Vitamin G

Thanks one and all for the thoughtful feedback about Space Genie.  It was meant to be light-hearted.  Please understand I shall not post readers’ mean-spirited attacks or dyspeptic rants. Sorry if I slightly missed the mark. I appreciate “true believers” and understand your passions. Maybe I’m a bit the same way. I was attempting humor, not advocating a “Bladerunner” world where someone might munch on his arm when he’s hungry.  However, I’ll try to refrain from too many off-the-wall articles.  Focus on the word “try”.  But first, please let me answer the critics as a group.

My short life has seen a revolution in the science as well as public perception of genes.  From the debates of “nature versus nurture” in the 60s and 70s to the Bell Curve to Craig Venter’s self-administered genome mapping to almost weekly developments today, the scene has dramatically changed.  Once genes were taboo in polite company.  Lyndon Johnson’s education experts stated that “all babies are born alike”, a bizarre notion that was widely approved.  Genetic-based differences were regarded with appropriate suspicion, as either counterrevolutionary or echoing 1930s racial theories.  The politics of equality and civil rights dominated scientific forums, and understandably so.

Just as naturally, opinions swung all the way back to such an extreme that by the 80s Richard Dawkins’ ludicrous “The Selfish Gene” became an international best seller.  Suddenly, no one was even similar, nor could we ever be.

Meanwhile, biology steamed ahead, leaving the sociologists on the scientific margins. Genes moved to the forefront at all levels.  Behavior studies and medicine joined animal and plant breeding as major focuses of genetic research.  Twin studies proliferated. The genes of an entire nation, Iceland, came under scrutiny.  Of course, plant and animal breeders—as well as parents—have been familiar with the influence of genes for thousands of years.  Also, traditional societies throughout the world intuitively grasp them.

Discoveries exploded in medical, zoological, agricultural and pharmaceutical worlds, illuminating the effects of genes, chromosomes and cytoplasm, including interactions, inhibitors, sequences and pathways. There is no stopping science. Of course, safety regulations are important.  I know quite a few folks in the industry, but  I know of no scientist or corporate executive who considers safety unimportant.

Throughout history we have had scientific medicines, domesticated animals, domesticated plants, races of humanity, races blended within humanity.  Cultures and civilizations have risen, flourished and collapsed.  Just where I was raised, there were the Clovis, the Mississippian, the Illiniwek, the French, British, and now us.  One can view them over time, and trace them on a map like a colony of algae.  The flow of genes has played a crucial role in all of them.

Consider world travel, one of the foundations of the horticulture industry.  From exploration of the Middle East, China, Africa, and India came countless herbs, spices and medicinal plants—virtually every grain and vegetable, as well as many beverages, consumed in Europe for a millennium—all from new genes.  Then, with the New World came yet another influx of major transformative crops, including corn, tarot root, tomatoes, cocoa, tobacco, winter squash, potatoes and peanuts.  More genes!

Each of these cultivars began life as an extraordinarily different plant in the wild.  What were the Chinese, Indians, Africans and Americans to do?  Leave the potatoes in the mountains, the corn in the fields, the eggplant, pepper, tarot and tomatoes in jungles?
Then, upon encountering these crops in indigenous markets, would the European explorers have been wise to toss them aside, as if of no importance?  Of course not.

So it is with laboratory discoveries of a plant’s behavior and potential for variation on a cellular level, and even more closely on a genetic level.  Shall we ignore a cost savings in terms of farmland needed to feed a nation, province or village? If a plant and a harvesting machine can be designed together and save backbreaking labor, shall we not pursue them?  Do farm workers wish for their children and grandchildren to work in the sun all day?

I assume that gene transfer technology will continue to make great progress, as it does now, with many regulations and safeguards in place.  Risk and reward need to be in balance.  If scientists can create a new form of rice that can cure an entire continent’s chronic blindness, they must take some risks.  Agriculture and medicine share many ethical and moral dilemmas, more each generation. Would starving people wish to make a distinction between an heirloom and a hybrid?

I feel little sympathy for extremists on either side. We at Heronswood, Burpee and The Cook’s Garden practice the art of plant breeding and trait selection, a traditional form of “genetic engineering”, helped only once over a 10,000 year history—by Gregor Mendel in the 1860s, an Austrian monk working out math problems using garden peas.  From his discoveries to Craig Venter’s “creative life forms”, there hasn’t been so much qualitative as quantitative change.  If folks are fearful of new types of species then I wonder what they must feel when they visit a pet store or garden center? Or how about at Wegman’s produce section? 
I remember at a Jewel Foodstore in Chicago in 1980, watching a white-bearded Polish immigrant—a watchcap on his head—almost faint with wonder as he lifted high a huge bunch of ‘Flame’, the first seedless red grape. His eyes saucered. He was fresh off the jet and a world away from the emptiness of Soviet era grocery stores.  I thought he was going to weep for joy.  The USSR brought plant biology and breeding to a standstill and kept it there for more than three generations.  Plant scientists were either executed or perished in the Gulag.  Such is the triumph of ideology over science

Nature is the revolutionary—science is merely its avant-garde.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 8th, 2009 at 9:59 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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37 Responses to “Vitamin G”

  1. Vivian said:

    George, you are absolutely on target. Thanks for being a pragmatist and a scientist. Many of our medical advances these days–less-toxic treatments like Gleevec for cancer, clean insulin (produced in a lab by domesticated bacteria, not insulin derived from dead pigs or cattle), better treatments for rheumatic diseases, anti-organ rejection medicines, and on and on–all depend on a deep understanding of genes and how they work and in many cases on the ability to use biotechnology to splice genes into say bacteria to get them to produce useful proteins cleanly and in quantity. Unfortunately only a few people are able to get the education in molecular biology to get hands-on experience in how this is done; and a proportion of the rest end up fearing what they don’t understand, conjuring up all sorts of really unlikely nightmare scenarios, and retreating to religion to denounce the technology without really understanding it or how their own lives or the lives of others have benefited.

  2. George said:

    Dear Vivian,

    Thanks for your kind and very thoughtful response.

    It’s odd all this controversy in the media about food. New types of food, based on science, have made people healthier, more long-lived, more intelligent. The challenge, it seems, is not to stop progress, but to share it with all the world. In the past, the most effective way is via the free market.

    The Frankenstein bugbear conjured by alarmists is based on a logic run amok. They think that once there is one development, another will come and soon we will have engineered an apocalypse. What this kind of dark prophecy never takes into account is the human factor. That is, people desire a world that will accommodate and nourish themselves, their children and generations to come. That’s not a “selfish gene”—it’s human nature.

    Thanks again.

  3. Thomas Davis said:

    Great comments. Thank you!

  4. Dan Washeck said:

    The world will march on, with us or without us, nature really doesnt care

  5. john acuff said:

    I really enjoy your word mongering. Small correction in that the store was Jewel Tea. My mother had some bowls that she recieved there as prizes. Gene splicing to a gardener is both a promise and a thing of questions. Do i really want a blue rose. We build on the foundations of those who went before and I pray we build with wisdom. Keep firing you have the range.
    john acuff
    country lawyer

  6. George Irving said:

    They must be kidding. I love your creative writing so screw em if they can’t take a joke.

  7. John Mays said:

    Beautifully put.
    I enjoyed both articles and encourage you to keep expressing yourself without concern for feedback.
    John Mays

  8. Barbara Bucior said:

    I love corn. It is a staple of life as we know it; but all corn is major example of genetic engineering! Back in the 60’s many farmers had placards to _”ear mark”_ the corn rows. Unknowing these different strands of genetic engineered corn seed were planted side by side without any other separating crop; thus, the true corn (which is an oxymoron in itself) became sometimes naturally cross pollinated with wind and bee pollination. The corn seed which we buy today is still genetic engineered but will stay true to itself if not planted next to other corn types. You really shouldn’t plant butter and sugar next to silver queen; but definitely not next to popcorn or ornamental corn. If you do, you might have some very interesting, corn indeed!

  9. Dianedigsplants said:

    George, a sincere “Thank You,” for your thoughtful and thought-provoking articles. More to the point, “Thank You!” for being YOU. I love reading your posts. You are right on the mark. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and you astutely and eloquently express yours on so many different topics. May you teach and “preach the Gospel Gardensis” forever. 😀

  10. Jeff Kegerris said:


    And God bless you Mr. Ball

  11. Beverly Ford said:

    I SOOOO enjoy reading all of your material. Good for you for continuing to get the word out. I appreciate you!

  12. Steve said:

    Very well said. Any try at humor is good, but can usually be taken the wrong way. And your endeavor into new “things” is why we are always discovering new and improved things.

  13. Robert King said:

    I thought the article “Vitamin G” was well written and insightful. I grow heirloom tomatoes because I enjoy the wide variety of flavors and appearances, and because I support Seed Saver’s efforts to preserve a diverse gene pool. I also know how limited are the shelf-lives of my tomatoes, and how susceptible they are to a variety of insects and diseases. I do buy the occasional “red-cardboard tomatoe” in the winter and spring when I want some color in texture in my salads and while I drool in anticipation of eating “real” tomaotoes from July through October!

  14. Suzanne said:

    Vivian, as a research scientist in the University setting, I can assure you there are plenty of people who have molecular biology experience, myself included. Unfortunately, there is little funding for much of the necessary research. Genetic studies are much less of the “black box” that they used to be. We know much more about what genes are responsible for and how to manipulate them to learn more about their biological functions.

    As far as “retreating to religion to denounce the technology without really understanding it”, this is a statement made out of ignorance of religion and technology. The two are not mutually exclusive. I am a Christian and I am a Scientist.
    I embrace both.

  15. Donna said:

    Well Said!

  16. Claudine Parisot said:

    Only a few people who dared go where nobody has, allowed evolution.

  17. Penny Rembe said:

    Can you develop a red statice?
    Christmas, Valentines & fourth of July are amazing markets!

  18. Tony York said:

    Hi George-
    Your response seems well-reasoned and well-explained.
    I’m in agreement that much g.e. technology is just modernized ‘husbandry’, yet when I read of botanicals matched with genes from say, a species of worm in a bold attempt to achieve some desired result, I admit to having some reservations.
    I personally wouldn’t dare to try to impose boundaries on science, but a peer-organized approach to the expansion of some boundaries might quell the heartburn of some of us outside the involved industries. Those in pursuit of the profit motive haven’t always kept the public interest as their highest priority. The unintended consequences of human endeavor have shaped the history of our species. Our food source is our lifeline to survival at one end of the spectrum, and the pursuit of life, health, and happiness at the high end.
    Perhaps an element of self-regulation might be to preserve some heirloom varieties at least in archive so that we might back-track on the occasion that a particular genetic path we’ve pursued might lead us into some unintended problem.
    And finally, Yes, we should all be able to take a joke.

  19. TC said:

    Your in depth explacation will do well to be understood by the layman farmer and gardener. Some of these think, and believe, that gene manipulation could very well lead to the extinction of diversity. I too sometimes neglect to consider the human factor; and that is probably due to a loss of confidence in man/woman kind. Reading Thomas Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” might be dimming my usual pragmatic outlook.

  20. Jacqui Robertson said:

    …excellent,thoughful,educated reply…you “done good” Mr. Ball.

  21. S. Lackman said:

    Mr. Ball: Thank you for having the courage and confidence to speak openly about the benefits of Vitamin G. Safeguards are all important, but abject fear, lack of trust, and reactionary stands against scientific discovery are the direct result of being uninformed. Your newsletter was a constructive and greatly needed source of information. Hopefully it will lead many to re-think these developing varieties. -S. Lackman

  22. constance said:

    dear independent thinker….it saddens me that you have to make such a statement….where are the days of discourse gone?….why does everybody feel as through they must fight for what they believe, as through it was a job, a commission from God….and then must legislate the morals of others?????We miss the mark….and I apologize….I didn’t even read your post…but was rather dismayed by your need to burp the babies…c

  23. jennifer said:

    I enjoy your winter ‘rants’. The problem is, I think that the average person in America never paid attention in their high school biology classes ( or any other) and therefore are bamboozled by the media, as that person is not able to be a critical thinker on his own. I understand what you’re saying. It is true; verities. But the popular press is always psychologically convincing to the under confident American thinker..WHY should be more often, the question. Thanks….Jennifer

  24. PATTY S said:

    Keep writing! I really enjoy someone who is in the real world. I am about the same age as you and I really think that the 70’s generation lost their brains somewhere along the way. Heaven help us where it all goes from here. Patty in N. Louisiana

  25. Vivian said:

    Suzanne, I am also a research scientist and am in the university setting; I meant that few people relative the to population at large really understand gene splicing. Sure, plenty of people in the molecular biology departments do…but how many in the literature department? How about your average blue-collar worker?

    Also, I never wrote that religion and science are mutually exclusive, only that some of those who don’t understand science (not you obviously) do end up retreating to religion to denounce it (they call it “playing God”).

  26. Cathy Martin said:

    Thoughtprovoking! Where would we be without those who choose to ‘push the envelope’–and those who lend encouragement?

  27. Lourae Middleton said:

    Try not to worry about small minds or small people. I have learned in my 72 years. While my husband were taking in foster children to rear along with our own five children, asking for large family groups, relative, even friends thought we were crazy and said so to our face and often to our children. It was our way of thanking Heavenly Father for our five children that came to us over a 21 year time.
    Negative comments hurt when people don’t understand or ask questions about what they don’t understand. Just sorry this happened to you.
    We can’t please everybody and sometimes the only person we can please is ourselves. Keep being you own happy person!!!!

  28. Bruce Crawford said:

    I read your essays weekly and with great interest. For me, I am glad to see someone with a long background in plant materials expressing their opinions on current situations and events. I did find your comments on gene manipulation a little of the deep end, but if it enabled some folks to think and take pen – keyboard – in hand, then that is a good thing!

  29. Barbara said:

    Keep up the good work! I truly enjoy your blog. Your spiritual connection with the earth is overwhelming. I wish you could develop seeds for that.

  30. ann d said:

    Amen to the ornamental aspect of the argument, but the less publicized aspect of underbely of genetically engineered plants (seed) is the unregulated free market monopolization of food production and supply by patent-holding multinationals pitted against local farming operations, leading to destruction of locally adapted food supplies, risky levels of monoculture and poorer nutrition in areas of the world already living on the edge.

    Great blog. Keep it up.

  31. Marie M. Merzon said:

    Reading your comments just now has transformed an annoying day into the prospect of one filled with stimulating (really stimulated) thoughts.
    Progress is often painful, daunting, threatening, and always full of promise. Thank you! Marie Montone-Merzon

  32. Judi Fiest said:

    I enjoy what you write out of your wide-ranging thoughts. My latest tho’t has been that since everything is all of the same soup (universe), what is so strange about an ingredient not usually put into the soup with which you are familiar?!

  33. lawrence said:

    we needn’t feel sorry for the extremist thier fear genes keep them from drawing realistic conclusions

  34. Dianne Olsen said:

    What a nice, thoughtful letter. I appreciate the thought and the correct grammar and the style . . . and the heart. Thank you

  35. Autumn said:

    Keep them coming. I beleive that alot of people can not see beyond the end of their noses. Iam sure you recognize the gross lack of reasoning skills in Americans. I believe that science is our best tool to solve problems in all things. You can tell that I am a Gardener, ( VET. WSU Master Garderner, Snohomish County Co-op). Did you know that the MASTER GARDENER PROGRAM began right here in Snohomish County, back in the 70’s? I appreciate your sharing of your knowledge and ideas, and experiences. If I were to disagree with you I would not offend you but just think about it and determine if I want to retain the info as viable. So do contine. My husband has an “off the wall” sense of humor, so I maybe more broad shouldered than others, having that experience to draw from. Sincerely, Autumn

  36. Laura said:


    I have new repect for you and will look at all your future email with that in mind.


  37. Annabelle said:

    Very balanced article. (I would not wholly discount Dr. Dawkins’s contributions: Re: Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. 🙂

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