S.D. sent along this article, and when I saw it in my inbox, I knew I'd probably be blogging about it. The reason I knew that was because I remembered my science courses when I was young, all the way from elementary school through high school. I remembered those General Electric science films that were occasionally shown in class. I even remember the balding bespectacled elderly man in a white lab coat that always did the lecture on the film, though I do not recall his name. And two things I remember about those films and textbooks and laboratory hours that were constantly drummed into us was that photosynthesis - the process whereby plants convert sunlight into chemical energy and "food", exhausting oxygen as the waste product of the process renewing the oxygen supply and allowing us to breathe - was (1) the beginning of the food chain for all life on this planet, and (2) that the process itself was somewhat of a mystery. The man grinning from behind his thick spectacles and white lab coat breezily assured us in film after film that the solution to the riddle of photosynthesis might supply a new and virtually limitless energy source, and perhaps solve hunger.
Well, with that in mind, consider this article:
Now, in spite of the headline, the reality is a bit different, and right off the bat, we're in a spot of trouble:
Scientists have solved the structure of one of the key components of photosynthesis, a discovery that could lead to photosynthesis being 'redesigned' to achieve higher yields and meet urgent food security needs.
The study, led by the University of Sheffield and published today in the journal Nature, reveals the structure of cytochrome b6f—the protein complex that significantly influences plant growth via photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis is the foundation of life on Earth providing the food, oxygen and energy that sustains the biosphere and human civilisation.
Using a high-resolution structural model, the team found that the protein complex provides the electrical connection between the two light-powered chlorophyll-proteins (Photosystems I and II) found in the plant cell chloroplast that convert sunlight into chemical energy.(Emphasis added)
Throw in a dash of updated Malthusianism, and voila:
"Previous studies have shown that by manipulating the levels of this complex we can grow bigger and better plants. With the new insights we have obtained from our structure we can hope to rationally redesign photosynthesis in crop plants to achieve the higher yields we urgently need to sustain a projected global population of 9-10 billion by 2050". (Emphasis added)
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for increased crop yields and so on. My problem is again the same as that with GMO's: a new agricultural technology was minted and circulated in the late 1980s, with corporate assurances that a genetically modified plant was "substantially equivalent" to a "natural, un-tinkered-with" plant, except of course that the un-tinkered-with plant couldn't be patented, and hence the GMO version could make you lots of money if you owned the patent on it. It went well for a few years, until the "bad news" started slowly trickling in, which "bad news" I've chronicled on this site in various blogs about GMOs over the years: (1) over the long haul, the yields of GMO per acre fell vis-a-vis their natural counterparts, while the costs of using them over the long haul outstripped that of natural crops; (2) there were rising and growing concerns, matched by independent studies done out from underneath the corporate jackboot, that the associated pesticides and their ingredients were causing a rise in cancer rates both among animal and human populations being fed the GMOs; (3) natural pests adapted faster to the GMOs than scientists could adapt to their adaptation, forcing more use of pesticides, &c &c in a vicious circle; and penultimately, (4) indications started to appear that GMOs were adversely affecting soil conditions. And there was a final problem: in Germany a biophysicist (I believe) did a study of the electromagnetic signatures of both GMO plants and natural plants, and lo and behold, while chemically "substantially equivalent," electromagnetically they are not. To borrow a concept of Dr. Rupert Sheldrake and apply it in a very different contest, their "morphogenetic fields" are quite different. In the German study, the hypothesis is that that difference in the electromagnetic fields of the two is crucial to the nutrition value of the natural plant over the GMO.
Whatever one makes of that speculation, I suspect that the reader already knows where I'm going with this: before we rush to tinker with the process of photosynthesis itself, we had better be very certain that there are no long-term unanticipated environmental and health effects, and that can only be done by very comprehensive and long-term intergenerational testing. Will tweaking photosynthesis have any adverse effects on bees and other pollinators? We don't know. Will it have an effect on the nutrient levels of soil? We don't know. Will it drive up levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? We don't know. And that's another problem, for while Mr. Globaloney lectures the rest of us deplorables about carbon footprints, and those tweaked photosynthesis plants are putting out more and more oxygen, and Mr. Globaloney reduces the human population of oxygen breathers who exhale the carbon dioxide that those plants need for their photosynthesis... well... you get the picture.
See you on the flip side...