On education and basic scientific concepts

My wife and I went to Epcot last weekend. Spaceship Earth has been revamped to use Judi Dench instead of Jeremy Irons (and how many of you remember the Walter Cronkite version?), and is much more engaging and less documentary-like. In addition to getting to spend a few minutes riding a Segway i2, we visited an exhibit in Innoventions called The Great American Farm. While Wikipedia claims that the exhibit is sponsored by the Farm Bureau, our experience seemed to be sponsored by Monsanto or some other proponent of GM-foods.

As we walked up to a dais/featurette with a pair of plants and bugs inside it, a perky young Epcot employee (docent?) bounced over and introduced herself to us. She proceeded to tell us how the plants were potato sprouts and the bugs were Colorado potato beetles. One of the plants was significantly gnarled and chewed, while the other looked almost untouched. As you can guess, the second plant ends up being a Monsanto creation called the New Leaf Superior potato. Long story short, the entire potato is registered as a pesticide with the FDA due to it having pesticides in every cell. Yummy.

We then moved on to a display of Golden rice. But this wasn’t just regular Golden rice (which has increased beta-carotine), this was the newer and significantly more patent-encumbered Golden Rice 2. The docent explained that this version of Golden rice wasn’t in wide use yet, but was an improvement because it not only increased the Vitamin A content, but also increased Iron content and was easier to grow in harsher climates and more plant-hostile soils.

Oh, that sounds ni— wait, what?

I asked the docent how this was possible. That is, if the rice contains more iron, then that iron has to come from somewhere, presumably fertilizer, which negates the goal of being able to farm the stuff in unfriendly soil. Right?

Despite my protestations that the iron has to come from somewhere, the docent stuck to her guns that the plant had iron spliced into the genes themselves. Yeah, she really said that. But, hey, she was a docent, so whatever.

Fast-forward an hour. We’re then on the “Behind the Seeds” tour, which is a 90-minute walking tour of the hydroponic/aeroponic/aquaculture farming done at The Land. (I always love The Land — it’s my favorite attraction at Epcot.) This tour was conducted by a very nice and similarly-ebullient young botanist who had taken the job fresh out of college. We got to a part of the tour where I was able to pose the question to her: what in the world was the docent talking about with the Golden rice and iron?

She tried to tell me the same thing that the docent had said: that iron was spliced in genetically. Seriously. I balked, asserting that the iron has to come from somewhere. She tried to lead my astray by pointing out that plants could be engineered to produce more protein, so why not more iron?

Jigga-what?

A college grad working in bio/botany told me that a plant can spontaneously generate iron.

I did a bit of digging into this, and found an interview with the guy that invented Golden rice, Dr. Ingo Potrykus:

Interviewer: Isn’t it true that golden rice not only contains added iron but has been engineered to make the iron already present in rice more readily absorbed by the human body? […]
Potrykus: This is true […] However, the golden rice we can currently give out has only beta-carotene. For the iron traits we again first have to settle the [licensing problems].

Slogging through the bibliographies and research papers on several of the pages on goldenrice.org yielded interesting results, but everything still points to the common-sense solution that should be apparent to anyone that’s taken high-school-level biology and chemistry classes: the iron isn’t generated via nuclear reaction inside the plant (except maybe for Chernobyl Rice), but absorbed into the plant from the roots.

It makes me grind my teeth.

College grads with biology degrees that think plants generate iron via nuclear reactions or magic are like college grads with CompSci degrees that can’t write a search or sort algorithm from scratch. How in the world did they ever get their degrees?

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Rick Osborne

I am a web geek who has been doing this sort of thing entirely too long. I rant, I muse, I whine. That is, I am not at all atypical for my breed.