YOUR OPINION? Scientists' effect on biodiversity legislation

Steve Noffsinger snoffsin at
Mon Jan 27 01:28:53 EST 1997

On 22 Jan 1997, Student User wrote:

> I'm a law student at the University of Texas.  I'm going to write a paper 
> this semester about laws relating to biodiversity.  
> I believe that, when scientists influence the writing of such laws -- 
> either as consultants, paid lobbyists, or active political workers -- 
> they have a negative effect.  It seems to me, admittedly early in my 
> research, that scientists frequently move the direction of such laws 
> towards an otherworldly, elitist overprotectiveness far removed from the 
> needs and wants of the local constituency.  
> Would anyone care to share their feelings about this with me?  I would 
> welcome that.  I'm at j.fischer at

Otherworldly, elitist overprotectiveness, hmmm, I think you don't know
where your food supply comes from.  Of course, most of the rest of the
world doesn't either.  I'll try to share a little bit as someone who's job
doesn't necessarily depend on overprotectiveness (at this point since I am
not working with a major crop) and I'll refrain from my love of biological
diversity in the Lupinus genus.

Wheat is one of the major crops of the world which I am sure you are quite
familiar with.  More and more, plant breeders have been forced to go back
to wild species and relatives of wheat to find pest resistance because
eventually insects and diseases develop means of getting around the
resistance.  If you want exact statistics on the number of wild species
and relatives which have been used just in the past 20-30 years for
disease and insect resistance, I can provide it later (it's late here and
I need to get up in the morning).  I can assure you though, the numbers
are astronomical even for a plant breeder.  Biotechnology may be used to 
take genes from other species and place them into the plant, but to my
knowledge, biotechnology has not "created" useful genes for resistance.

When you consider the fact that not only wheat, but corn, rice, potatoes
and any number of other major horticultural and agronomic crops are grown
over vast areas in the New and Old World (wheat is grown from Mexico
through Canada), and the fact that the genetic background doesn't change
that much over that area which provides a wonderful opportunity for
insects and disease to adapt to new resistance, it is no wonder that
genetic resistance needs to be brought in from wild relatives of the
particular crop.  There has been some move recently to managed the
varieties with specific resistance (in some crops) which are grown in an
area and hence, development of insects and disease, but when a crop is
grown over such a wide area and gene flow is so much more rapid in the
pests (than the crop), it is next to impossible to prevent them from
eventually overcoming the crops' resistance.

Without disease and insect resistance, you would be paying over 50%
of your budget for food because of the basic law of supply and demand.
You also would not have the diversity of foods which are grown now.  
During some years when disease and insect pressure was particularly heavy,
you would have to make greater adjustments in your diet because of either
high prices or because the particular fruit, vegetable or grain simply
would not be available.  There would be much more malnutrition and
starvation in the world, and it could not be controlled or alleviated to
some extent by government intervention and humanitarian aid.

I've failed to mention the "undiscovered" or unused foods and
pharmaceuticals in many wild plant species, which might be useful one day
if we leave the natural habitat alone.  Until this century, we did not
have a lot of the agronomic and horticultural plant species that we have
today, and their usefulness to man is based on biological diversity.
While we can have some "gene banks" which store/maintain some of the wild
relatives (sometimes inadequately), there is no substitute for having wild
species which are constantly exposed to the disease and insect pressure in
nature, slowly developing resistance (through genetic shift) to the pests
over time.  This type of resistance can be the most long lasting when
incorporated into a variety.

There is also the recycling of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, nutrients, and
even uptake of pollution by plants (Some plants are actually being
used to take up toxic chemicals from the soil so that they don't affect 
your drinking water supply!).  When you wipeout one plant species, it
eventually affects other plant and animals species.  If we human species
continue wiping out plant species at the rate that we are, we may
eventually wipe ourselves out.

Good luck with the paper!


Steven L. Noffsinger
Ph.D. candidate
Plant Breeding and Genetics
Department of Agronomy and Soils
Auburn University
Auburn, Alabama 36849

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