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When a woman who spent five years of her life setting up New Zealand’s first trial of genetically engineered onions says there is something wrong with genetic engineering, it makes you stop and think
Dr Elvira Dommisse is a biotechnologist who turned her back on her science career because of her alarm over the direction that science is taking. Today, she’s a professional musician and GE whistle-blower.
She’s also the GE industry’s worst nightmare: someone who knows the subject inside and out, who can argue with scientists in their own language, and who isn’t afraid to stand up for her beliefs—and in public, too.
Elvira didn’t set out to be a campaigner. Neither did she intend working in genetic engineering. “It was happenstance really,” she says. “I wanted to be a plant breeder.”
The daughter of a horticultural family (her parents grew cabbages in Gore), Elvira went to university to study plant science, and moved into biotechnology because that’s where the jobs were.
At first she worked on tissue and cell culture for the Department of Science and Industrial Research, but when that was broken up into Crown Research Institutes, Elvira found herself working for Crop & Food Research.
“You take the naturally occurring DNA in bacteria out, put in all sorts of other things and then slam it into the plants. The plants don’t like it, and it doesn’t stay where it should. It makes them unstable.”
It was 1988, she was doing her PhD, and her major job was setting up the first trial of genetically engineered onions. “The project was to get GE working in onions, getting the transmission process of the DNA to work,” she says. “It was quite a challenge.”
Two to three years into the project, alarm bells started ringing about the ethics and safety of genetic engineering, and Elvira realised that this wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. She finished her PhD, and in 1993 quit and went back to university to pursue her other great love, music.
And that was to be it. Dr Dommisse, scientist, became Elvira, professional flautist with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, piano teacher, wife, mother, gardener and homemaker … Until 2003, when Greenpeace sent out an appeal on genetic engineering. Elvira emailed offering help with submissions, and campaigner Steve Abel jumped at the chance to have her onside. Dr Dommisse was back, and in demand.
“I spoke at a rally in Auckland, then my sister asked me to speak at a public meeting in Gore. I did a radio interview, the Southland Times talked to me, then the New Zealand Herald ran a piece,” she says. “Now I’m asked for interviews or to speak or to write something just about every day.”
In August, Elvira fronted up to ERMA, the Environmental Risk Management Authority, to try to persuade it not to allow Crop & Food Research to hold field trials for onions that have been genetically modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup. Erma has yet to announce its decision.
So what’s wrong with genetic engineering? Elvira believes it is fundamentally flawed. “You take the naturally occurring DNA in bacteria out, put in all sorts of other things and then slam it into the plants,” she says. “The plants don’t like it, and it doesn’t stay where it should. It makes them unstable.”
Elvira says that GE is being sold to the public as the solution to food shortages, when the real reason it is being pushed is because of the huge levels of corporate funding available. “For science to promise things it has no idea it can deliver is really dishonest,” she says.
Going public hasn’t been without personal cost; Elvira says that there are former colleagues who no longer speak to her, but she does not regret what she is doing.
“There are other people, who are still working there, who are afraid to speak out because they don’t want to lose their jobs, but support what I’m doing and tell me to keep going.”