Letter from Elsewhere: And I Am Marie Of Romania

Published: Wed 10 Jul 2002 10:10 AM
Letter from Elsewhere by Anne Else
And I Am Marie Of Romania
This week I was able to add some fine new items to my small but growing collection of Breathtaking Idiocies of Our Time. I get them all from the local papers, and my husband knows when I’ve found another one, because I start to shout and wave it about.
They tend to fall into two categories: Sincere Stupidities and Self-Serving Slavering. (I once wrote a letter to the paper using “slavering”, but the editor was apparently unfamiliar with this evocative word, and changed it to “slathering”, which made no sense at all.)
As you’d expect, the GE debate has turned up some fine examples. In the Sincere Stupidities class, I was particularly taken with this gem from the Sunday Star-Times, in a report on trials of genetically engineered tamarillos near Kerikeri. The tamarillos were “designed to be resistant to a virus, the presence of which affects export opportunities”. (There was no information about how the export markets in question would react to the presence of GE in our tamarillos, but that’s another story.)
The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, no less, criticised the trial. It found there were “justified public fears about efforts made to contain the tamarillos, and recognised concerns over horizontal gene transfer which can spread altered DNA between species.” Its report instructed that “all material associated with the trial must be removed from the site”.
Now these people can hardly be accused of being wild-eyed, rabid Luddites. This is the Commission which suggested it would probably be safe to allow GE organisms into the environment after a couple of years. Yet they were concerned enough about these tamarillos to issue quite explicit instructions to remove all trace of them from the test site.
That in itself should give pause to the pro-release lobby who insist GE is perfectly safe, and that not lifting the moratorium would be tantamount to banning the use of electricity. But what qualified this whole sorry affair as a Breathtaking Idiocy was the reaction of the HortResearch scientists (you know, those brainy boffins in white coats who are so much more logical and precise and hard-headed than the rest of us) involved in the trial.
They have admitted that tamarillo roots are still in the ground, because when the plants were pulled out, some root material would have been left behind. Dr John Shaw said HortResearch had never checked to see if genetically altered organisms had crossed into plants and soil.
“We never tested it. Our belief was that there was no risk…what’s the chance of it hopping from one little rootlet to another system? The risk of it is extremely low. It is never absent, but it is so low it is not a concern.”
I did not know that “what’s the chance” and “one little rootlet” and “hopping” and “our belief” were scientific terms. Now I do.
To make matters worse, in October HortResearch scientists said they would sterilise the tamarillo site with poisons. Now they are saying that they did not go ahead, after promising to do so (in return for GE Free NZ keeping quiet – but that’s another story) because there was a risk that the particular poison used could actually help to spread the GE organisms. That’s the GE organisms in the little rootlets, you understand, the ones with such an incredibly low risk of spreading that there was no need to test the site.
This astonishing botch-up has just reinforced my own belief (completely unscientific, of course) that there is no risk - not just an extremely low risk, but absolutely no risk whatsoever at all – in banning the free release of GE organisms into New Zealand, just as there was no risk in keeping New Zealand nuclear free.
Meanwhile, over in the Self-Serving Slavering corner, something very nasty indeed hopped a while ago from one little rootlet of the pro-nuclear lobby to the welcoming soil of our very own Dominion. (This was before it gobbled up the Evening Post and mutated into the Dominion Post – but that’s another story.) I forgot to write down the date, so I can’t tell you exactly when it appeared, but even I was struck shoutless by a recent claim that nuclear radiation leaks are good for the environment.
How so, I hear you ask? Well, since Chernobyl went into meltdown in 1986, apparently “biodiversity around the plant has actually increased due to the absence of humans”. There are more wolves and black storks within the exclusion zone than outside it, and plant diversity is similar inside and out, “even in the most contaminated areas”.
What’s more, nuclear power stations, we are told, kill much less wildlife than “environmentally friendly” energy sources. For example, “a proposed wind farm would have been directly in the migratory path of the rare Greenland white-fronted goose”.
This remarkable specimen, sourced from the Telegraph Group, ends with a charming bit of androcentric whimsy: “If lobsters, rabbits and geese had a vote, there is no doubt they would say: “Nuclear power? Yes please.”
Fortunately, unlike lobsters, rabbits and geese, we do have a vote. All political parties are guilty of producing Breathtaking Idiocies from time to time. This election, some are much more guilty than others – and they are not the ones who, at first glance, may seem the least hard-headed and the most inclined to soft woolly unscientific thinking.

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