Barbara Kingsolver, “A Fist in the Eye of God”
From Small Wonders (Perennial, 2003)
1. SOME OF THE RELEVANT BIOLOGY
2. Account of natural selection
a. Organisms produce more seeds/offspring than will survive
b. These offspring have different traits/characteristics
c. Some of these traits (genetically-based ones) are passed down to future generations
d. Organisms that have genetically-based traits that suit them better for their environment survive better than those that don’t
e. These organisms pass on these survival traits to the next generation, thus increasing the incidence of the trait in the population
i. Those organisms that don’t have the genetically based survival trait less likely to survive and pass on their genes
3. Genetic diversity is key to survival of a population
a. E.g.: Each individual (e.g, grain of wheat) has a somewhat different set of traits
i. In a windy year, individual wheat plants with a “shortness” gene will survive and allow the population/crop to survive
ii. After a bunch of windy years shortness will start to dominate the crop, but if it maintains its diversity, tallness will still be present (perhaps in a recessive state) and will be there to help the population survive in a different environment.
b. Genetic diversity allows populations to survive even while individuals die off
4. Sexual reproduction is what keeps genetic diversity going
a. Because it involves the shuffling of genes
b. Reproduction via cloning does not do this
5. IMPORTANCE OF GENETIC DIVERSITY (AND THREATS TO IT)
6. Genetic diversity in crops is highest in crop populations grown and artificially selected for the longest period of time
a. Land races grown by “third world” farmers are great source of genetic diversity
b. Farmers saved seeds through thousands of seasons
c. For example, they saved different seeds for different types of corn crop: popcorn, roasting corn, tortilla corn, corn with different colors and textures
d. Generations of selection also yield breadth of resistance to all types of pests and weather problems encountered over the years
7. Crops grown in U.S. are extremely genetically uniform and thus vulnerable to mass crop die-off
a. Agriculture in U.S. is controlled by a few large corporations that sell relatively few seed varieties
b. Crops that are genetically uniform will be less resilient to disease or weather-related problems
8. Third world genetic diversity is our insurance policy in response to crop failure and we are getting rid of that resource
a. To create new varieties to handle new problems, we draw from the genetic resources left in land races of poor peoples around the world
b. Modern multi-national agricultural practices drive third world farmers (who uses genetically diverse crops) out of business
9. Ethiopian farmer and magic wheat anecdote (p. 5)
a. Grows land race of wheat, wildly variable, been in family for hundreds of years
b. Each year loses some to wind, weather, and disease, but rest comes through
c. Hears about magic wheat that grows 6 times bigger, is easier to harvest, and has special vitamins
d. Government gives it out for free
e. Magic wheat grows well 1st year, but rapid green growth attracts startling number of pests; insects never seen eating wheat before in whole history of your land race
f. Have to spray pesticides to get a harvest
g. Same company gave you seed for free can sell you pesticide
h. It’s a good pesticide--used in US all the time--but costs you money you don’t have (so you borrow against next year’s crop)
i. Second year you have serious drought and all magic wheat dies (as it knows nothing about Ethiopian drought–unlike the land races)
10. Examples of catastrophes due to planting entire area in single genetic strain of food crop
a. Irish potato famine or Southern Corn Leaf Blight in 70s
11. Why need 3rd world farmers? What about seed banks?
a. Says seeds can’t survive more than a few years on the shelf
b. If not grown out as crops year after year, they die
12. STATEMENTS ABOUT WHY GENETIC ENGINEERING (GE) IS INFERIOR TO TRADITIONAL SELECTIVE BREEDING
13. Claims biotech companies can’t engineer a crop that will have the resilience of land races under wide variety of moisture, predation, and temp conditions
a. GE crops won’t have the variability of an ancient land race population which has stored in it characteristics traits/alleles for a variety of circumstances
b. Why can’t biotech companies add a trait to a given land race and make it even more diverse?
i. They don’t use ancient land races as starting points for modification, but rather more genetically uniform hybrid seeds they have bred in the past.
14. GE antithesis of variability as removes wild card/sex from equation
a. Sex shuffles all the genes, GE simply changes a few genes
b. But, GE can bring together genes from wildly different species something sexual reproduction does not allow, and this would increase diversity.
c. GE planted crops tend to be uniform
i. Don’t use seeds from wildly diverse land races, but from cloned desired individual
ii. Because the more uniform crop easier to insure the GE trait is replicated in all the individuals
15. GE is different from traditional cross breeding in that it fails to “work with nature”
a. Many claim that modern GE is not really any different from selective breeding of animals and plants, something we have been doing for 10,000 years
b. We have been pushing genes around for centuries via selective breeding of crops and livestock
c. But farmers/breeders who select best crops/animals are working with the evolutionary forces of selection, pushing it in a direction of their choosing
i. Results of this will work “within natural evolutionary context of variability, predators, disease resistance”
d. GE “tampers with genes outside of the checks and balances of nature”
i. Has stunning unforseen consequences
16. Examples of possibilities of genetic engineering that traditional cross breeding could not produce
a. Can put a firefly gene in a tobacco plant and make it glow
b. A fish antifreeze gene was put into tomatoes to try to make them frost resistant (experiment failed)
c. Geeps (mix of goats and sheep cells in one individual)
17. “Engineered genes don’t play by rules that have organized life for 3 billion years”
a. No natural checks and balances (e.g., predators to keep in check?) whereas for naturally evolved plants there are likely to be such predators and other checks?
b. Like the argument against introducing exotic species
i. Exotic species: Those that have not evolved in local habitat
ii. Often exotics reek havoc on local ecosystems as nothing there to control them (unlike in their native habitat)
iii. Exotics are not naturally evolved locally to have natural local controls
18. BT CORN EXAMPLE
19. Natural Bt
a. Bt is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that kills caterpillars who eat it
b. Harmless to humans, birds, ladybugs or bees
c. Organic farmers used it as a pesticide for years, putting it on their plants, quickly washes off and returns to soil
d. Example of how farmers have used nature for own ends
i. Slow methods in context of natural laws
20. GE spliced a gene from Bt into corn plant so each corn plant cell has the pesticide in it, each bit of pollen has Bt pesticide
i. Bt remains in the plant’s body indefinitely and does not wash away
ii. We consume the Bt protein
21. Possible problems of BT corn
a. Could harm many non-target insects (some delightful, some important, some rare)
i. Bt pollen floats onto every tree/bush in vicinity of farms that uses it and this is rapidly becoming the entire corn growing region of US
ii. Perhaps a threat to monarch butterflies (and other more endangered butterflies) or pollinators important for human crops
iii. Despite some evidence and worries that Bt corn would threaten Monarch butterflies, this has been dis-proven
iv. Shouldn’t we test GMO’s (genetically modified organism’s) affects on important insects before we allow its widespread use?
b. Widespread use breeds super-resistant insects that won’t be affected by Bt pesticide
i. When Bt is everywhere, there will be no Bt susceptible insects left that could breed with Bt tolerant insects
ii. Result is a super tolerance to Bt in the insect population
iii. Like problem of overuse of antibiotics in human health
iv. Bad for organic farmers who will lose one of the few methods they have of protecting their crops
c. Pollen from Bt corn so rapidly contaminating other corn that soon there may be no naturally bred corn left in U.S.
i. “A fist in the eye of God”
ii. Strange as this is contamination of a human developed organism: the corn plant
(1) Make more sense if contaminating God’s creation (i.e., nature)
22. OTHER POSSIBLE ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS
23. GE organisms escape into natural populations, change its genetics in a way lead to its demise
a. E.g., GE salmon, has genes for rapid growth, could be accidentally released into oceans and drive native salmon populations extinct
24. Super weeds (e.g., weeds that have herbicide tolerant genes in them)
a. A main type of GE crop is herbicide tolerant crops (“roundup ready soybeans”)
b. If this crop breeds with local weedy relatives, that weed could inherit the gene for herbicide tolerance
25. HUMAN HEALTH WORRIES ABOUT AG BIOTECH ARE MINOR COMPARED TO THE ENVIRONMENTAL ONES (A SNEEZE VERSUS CANCER)
26. Allergic reactions: New combos of DNA create foods some people allergic too (brazil nut gene in soybeans, eat soybeans and have allergic reaction to nuts)
27. POLITICAL PROBLEMS
28. Chemical dependency of farmers in developing countries
a. Local governments are working with multinationals to get locals to grow these crops
29. Will planting crops that are patented and proprietary be good for those poor who are farming to feed themselves?
30. Is it safe to give up self-sustaining food systems in favor of dependency on a global marketplace?
31. Rest of the world is much less sanguine about GE food than we in the U.S. (or at least our government/regulatory agencies)
a. Much of world has refused to import GE foods/seeds from U.S.
b. Indian farmers burned trial crops of transgenic cotton
32. Terminator technology: Some have banned Monsanto’s “terminator tech” that makes the plants’ seeds sterile so farmers can’t save and replant seed as is the custom, but have to go back to Monsanto for new seed each year
a. Beneficial use of terminator technology in preventing spread to wild of the GE crop/organism
33. But power/momentum of world trade makes it increasingly difficult for countries to resist having their food supply “reconstructed” around the new international, large agribusiness, biotech model
34. Handful of agribusinesses controlling worlds narrowing seed banks
35. US agribusiness controlling world food supply is likely to exacerbate the hate much of the world directs at us
36. QUASI RELIGIOUS ARGUMENT
37. Kingsolver believes that creativity, brilliance, and longevity of natural selection and evolution is worthy of religious awe
38. She’s a scientists who can see excitement of GE
39. But looks at what 30 million years of evolution has done to the humming bird
40. And thinks “it is wise to enter the doors of creation not with a lion tamer’s whip (genetic engineering) but with reverence appropriate for entering places of worship, a sacred grove as ancient as time”
41. GE on nature (and domesticated crops?) is a “fist in the eye of God”
Study Questions on Kingsolver’s “Fist in the Eye of God”
1. Explain how natural selection works. Use an example.
2. How is genetic diversity in a population important for the survival of that population? Why does Kingsolver think it important for food crops to have genetic diversity in them?
3. Explain Kingsolver’s magic wheat example and the lessons she draws from it.
4. Explain the differences between contemporary genetic engineering and traditional cross breeding. In addition, why does Kingsolver think only cross breeding “works with nature.”
5. Why do some believe that genetically engineered organisms are like exotic species and pose some of the same risks?
6. Explain some of the worries that Kingsolver describes about Bt Corn.
7. Explain how the consequences of Bt Corn use might be similar to the consequences of the overuse of drugs leading to anti-biotic resistance.
8. In what way does Kingsolver think genetic engineering is a “fist in the eye of God?” Do you agree with her?
9. What are some of the concerns about the new fast growing salmon about to be approved for production and human consumption.
10. Explain how genetically-engineered herbicide-tolerant crops can lead to super weeds.
11. Explain some of the health worries of eating genetically engineered foods.
12. What are some of the political problems that may result form global spread of genetically-engineered crops?
13. What is “terminator technology?” Identify one negative consequence of this and one positive use.
14. What is Kinsolver’s “quasi-religious” argument against genetic engineering?