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Copyright © 2000 by The Resilience Alliance

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Ellstrand, N. 2000. The elephant that is biotechnology: Comments on "Genetically Modified Crops: Risks and Promise" by Gordon Conway. Conservation Ecology 4(1): 8. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol4/iss1/art8/

Commentary, part of Special Feature on Genetically Modified Organisms

The Elephant that is Biotechnology: Comments on "Genetically Modified Crops: Risks and Promise" by Gordon Conway

Norman Ellstrand

University of California, Riverside

KEY WORDS: ethics, genetically engineered crops, plant biotechnology, specialists vs. generalists, transgene.

Published: March 27, 2000

In a popular fable, a group of blind men inspects the first elephant ever to visit their village. Each blind man touches a different part of the elephant. They fall into an argument. The one holding the trunk describes the elephant to be like a snake. The one holding an ear says it is like a fan. And so on. It is only when one of the men is willing to move over the whole elephant, touching here and there, that its true form is made apparent. In the dozen years that I have been involved in the science behind one of the risks of biotechnology, I have come to appreciate that plant biotechnology is an elephant.

The “head” with its wondrous tusks and trunk is biotechnology’s novelty, the opportunity to move alleles among unrelated organisms, even among the kingdoms of life. “Something new and exciting! An evolution revolution!” were the claims made in the 1980s to venture capitalists and the popular press. And indeed, the benefits of biotechnology have begun to accumulate. Human insulin, made by microorganisms, has improved and extended the lives of countless diabetics, including my brother.

But when environmentalists began to ask whether such a novel technology should proceed with prudence, especially for organisms, such as crops, that would be released into the environment, they were shown the more mundane and less imposing tail end of the elephant. “Nothing new. Same as traditional crop improvement,” they were told. Yet, even the traditional improvement of domesticated organisms occasionally has led to some problems. Deliberate attempts to create better agricultural organisms have resulted in Africanized bees, the southern corn leaf blight epidemic of 1970, and Europe’s weed beets, all of which have resulted in human hardship. Perhaps the tail end of the elephant is more familiar; nonetheless, it may still be dangerous.

The educational trend in the last decades of the 20th century has been to build specialists. Specialists are particularly good at disassembling a system and gathering a lot of information about a tiny part of the system. With the accumulation of knowledge may come excessive pride, hubris. “The gene and its products are well characterized,” is commonly heard in response to fears that a transgene may have unexpected effects.

But the reductionist approach has its limits. For example, the allele that causes albinism in humans prevents the creation of a well-characterized biochemical end product, melanin. Because melanin is the compound that accounts for much of our coloration, it is not surprising that homozyogous individuals have white skin and white hair. However, homozygous individuals have characteristics that might not be anticipated without understanding the whole organism: skin roughness, high frequency of skin cancer, nearsightedness, structural abnormalities of the eye, and hearing problems (Mange and Mange 1990).

The solutions to the problems of the 21st century will come from generalists, especially those who are able to integrate the knowledge of diverse specialists, those who are able to bring together specialists and get them to communicate, those who are able to listen and be mindful. These are people who accumulate wisdom, including the realization that a single person CANNOT know all of the interconnections of a system. Thus, with wisdom may come humility.

Gordon Conway is one of those generalists. He has had the courage to feel the different parts of the elephant that is crop biotechnology. The form that emerges is that crop biotechnology is a complicated tool. Just as a hammer can be used to build a house, so can it be used to bash out someone’s brain. Conway realizes that one cannot disengage the effects of a tool from its context. Genetically engineered crops are connected to a global economy, to the biosphere’s cycling of water and nutrients, to human tradition and culture, to their wild relatives by the potential to interbreed. His recognition of that interconnectedness is the start of solutions to problems.

Conway’s (2000) suggestions for a “New way of talking and reaching decisions” contain ethical principles for anyone involved in the so-called GMO controversy. It is easy for ecologists, population geneticists, and environmentalists to feel smug because we work on a different level than molecular biologists. But we have been raised as specialists, too. I have been reminded repeatedly of my specialization (and ignorance), when a colleague corrects me on an issue of molecular genetics, transformation, plant development, or crop biology. The only way to start getting at the answers is to do as Conway suggests, “admit that you do not have all the answers.”


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a comment, follow this link. To read comments already accepted, follow this link.


The thoughts presented here are refined from a presentation given at a forum “Environmental Benefits and Sustainable Agriculture through Biotechnology” at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., USA, 10-11 November 1999. The ideas benefited from suggestions from Margaret Dentine and Tracy Kahn.


Conway, G. 2000. Genetically modified crops: risks and promise. Conservation Ecology 4(1): 2. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol4/iss1/art2/

Mange, A. P., and E. J. Mange. 1990. Genetics: human aspects. Second edition. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA.

Address of Correspondent:
Norman Ellstrand
Department of Botany and Plant Sciences
University of California
Riverside, CA 92521-0124 USA
Phone: (909)787-4194
Fax: (909)787-4437

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