John Hagelin, Ph.D., is a most interesting man.
The Harvard-educated quantum physicist-cum-public policy expert has conducted high-level research at both the European Center for Particle Physics and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. His bio states that, “His scientific contributions in the fields of electroweak unification, grand unification, super-symmetry and cosmology include some of the most cited references in the physical sciences.”
I don’t even know what all that means, but it’s a lot more impressive than anything appearing on my resume.
Hagelin is currently the director of the Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy, an Iowa-based organization he founded to “identify, scientifically evaluate, and implement proven, prevention-oriented, forward-looking solutions to critical national and global problems,” according to the group’s website.
In 2003, Hagelin advocated a unique solution to the war in Iraq, what he called “a non-military approach to peace-creation,” based on the idea that chaos and disorder in any society can be calmed by using large groups of peace-creating experts trained in “scientifically verified meditation techniques.” That approach, he sadly noted in newspaper editorials published at the time, has been “largely ignored by the media, the government and the military.”
Crazy? Maybe, but Hagelin’s argument that “war doesn’t create peace; war creates chaos, social disruption and generations of animosity” is tough to dispute.
The basics of biotech
More to the point for today’s livestock producers and farmers, however, is Hagelin’s viewpoint on the use of biotechnology. Even as bitter debate among policymakers continues and costly litigation initiated by anti-GMO activists slows its implementation, the science of genetic engineering continues to progress, albeit slower and with less dramatic results in terms of agricultural productivity than even its staunchest believers acknowledge.
Personally, I’ve always argued that biotechnology, properly applied, holds great potential for being part of the solution to global hunger and food shortages; that genetic engineering is still in its infancy, scientifically speaking, and revolutionary gains cannot realistically be expected less than two decades after plant scientists have fully engaged in the basic research needed to develop crops utilizing the complex genetic manipulations needed to create such traits as drought tolerance.
That perspective hasn’t changed, but I must be honest: After years of listening to both sides of the debate, from respected scientists who make compelling arguments, to well-meaning activists, whose fears are well-founded, Hagelin’s views on the subject have made me reconsider my position.
His argument is based on the Unified Field theory—“The most fundamental and powerful level of Nature’s dynamics,” as he calls it, based on the idea that the complex and interrelated dynamics observed in the sub-atomic realm of particle physics is the template for macro developments in the more visible world, ie, plant science.
Here’s what he says about applying the Unified Field theory to biotechnology: “I am deeply concerned that life scientists are implementing bioengineering technologies without adequately understanding the lessons we have learned from the physical sciences. One of the key revelations of modern physics is that phenomena unfold in a far less linear and predictable fashion than 18th and 19th century thinkers assumed. DNA is a complex, nonlinear system and splicing foreign genes into the DNA of a food-yielding organism can cause unpredictable side effects that could harm the health of the human consumer.”
In a way, that’s basically the “precautionary principle” dressed up in scientific clothing. Most Americans don’t subscribe to the idea that new innovations must first be proven safe with anywhere near the same passion as many Europeans do. And to be fair, genetic engineering as applied to the commodity food crops on which we depend—corn and soybeans, primarily—has yet to produce any tangible health effects that would warrant calling a halt to the biotech applications already in place and others currently under development.
But as Hagelin notes, “The refusal to recognize the risks of the unintended and essentially unpredictable negative side effects [of GMO crops] is just plain bad science. It is astounding that so many biologists are attempting to impose a paradigm of precise, linear, billiard-ball predictably onto the behavior of DNA, when physics has long since dislodged such a paradigm, and molecular biological research increasingly confirms its inapplicability to the dynamics of genomes.”
That’s a long-winded way of saying that we probably shouldn’t apply simple cause-and-effect predictability to DNA manipulations when they involve what plant scientists call “genetic stacking,” the use of multiple gene insertions to achieve complex, multi-faceted traits, such as tolerance to drought conditions or soil salinity.
Right now, “stacking” remains relatively primitive, limited to GE crops carrying herbicide-and insect-resistant traits. To accomplish the incredible leap in agricultural productivity virtually every expert concedes will be needed to nourish another three billion people this century, biotechnology will need to become far more sophisticated (and successful) than anything we’ve witnessed to date.
Does that mean that Hagelin’s notion that biotechnologists’ faith in the predictability of outcomes is, as he puts it, “not just scientifically unsound; but morally irresponsible?”
I sincerely hope not.
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator