Monday, December 08, 2014

The GMO Debate of 1720

In Visions of Loveliness, Judith M. Taylor notes that the modern GMO "debate" is nearly identical to one that first popped up in the 1700s, when farmers and flower fanciers began to deliberately cross fertilize breeds of plants and animals to express new variety and improve stock. As The Boston Globe notes,
In a typical gardening store you’ll find hundreds of varieties of flowers, all cultivated for specific traits related to qualities like appearance or resistance to pests. The diversity of flowers available today is partly a result of modern genetic engineering, but also partly the result of a very different kind of breakthrough — one made 200 years ago by a small, dedicated group of horticulturists who dared to challenge religious orthodoxy regarding the creation of new kinds of life.

Cross-breeding flowers by deliberately taking pollen from one and dusting it on the other might seem like basic horticulture, but initially it was seen as a morally radical act. “People were heavily influenced by religion and this feeling that only God could create a new flower,” says Judith M. Taylor, author of the new book, “Visions of Loveliness: Great Flower Breeders from the Past.”...

Cross-breeding had been understood at least as far back as 1720, when an English nurseryman deliberately created a hybrid carnation. That was during “the time when the religious embargo was very strong,” Taylor says, and she explains that the nurseryman spent the rest of his life feeling guilty about having trespassed on God’s exclusive territory.

For a long time, farmers had practiced “selection,” taking seed from the best producing plants to use for next season’s crops. But cross-breeding was seen as more meddlesome and taboo. By the mid 19th century, however, horticulturists were growing more daring. At first they released cross-breeds under fake Latin names, to give the illusion of having discovered the plant in nature as opposed to having manufactured it in their gardens. By 1845, Taylor, a retired neurologist with a second career writing horticultural histories, says it was no long necessary to use such ruses, and the race to create new varieties of flowers was on.

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