James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

November 13, 2009

Greenpeace offers marker assisted breeding

Greenpeace on Friday called on the International Rice Research Institute to abandon its genetic engineering program as the environmental activist group offers marker assisted breeding as a safe alternative to bioengineering.


Dear Greenpeace,

I would like to call upon you to abandon your campaign against genetic engineering and offer up an alternative priority your organization could focus on to the greater benefit of the world we all share: Fighting man-made global warming.


Now you could argue greenpeace already is opposed to global warming. And you’d be right. They are. I guess my offering it to them looks pretty stupid doesn’t it?

The same could be said of greenpeace offering marker assisted selection to the plant breeding community that pioneered the technique and is taking full advantage of it, and has been for years in both the private and public sectors. Case in point:

Sub1 rice is much less damaged by flooding, a risk in many rice producing areas, such as Bangladesh. The trait was first prototyped using genetic engineering, and after it had demonstrated its effectiveness, the long hard work of bringing the gene into cultivated rice lines (using marker assisted breeding) began. Now the trait has been freely released to farmers  If you haven’t seen the video of the difference the sub1 trait makes in a flooded rice field, check it out.

Marker assisted breeding is very important for crop improvement. As things stand today, I’d say its contribution to feeding the world is substantially greater than genetic engineering. Make no mistake, genetic engineering has done some cool things, but marker assisted breeding is increasing yields, resistance to draught, pests, and disease every single year!

Marker assisted breeding and genetic engineering are two different tools in the toolbox of plant scientists and plant breeders. There are problems that call for a hammer, and others that call for a screwdriver. You wouldn’t tell someone to stop using a screwdriver to screw in screws and offer to let them a hammer instead. If you do, don’t expect to be taken that seriously. And if the hammer you offer to let them use is one you just took out of their own toolbox…


  1. Oy. I’ve gone ’round and ’round on that one elsewhere too. One woman was arguing with me on the funding for a bill in the Senate that she wanted all her readers to oppose because it used–wait for it–“biotechnology” in the language of the bill.

    Yet she assured me that MAS/MAB were not biotechnology. So I pointed out the IAASTD report (which she always tells me is teh greatest) uses this definition:

    “The IAASTD definition of biotechnology is based on that in the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. It is a broad term embracing the manipulation of living organisms and spans the large range of activities from conventional techniques for fermentation and plant and animal breeding to recent innovations in tissue culture, irradiation, genomics and marker-assisted breeding (MAB) or marker assisted selection (MAS) to augment natural breeding. Some of the latest biotechnologies (‘modern biotechnology’) include the use of in vitro modified DNA or RNA and the fusion of cells from different taxonomic families, techniques that overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombination barriers. ”


    Here’s one of my major issues with the people who don’t understand this: they will ban things they claim are ok because of their sloppy language and lack of understanding of this field. The activists are working _against_ training and academic projects that would teach third world agricultural scientists the techniques. It’s tragically wrong.

    Another great story in MAS/MAB was Gebisa Ejeta’s striga-resistant sorghum. Ejeta also won the world food prize this year and I keep waiting for a single foodie to acknowledge it….

    Comment by Mary — November 13, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

  2. You’re completely right about the striga resistant sorghum. I think the world food prize is one of the many things in the world that simply isn’t acknowledged by the anti-science based agriculture set. That fact that there’s a prestigious award set up to recognize scientists for contributing to the battle against world hunger doesn’t fit so well with the view that scientists are part of the problem and definitely not part of the solution.

    Tragically wrong really is the best word for it. That’s almost the worst part. There are plenty of people who live their whole lives not give much thought at all to where their food comes, or whether we will still have enough of it in fifty years. The organic/local/sustainable/etc food movement at least is trying to pay attention. They’ve just fixed on to incorrect conclusions and refuse to think critically about them.

    Comment by James — November 13, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

  3. It strikes me that we ought to do a press release titled: Greenpeace comes out for biotechnology!, explain the whole thing, and watch their heads explode.

    Comment by Mary — November 13, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

  4. Given that’s basically what greenpeace just did, I’d say turnabout is fair play. One of the many reasons science-based ag needs its own NGO.

    Comment by James — November 13, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

  5. Wow, it’s profoundly stupid that Greenpeace “offered” MAS to breeders. Maybe I’ll recommend the assembly line to Ford.

    Comment by Matt — November 13, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

  6. Since both the internal combustion engine and the assembly line have car related applications, clearly Ford should abandon the internal combustion engine once you tell them about the benefits of the assembly line.

    Comment by James — November 13, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

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