Messing with Nature

Most gardeners have respect – often awe – for the things they grow. It’s hard not to be impressed with the design of a foxglove, the water-catching structure of a bromeliad, or the way a carnivorous plant catches its prey. But since we’re human and can’t leave well enough alone, many plants have been altered or ‘enhanced’ over the years.

People have been growing ‘hybrids’ since the 1860s (at least): hardy grevilleas and orchids, and tea roses that grow large flowers on straight stems are examples of popular hybrids. A hybrid is a cross between different plants to get bigger blooms, stronger scent, more fruit or another desirable trait. Many of the plants in local nurseries are hybrids, and hybrid plants occur naturally too.

The more extreme way we better nature is through genetic modification of plants’ DNA. The first genetically modified plant was created in 1983, a refined tobacco bush.

Because global warming and drought are threatening our food supply, scientists have upped their efforts to produce drought-resistant plants. A cynic might say scientists are using climate change to argue that we must alter the plants we grow and the food we eat – there’s money to be made.

This quote from the Canadian Council for Biotechnology Information website reads like a sound-bite from Logan’s Run, The Island, or another of those films warning against messing with the natural order of things. Except this isn’t about making perfect people, it’s about making perfect plants:

‘Imagine a world where plants could outlast drought and thrive when conditions were optimal — a world where drier conditions aggravated by global warming no longer meant yield reduction. Thanks to concerted biotech research, the reality of commercialised drought-tolerant plants is only three or four years away.’

It’s about to happen here, too. Our federal government is deciding whether to allow Victoria to grow trial crops of drought-tolerant wheat in Horsham and Mildura.

Agriculture accounts for much of global water consumption so any reduction is a good thing, yes? But altering nature is never without a cost – often one we can’t anticipate. Plants are so tightly involved in the chain of other living things that to alter them has a string of effects.

Breeding hybrids has produced wonderful plants, but altering a plant’s gene structure is a whole different kettle of fish. Many gardeners and farmer express concern about these ‘frankenplants’. And didn’t we get into this environmental disaster in the first place by disregarding nature’s balance?

Many gardeners now choose to grow ‘heirloom’ varieties of plants rather than those that have been ‘improved’. Heirloom tomatoes are particularly popular with growers arguing they taste nothing like the supermarket varieties (bred for shelf-life rather than flavour).

But once they’ve created crops to cope with drought there’s surely an opportunity to offer genetically modified drought-tolerant plants to the gardening public. I wonder how long before such plants make an appearance in our nurseries? And will we buy them?



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