a phenotypic observation that tells you that the element is associated with a particular gene. Of course now that is a physical association so that the gene is tagged with that element uh and therefore you can use a routine cloning methods as I say in principle it is very straightforward practically its a bit more complicated then that but it can be done. Um and this lead us into two projects. One was with a bioneer hybrid um where um we could use the general mobility of maize, maize DNA to construct fingerprints of different maize lines. Um so um we could analyze particular gene losight with or without mutator functions uh and we could produce certain fingerprints for each of these lines. Uh secondly uh we used specifically the transposon tagging technique um to isolate uh genes in maize which were responsible for beta-carotene synthesis in the seed. Beta-carotene as you know is a precursor of Vitamin A and it was parcel at that time of the effort to make golden rice. Maize is unusual of the cereals because it actually produces beta-carotene in the seed; rice doesn't do this so the general idea was um to uh see if rice could genetically engineered to produce its own beta-carotene in the seed. As I say this was a site project funded by the Rockefeller foundation to work specifically on this in hopes of getting insights into what was happening in rice.
c- And so was anything further into saying that was able to...
d- Uh yeah. Eventually this was just after I left actually the team that I was working with did use transposon tagging to isolate uh the master regulatory gene which is involved in beta-carotene synthesis in maize. And from what I followed with the research afterwards um Popirus and his colleagues in Europe arrived at the solution independently by making yellow rice, golden rice, whatever name is given to it.
c- Um. So what year was that?
d- Where I was working?
c- Uh huh.
d- Yeah um I was working it I would say up until about 1987.
c- In the 1980s is sort of when that took off.
d- Yeah that was the mid 1980s and at the end of that decade was a big momentum in plant genetic engineering.
c- And after that project
d- Uh huh
c-where did you kind of move into next?
d- Teaching (laughing)
d- Teaching a little bit of research it um I couldn't really continue um maize research here. Um so I um did some research in biofuels mostly work with a local company up the road here called Atlantic Biomass. Uh but mostly my job since arriving here has been teaching.
c- And um the uh research that you did in Iowa was more or less dealing with genetically modified organisms.
c- So now I just know from taking a course with you in Biotechnology.
d- Uh huh.
c- That now there are pros and cons associated with it.
d- Uh huh.
c- So do you see now looking back you feel either way?
d- Oh yeah. I was out in I was working in Iowa this was when the farm crisis was reaching its heights and one that I have to do since my majority of my wages was paid by state taxes which came from the farmers was to go out ever so often on what was known as seed day to address the farmers and tell them how the money was being used. And well it was heart-breaking to see how the farmers who had lost their farms were still coming to the seed day. Uh they treated me with absolute respect and friendliness and uh they always had intelligent questions to ask they were always concerned about how uh the latest research would benefit agriculture. And they were proud of the state and the work that they were doing and um that's easily understandable. But underneath you could see what pain and the heart-break and uh uh to tell you the truth it became a little embarrassing to me because this kind of research was not helping them and I couldn't see it helping them. And it made me realize at that time something that I've always implicitly: technology without the accompany of socio-economic foundation concerns is is next to business. And we can see this across the green revolution—it benefited the seed companies and the companies who bank on agri-business it hasn't helped the common people. The socio-economic conditions are not in place.
c- I think for the last assignment I had did for your class talking with a farmer,
c- one of the things that she had mentioned was how she is not able to keep any of the seeds leftover. If they have any, then they have to give them back. They always have to purchase seed and they always have to keep up with technology.
c- In order to compete. So, I was just wondering some of your thoughts on small farming. Do you think that it is kind of dying out.
d- Well, yes small farming is dying out and you can consult lots of figures, USDA for example is probably the best source, so according to their figures uh the family farm was at its heyday at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth-century. I think the average holding in the mid-west was somewhere around 120-140 acres. Uh but in 1975 that had uh quadrupled up to about 540 acres uh and since then the family farms have been going under. You can see this with the farm crisis itself. And uh, uh most farms now are owned by big corporations thats what a majority of the USDA subsidies go to uh and uh perhaps uh the family farm-they still exist of course-but for the most part they are a thing of the past. And therein lies the tragedy because uh small farms, again as lots of data will support this, are much more efficient than large corporation farms, especially in the developing nations. And uh...one of the concerns I have is that the proposals for the new green revolution for genetically engineered plants may put an end to that entirely. There are efforts to buy farmland in developing nations-that is a trend which I think has been pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, and so forth. Again here the technology is a two-way sword. You think that genetically modified crops may be useful. I wouldn't argue with that. But, the way in which they are used uh is against small farmers, against independent agriculture, and ultimately against poor people. I don't think its going to solve world hunger at all and socio-economic is ignored.
c- And for crops
d- Uh huh.
c- that are genetically modified, I think in certain parts of maybe London or Scotland they have to label
c- whether something is. Here they are not required to do that.
c- And so how important do you think it is that the public is aware of these issues. I feel that they are not really aware.
d- Oh no. No not in this country (laugh) we certainly aren't. Um but um there are big movements in Europe, which we we really should be aware of the kinds of things that we eat. Afterall, we are taking them in our bodies, they uh there may be hazards which are involved. I think the hazards are fairly minimal, but nonetheless, I think people have the right to know. Uh and here and again we some, something a little bit nasty, which lurks in the background. A lot of the studies which try to ascertain this nature of genetically modified crops are subject to um a great deal of censorship. Sometimes self censorship, but also active pursuit uh vilification of scientists who carry out this. In Great Britain for example there was this scientist called Alfred Postie and here I have no idea how in the hell you spell it now, but he did some work on genetically engineered potato in rats and he found that they were potentially harmful to rats and of course by extrapolation that could mean human beings as well. Uh and he wanted to publish his findings in the Lancet. He met a great deal of opposition. I think the papers were eventually published, but um not without some grief. He is no longer an active researcher I believe, that may be due to illness. Uh but um there was a recent article in Nature uh which documented the opposition which some scientists have experienced. Uh they wished to publish on the adverse nature of genetically modified foods. To me a lot of foods are hazardous and simply you look around you and you see the obesity epidemic. The crap that we eat now-a-days is contributing to that. Uh...that may be due to the loss of culture people may not have enough time to sit and cook and loss interest in their food increased by the wonderful smells emanating from Burger King and so forth. So, but.
c- There's um an artists group called Critical Art Ensemble
d- Uh huh
c- I just watched a film called Strange Culture it documented Steve Kurtz and he was trying to do testing on genetically modified organisms as an artist
d- Uh huh
c- and was going to have a show and his wife had died of some heart attack
c- and the police, when they came to figure out what was wrong, they found all of these things. They saw test tubes
c- and petri dishes and he was actually interrogated and considered a terrorist.
c- And its been-well it was back in 2006-so it just goes to show that even if you are trying to bring this to the public's eye—and he is an artist and was working with scientists as well. And so it kind of goes to show where is the politics in this all.
c- And I think that's where it starts to get unclear. Is it farming and used as a technique—you can't really rely on that anymore because it is really political.
d- I agree with that, yeah.
c- And, also just piggy-backing off of some of the things from yesterday, if you could just talk about um poly- and monoculture.
d- Right, yeah um monoculture um is essentially crop variety, which are very inbred and um the cultivars that are marketed are for all intense and purposes are genetically identical so there is very little vary, genetic variation. High yielding crops such as rice, wheat, corn, they're all highly inbred monoculture lines. Polyculture is well different varieties, often grown by intercropping and just seed and filled with all the different varieties they give different yields different colors so on and so forth. But, apart from the genetic difference, there is also the difference between crop management as well. With the high yielding, high yielding monoculture, uh they require a high degree of crop management uh and you have to modify the environment with uh inorganic fertilizers with nitrogen as well as phosphorus fertilizers. You have to treat with herbicides, pesticides, and so forth. The only problem is, is that although fertilizers do increase yields, uh they also harm the environment as well especially if they get down as nitrites to aquifers, water tables, and so forth, it can stay in the environment for weeks and months. There is a big problem with that in the mid-west. Uh, with polyculture you do not need that high degree of crop management. Weaker varieties of course will die off that basically the amount of inputs is often times also less that it would be with monoculture. Monoculture of course is uh the genetically identical a subject to diseases. Lot of diseases out there most of them viral and some fungal. Take the ones in the United States in 1973 for example. With regard to polyculture, you rarely get that problem. The other major difference is that with monoculture the seeds are owned by the seed companies. So um you know of course there's an art there's a culture that goes into the farming for the most part the inputs they are taking out of the farmer's hands. Polyculture you, on the other hand, the seeds you get from year to year are exchanged. They continue it would seem to me the tradition over 10, 000 years old. Polyculture, um the the the the the key suffix in agriculture is culture itself. It is a scientific thought as well as being a spiritual one as well. Then there are farmers who practice organic farming polyculture lines must be highly intelligent and really must be very imaginative as well in their selection and application of all of the different seed types they put down.
c- And where is polyculture more prominent?
d- More prominent in the developing world. Uh, so for example, um with potatoes which originated in the foothills of the Andes farmers in Peru, Bolivia and northern Chile still grow all of the different kinds of potatoes. Basically, uh these kinds of crops are found in the so-called centers of crop diversity. The foothills of the Andes is one of these. Uh and other centers are found in uh throughout Asia, South Asia, as well as Southeast Asia, Middles East even parts of Europe, especially southern Europe, such as Greece and even parts of Italy where hundreds perhaps thousands of different varieties are still grown.
c- And so the majority of the seeds are given by big businesses and I know there are these things called Roundup Ready seeds
c- and you need that Roundup Ready fertilizer so it becomes this thing where if you use this seed then the fertilizer is suppose to help it grow then that again deletes this polyculture.
d- Right. Not only that but essentially it means that agriculture is being owned by agribusiness and not by the farmer. Uh because I think it is still the case where the farmer agrees to buy the Roundup Ready seed and then needs to by the Roundup that goes with it. So essentially it is contract owned you know Monsanto and some of the other so-called “Life Technologies” companies have their little detectives going around to make sure there is nothing inadvertently is going under. They go around and they prosecute even if you're an organic farmer for example I think they in Great Britain a couple of years back these fields accidentally became contaminated with pollen from a genetically modified crop. It came from that Monsanto. He was cussing these people out and uh uh this is something that he had no control over essentially. But you know ever since the first hybrid corn varieties developed in the late 1920s uh since then they have been patented to plant even earlier and uh that's essentially what the industrialization of agriculture is all about these days.
c- And so I feel like we have these two opposing things going on. One like the genetically modified organisms and then we also have organic farming
d- Uh huh
c- It did have like a fad stage and people were interested in buying organic and certain stores would market that they were selling organic. Um, so I guess what are the key differences between the two then?
d- Well I've always felt that organic farming may be a bit of a misnomer because it's been over-applied. And organic farming traditionally, or by definition I suppose is the use of um traditional seeds or the use of chemically produced fertilizers and pesticides and so forth. Uh but organic farming that general term covers a lot of different aspects of, of farming . One point is agro-ecology the the which is uh an adaptation of traditional farming uh using different kinds of biotechnology uh based upon um manipulating the environment is such a way as to sustain polyculture crops, to uh utilize um um natural resources for water preservation, or combating uh uh pests, especially insect pests, fungal pests um and so forth. This is a type of agriculture which um is still being practiced on a national scale in places like Cuba. During a special period during the collapse of the Soviet Union they were forced into these methods so they have lots of innovations, they have an educational system in biology which is based around agro-ecology. They're not turning out PHD graduates by the dozen rather their planting state farms and the seeds go back to the farmer who implements these measures. It may not make sense but its enabled them to get through a tough time. Other types of organic farming, ag-again might be trendy and so forth but um uh nonetheless you know they utilize some of these principles use less resources. But then there's that whole area of agriculture of farming probably is a better term you've seen in the developing world where farming hasn't changed too much over hundreds of years and still is productive which relies on um the old techniques the passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next. Remember that one in three of the worlds farmers are found in India so uh lots of different kinds of agriculture carried out.
c- And so I go to my Whole Foods and I buy organic products. Is it probably most likely not grown in the states?
d- Oh yeah it wil be yeah. Organic there there there are quite a large a large thing here in the United States. Yeah you can believe that. You know um if it's labeled organic its probably and I trust the co-ops around here they do sell organic food. There was a recent study actually in England when I was over there this summer which said that you know there's no real difference in health benefits between organic food and mass produced food. Um this had all of the proponents of biotechnology gloating on the television chat shows and in the editorials in newspapers. The important point is missed is this essentially organic farming is efficient than mass produce farming and it certainly does not result in wide-scale environmental degradation that you see in industrial agriculture.
c- And so they use that it doesn't have all the health benefits they're are really ignoring the fact
d- Oh yeah.
c- that-about the environment.
c- Do you know if there is by chance if they receive funding if they were to go organic? Since a lot subsidies...
d- No. Most of the subsidies do go in this country to very large farms. I think you can get figures I don't have them on hand I had some but the industry has grown in this country.
c- And do you know have an insight maybe where you see biotechnology changing. I know you talk about the current or the new green revolution. Do you have any thoughts on that?
d- Um well yeah I do, um. First of all there are limitations at the moment to um to um clone off of genetically modified crops. Um they first of all supplement um present day industrial agricultures-they benefit agribusiness in other words so the Roundup Ready seeds were funded and things like this and then mostly as well um genetically modified crops which have one or two genes introduced the only exception in fact may be the golden rice. And some of the really important crop um uh crop um such as um seed yield, composition, so and so forth are determined by multi-germ germ um multi-germ in other words multi-germ traits in other words certain genes and certain dozen genes so on and so forth. Uh furthermore, biotechnolog this biotechnological application is limited. Its limited to mainly uh three or four crops- the big ones being corn, soybean and cotton a little bit of grain thrown in and so and so forth. Mostly for the most part third world crops are utilized. There are many ways in which third world crops are utilized when um when they have particular traits which are then sequestered and patented by um the corporations this is known as bio-piracy and is a subject of discussion in Nature and in popular press for the past twenty years. So theres, theres a limitation when it comes to biotechnology at least as far as its developed. I am opposed to this new Green Revolution. I I see it as simply another uh tool. I would go so far as to describe it as a tool for a new kind of colonialism. And you can see that by the kind of people who are pushing this. And the scientists-but then scientists are socially conservative. The universities are certainly not hotbeds of liberalism despite what many people like to say in uh the newspapers. Also someone like Bill Gates...how can you trust someone like Bill Gates who has made his obscene billions by pirating computer software? And this uh immediately raises my disbelief. No I think that you know traditional agriculture uh given uh encouragement uh given acceptance is uh is uh stil pretty much the way the world feeds itself. Recent FAO sponsored studies carried out in east Africa the last couple of years where traditional farming has been implemented in places like Libya, uh Kenya, Tanzania, and parts of Zimbabwe based mostly on local small scale farming and the figures are impressive. You don't need that kind of biotechnology they need to know how to manage the environment using not only natural resources but also traditions which have been handed down through thousands of years. In that respect, again look at FAO figures uh you see that the world produces more food than necessary to uh to uh feed all of the population on the planet. There's never been a time where-in fact that graph is actually—for me the best perspective to get on all of this is uh to read Amartya Sen, an economist who points to this he studied this for most of his working life beginning with the Bengal famine in 1943. He said famines are not caused by dirty food but rather by access. And um its not biotechnology which is going to solve this its going to be socio-economic reform.
c- Yeah I think that we could probably talk for a really long time.
d- Oh yeah (laughs)
c- I think we can just end it there.
c- But my last question I ask
d- Uh huh
c- Is what is your favorite color?
d- Favorite color....umm green I think.
c- Green. We have been talking a lot about green today.
d- Perhaps just back to Robin Hood.
c- Well. It was nice talking with you.
d- You too Chanan.