Get off my GM lawn!

I have a habit of going to parties every now and then. While mingling about with a crowd of strangers, conversations come to a certain denouement of a question, which should not be the prelude to an abruptly concluded conversation. I am asked, “What did you major in?” and my reply is “Biochemistry.” Quickly now, my conversational partners must excuse themselves. “Oh I really must get a drink.” they say waving a full glass in the air. I was wondering what about this simple statement made me so repellent, however I think I may have figured it out.

I just read a few articles today about the Enviropig™ a pig developed around 2004 that  was genetically modified to produce the enzyme phytase so that it may break down phytic acid (found in pig feed) and utilize the phosphorus rather than passing it though to it’s feces where the phosphorus escapes into the surrounding environment and causes harmful algal blooms and other environmental treacheries. This engineering trick would reduce the amount of phosphorus found in pig feces at a significant rate compared to unmodified pigs.

Fast forward to April 2012, ten generations into research and design of these pigs and the project has been put on ice. Pressure from activist groups has lead to a predicament: no company will brave bringing these pigs to market. I stumbled onto the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network’s site and read a little about their attitude. Which I found a bit off putting. On their site they state that “there is already the cost-effective, simple technological fix of a phytase supplement that can be added to hog feed.” This language particularly irks me out.

The word “technological” should read “bio-technological.”  The fact is that the phytase enzyme which farmers would add to pig feed requires Genetically Modified yeast strains or other biotech production methods in order to be produced in massive quantities. On top of this their website cites no true reason why the Enviropig™ should not be allowed to enter the market besides the fact that this network of people are scared of something that is unfamiliar to them.

It really makes me wonder why people don’t seem to be too concerned about receiving help from transgenic organisms to craft our cheese (Chymosin), fight diabetes (Insulin), or cause our pigs to shit out less phosphorus via supplementation (phytase). To just modify the pig, we have shut down a manufacturing plant in favor of a living solution!

In the NY Times article I linked above, Dr. Cecil Forsberg is quoted as saying “It’s time to stop the program until the rest of the world catches up…And it is going to catch up.” This was a bit soothing to me. It helped me to really understand that there is still a majority of the population which opposes and is scared of the genetic modification of most organisms. This is why people run away from me after I announce an interest in Biochemistry at parties.


4 responses to “Get off my GM lawn!

  1. I’m at least 90% sure this entry is some kind of self-aware tongue-in-cheek parody thing, but a part of me wants to give you my take on why folks are might seem “scared” of you at informal gatherings and the like.

    I will say this much: it’s most definitely fear of the unknown at the root of the emotion they’re likely experiencing (probably as soon as the words “Bio” cross your lips)…but It’s also shame.

    • While what I say is a bit exaggerated, I do actually seek answers to why folks go running off at parties directly after that question comes up. Would you care to elaborate a bit more on the shame?

      • viapsyche

        1) People are definitely afraid of the unknown, but they’re even more afraid of revealing that they’re ashamed of this fact–being seen as stupid or clueless by others invokes a great deal of inner turmoil. Fear is the greatest impediment to learning and understanding, and shame compounds the fear.

        The thought goes something like this: “Biochemistry? Oh shi- this girl is a smart cookie. I majored in Comparative Lit, I’ve got nothing to offer here. Best to bail out of this one, lest I reveal my own ignorance!”

        The cognitive effort involved in making the jump a) over one’s fear/shame and b) into an area one may know little about is a leap only a select few are really willing to take. Personally speaking, I would relish a conversation about genetically engineered piggies but would have no idea how to get there from “I majored in biochemistry.”

        2) The other tract here is that people who majored in “hard” sciences are often hilariously disdainful of “soft” science/liberal arts majors, thus perpetuating he stereotype of the conceited scientist, and creating a sense of antagonism between disciplines that really should not exist.

        On this note, let me recount a personal experience I had:

        I was at a painfully small Japanese curry place with Eddie–small enough to make eavesdropping, even unintentional, easy to do when there’s a lull in the conversation. I overheard a dialogue between a young woman and her date. She began to talk about the courses she was taking, lauding her professors in a glib, perfunctory fashion. It quickly became obvious she was some variety of bio-oriented STEM major. Somewhere along the line, she gets to talking about some sort of Research Methods course. She opines about having to share the course with people of various majors, and makes a special note to mention a particular disdain for Psychology majors in the course. “Oh, you know Psychology majors,” she says, her voice pregnant with thinly-veiled arrogance. “They’re SPECIAL.”

        At this point, she proceeds to recount a story–complete with Valley Girl vocal affectations–about a particularly airheaded Psychology student who begins peppering the professor with questions our protagonist deems to be inane, obvious, or previously covered. Thankfully our heroine is there to save the day, swooping in and overriding the conversation with this particular student in order to ask about germane concerns. She makes some comment to the effect of “HURRDURR WHAT A DUMBASS THAT GIRL WAS”, which the professor in question responds not discourteously to. Cue knowing eye roll as she and the professor, arm in arm, exit stage right, laughing haughtily.

        3) All of this is just to say that the reaction you’re getting has less to do with you and more to do with the expectations and suppositions of the Other. You are privy to all the itty bitty nuances of your Self beyond your major of study; they already see the white lab coat and fill in the blanks.

        Hopefully this makes some sense and/or illuminates something you don’t already appreciate.

  2. Thanks for taking time to hammer out such a beautiful explanation, it helped to feed my thoughts.

    I sometimes forget about the truth that hard science fanatics can be less than kind to the arts as well as the soft sciences. I spent the last year of college covering up the fact that I had much to do with the arts beyond extending casual invitations to poetry events to my cohorts…Often, hard scientists need to be reminded that they are subject to the same sorts of fallacies as the soft sciences.

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