Self-Digesting Plants

Re: Self-Decomposing Plants.

In February of 2011, Andrew Pollack wrote a piece in The New York Times with the following leading paragraph:

“A type of corn that is genetically engineered to make it easier to convert into ethanol was approved for commercial growing by the Department of Agriculture.”

The plants in question are manipulated in such a way that they express an enzyme, amylase, at higher levels than normal corn plants. The idea here is to produce plants that produce kernels (made principally of starch) with a little more of the enzyme that breaks-down this starch into its component sugar molecules (glucose) – this in turn is the starting point for the microbial fermentation needed to produce ethanol (alcohol), the molecule in your whisky, your tequila or, more recently, your gasoline tank (currently 10% of the mix that is fed to California cars).  So, the story goes, if you want to grow crops to turn into fuels, and if you want to use the ethanol route for this, and if you decide to use maize for the purpose, then having a little more amylase to start with may perhaps cut a little in the exorbitant costs of the whole process, a process that is crazy to start with even if you take all those “ifs” in stride.

The high-amylase corn is thus described, somewhat sloppily, as a self-decomposing plant (in Pollack’s even more confusing words, “self-processing”).  The prospect of such a thing, i.e. a plant material that is breaking down as you handle it, all by itself without the need for microbial decomposition (i.e. “rot”) has some people worrying, and not without reason.  Pollack reports that millers are worried because

“…if the industrial corn cross-pollinated with or were mixed with corn used for food, it could lead to crumbly corn chips, soggy cereal, loaves of bread with soupy centers and corn dogs with inadequate coatings.”

Pollack quotes the North American Millers’ Association publicly worried.

In the more thoughtful side of the world, and leaving Pollack and other biotech boosters aside, Prof. Tad Patzek declares himself shocked by the news in his blog here.

The text below was my response to his post:

Re: Self-Decomposing Plants.

No question about it: it is nuts. The proposition is not only psychologically out of any balance, but also socially, culturally so symptomatic of a bankrupt society to make the fantastic chapter of LaPuta in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels look reasonable and quaint.  He described then very well the situation  through which we are going now.

In contrast with 1726, however, few seem to find it humorous today to talk about a world in which food digests itself: the ultimate, super-green step in the most efficient agriculture where humans are not needed even to do the mastication or enzymatic digestion of the foodstuff.  Think of the savings in cooking fuel, plates and silverware, and indeed the great advantages of avoiding water toilets and sanitary sewers, once the inefficient trouble of human digestion was obviated. No more sinful CO2 from human respiration: No more graves to dig!  And for the rare events, we could make the last human beings, who will likely be born out of uncivilized scum, genetically engineered so that they themselves could be self-digesting at some conveniently early, pre-reproductive age. Take that for a Modest Proposal, Mr Swift!

[Technical note: the biochemistry of hypothetical self-digesting humans is significantly simpler than the biochemistry of hypothetical self-digesting plants]

I am willing to accompany you in your anger, dear Tad, but only to a certain point.  You ask us to express our feelings (I do not have the privilege of electing people in this country, so I have no suggestions for the ballot box), and this is about as much as I feel here, after decades of exploring: sadness, perhaps, at the lost opportunities and the roads not taken; melancholy for that science that I once thought would indeed liberate my generation and those to follow; disgust at the already self-digested minds of those in the priesthood that is now called Science by the New York Times; alarm at the extraordinary power those minds have acquired in our time.

Seen from another perspective, however, I am finally thinking that the Iowa caucus may be doing a great favour to the world and to humanity: helping the cause of bleeding out the monster through one of its greatest wounds, the wound of failed hubristic arrogance.  The stretch between knowing something about  amylase biochemistry and being able to produce “self-decomposing” plants is one that better minds in the past tried unsuccessfully to breach. The “tools” that those in priesthood today propose to use for their goal are theoretically and demonstrably pathetic, and we can safely bet on their failure.  Billions in pork and earmarks and grants and venture capital and all kinds of other substances will be sunk into their religious propositions, that is true, but consider the real, existing alternatives: what else do we do with our mountain of money in the world?  Mostly bombs and other materials for destruction aimed at making the world more efficient in pretty much the same spirit as the biotech dreams, but with such effective and direct power that I feel compelled to cheer for anything that will distract from the further construction of a single drone, a nuclear “head”, a new XM25.

Of course I do not dismiss the horrors that have already been unleashed upon the people and the non-humans of Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Indonesia, Cambodia and so many other places.  The region known today as Mexico, for example, has finally ended this year its 10,000-year history of maize independence, as a cold spell in the State of Sinaloa dashed the hopes of producing enough white corn this year to shore-up the national need for the basis of tortillas, tamales, and other culturally essential foods.  All this not because of global warming, but because of the policies in the North American Free Trade Agreement and the designs of the transgenic seed lobby.  Worse is yet to come as the thirst for agrofuels, including high-amylase crops, will continue to be artificially propped as a global policy for the foreseeable future; but wouldn’t the force of that trend may be perhaps lessened if more money, rather than less, was spent on side-spurs as we continue to run the mad race up to- and beyond the peaks that will frame this historical chapter (peak oil, peak phosphorus, peak soil, peak water, peak privatization, peak complacency, peak social meekness)?

From a sunny California hillside, within view of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the BP-Energy Bioscience Institute, yours,


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