GMO Houseplant Purifies Air – Will People Buy It?

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Robert Pavlis

A recent report about a new genetically modified (GMO) houseplant that purifies the air in your home started me thinking about the social acceptability of GMO plants. The general public is mostly against them and yet 85% of scientists see no problem with them. I think that the public is against GMO for a couple of reasons; they don’t understand them and there is no direct benefit for them.

But what if a GMO hit closer to home? Would the general public accept it, if it provided some real benefits?

The genetically modified houseplant seemed like a perfect candidate to try a little social experiment. Would people use the plant if it removed toxins from the air in their home and there were no possible health or environmental concerns?

pothos ivy or devil’s ivy - can it purify the air in your home?
Pothos ivy or devil’s ivy – GMO houseplant purifies the air in your home

GMO Houseplant Purifies Air

Researchers at the University of Washington have genetically modified a common houseplant, the pothos ivy or devil’s ivy, to remove chloroform and benzene from the air. The modification was accomplished by inserting a rabbit gene into the plant.

Microbe Science for Gardeners Book, by Robert Pavlis

More about the GMO houseplant: GMO Houseplants; Will They Purify the Air in Your Home?

This gene is found in all mammals, including humans. It is active in our livers, where it produces a protein that helps us remove alcohol from our system. Clearly, this gene poses no health risk to us, even if we accidentally ate the plant.

The pothos ivy does not flower in temperate climates so there is zero risk that the genes will be spread through pollen, at least in colder climates.

Two of the main concerns of the general public about GMO plants is that they might be toxic if we eat them and secondly, that the gene can escape into the environment and create supper plants. Neither of these concerns exist with this plant.

Canada has approved the plant for sale.

To be clear;

  1. House plants do almost nothing to clean the air in our homes. This is a common myth which is now completely debunked, but still believed by most people.
  2. This new GMO pothos ivy will also not clean the air in your home, at least not yet. Future generations may be more effective at removing VOCs from the air and may be useful, but even the researchers admit, more work is needed before this plant will do much in the home.

Would Gardeners Buy a GMO Houseplant?

I thought it would be interesting to see if gardeners would buy this plant if it did work. This GMO is unique in that the usual arguments against GMO do not apply in this case. I posted the following question in the Canadian Gardeners Facebook Group.

Would you use GMO houseplants if they purified the air in your home? Why or why not?

Scientists have created a GMO pothos ivy by inserting a rabbit gene into the plant. This increases the plants ability to remove benzene and chloroform from the air. It is not good enough yet to make any difference to the air in your home, but it might work in the future.

They have approval to sell the plant in Canada.

Note: this rabbit gene is the same as a human gene found in our liver.

This was a unique group for several reasons. Most of the members are Canadian and the plant is approved for sale in Canada. This group is also much more science based than most gardening Facebook Groups, and we don’t let too many myths go by without some comment.

50% of the people who replied with a main comment would buy the plant.

I also placed this question in other gardening groups and got about the same response.

No GMO Houseplants – Why?

Reading the comments is quite informative. Most of the NO comments either gave no logical reason, or gave a reason that clearly shows they don’t understand GMOs.

The first comment is typical:

“I think it’s so weird to cross plants and animals. I don’t want to support GMO products at all because the overall side effects are widely unknown and the ones we know about are bad”.

“No, because it’s weird” – is not a very logical reason.

“GMO  – overall side effects are widely unknown” – not true.

“the ones we know about are bad” – not true.

More NO comments:

“Mother Nature knows best, and I do wish that these so called scientists would stop messing with genetics.”

“No GMO monsters”

Some of the no comments were more logical;

“For me the answer is no. But I was thinking about a photograph that I saw of a city in China where everyone was wearing masks because the air quality is so poor. Would these plants save  lives. “

Yes to GMO Houseplants – Why?

In general, people who accept GMO, and in this case would buy the plant, give more logical reasons. This is a good example of a reply from someone who took the time to research the information, and made an informed decision.

“It says on CNN Philippines that this plant has already been approved to sell in Canada, I just Googled it! It also says ALL Mammals carry this gene and it is the same Enzyme that makes our Liver work yes!

and from someone else:

“A gene from a rabbit is not going to hurt anyone”

Discussing a Controversial Topic

The approach people take to discuss a controversial topic is interesting. In most cases, one side uses logic and facts to make their case. The other side uses heart and emotion to make theirs. I have found this true in most discussions.

The topic of abortion is again in the news and it reminds me of a discussion many years ago. My wife and I were in a room of very religious people. Everyone, except us were clearly against abortion and they went on about it for quite some time. They did not make one logical argument, it was all emotional. My wife and I knew enough to stay quiet but we discussed it later with rational, logical arguments – yes we are pro.

GMO, Roundup, use of synthetic fertilizers are just some gardening topics that are hotly contested. One side uses facts and logic, and the other emotion. How many people hate Roundup because Monsanto is perceived to be a bad company? That may in fact be true, but that has nothing to do with the validity of using Roundup. It does not become toxic just because you hate Monsanto.

The other approach that is common is that one side will voice their opinion and maybe present some pseudofacts. The other dispels them with references. The first side ignores the references and presents some different pseudofacts, which are again quashed. It is almost as if they don’t really believe the pseudofacts but are hoping they will persuade someone. After several cycles the first side gives up.

It is rare to see both sides use logic. I think that is one reason, it becomes so hard for people to agree on a topic. Logic does not persuade emotion, and vice versa.

GMO Attitudes are Changing

When I did this experiment, I expected 80% of the people to be unwilling to buy the plant. Finding that 50% are now willing to consider a GMO in their own home is encouraging and good news.

Some researchers have identified the seven or so genes responsible for the good taste in tomatoes. They could create a good tasting GMO tomato in a year, but decided against that due to the public’s dislike for GMOs. Instead they will use rapid gene testing and cross pollination to accomplish the same thing in twice the time. Genetically, we will end up in the same place, but it will sell better. A complete waste of our resources – but one that is necessary.

In large part much of the anti-GMO movement is a function of the anti-science attitudes of today. I don’t really understand this movement since the minute someone gets sick many turn to the scientific chemicals we call drugs.

The reality is that GMO plants will become a major part of our lives in the future. They have the potential to deliver all kinds of beneficial chemicals and drugs into our daily diet. I can see a carrot that prevents cancer in your future.

 

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

24 thoughts on “GMO Houseplant Purifies Air – Will People Buy It?”

  1. Does anybody think about the entire process of evolution, being plants and animals naturally acquire traits and genes that will then pass on for better survival? Has anybody thought about, if we mess with a plants genetics forcefully, not allowing it to naturally grow to what it needs to do(yes eventually all plants will develop more properties for certain things, especially if they are exposed to them) that it can mess up an entire chain of evolution for certain species of plants and animals? If we all naturally evolve in ways that we must, what is the point of forcing nature to evolve? Nature will evolve when nature needs ro evolve, and it will do so slightly over time, so each and everything around it can adjust accordingly and also evolve. Its a string of reactions. This, to me, is a very complicated and complex system for nature, that it just does not settle right that we’d want to alter it in any way. Thanks for the article. Any logical thoughts or new learnings on this are appreciated.

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  2. “Note: this rabbit gene is the same as a human gene found in our liver.” Cant wait for the headlines: Human-Plant hybrid gmo is taking over the world, blame Monsatan!

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  3. Some people will buy it because they’ll fall for anything, or that becomes a fad (e.g., “pet rock”). Some people will not buy it because they’re fearful of anything labeled “GMO.” I’ve always thought the main reason people rejected GMO containing materials was out of concern it might have a deliterious effect on health if consumed — whether legitimate or not.

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  4. I’m a diabetic who is kept alive by insulin made by GMO Bacteria, so maybe I’m biased… I think most opposition to GMOs is inspired by revulsion against big-field roundup-ready Corn-&-Soy agriculture. I’m not sure what the balance is between the killing of the weeds, the increased size of the fields, the reduction in erosion due to reduced tillage, reduced farmer independence from not being allowed to save the seeds, increased production, and reduced habitat for wildlife, but while the GMO character of the crops is only a tiny portion of this system, it seems to be almost the only aspect that is discussed.

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  5. I disagree strongly with your conclusions, but as this seems to be a pro-GMO opinion piece (accompanied by gratuitous insults at any and all anti-GMO positions) I won’t ask you to discuss the facts on both sides. You seem rather unwilling to.

    I’m disappointed because I am almost always impressed by your research and arguments, including the generally fair presentation of multiple perspectives.

    Perhaps the problem here lies with failing to consider that there are more reasons to introduce GMO’s than “saving the world” alone, and there are more ways to protect human health and the environment than just developing ever more complicated magic-bullet techno-solutions. Remember, organic gardening is all about simplifying our systems, stripping out the costly (in every sense) techno-fixes to human-created problems like soil degradation, and deepening our scientific understanding of how the world works when we don’t mess with it, in order to bring about a more sustainable, even symbiotic relationship.

    In many ways, plant and animal breeding are part of this, and GMOs can be part of that. But at the same time, addressing a problem should always begin by asking if the right problem is being solved, or at the right scale.

    GMO’s are too often marketed as a band-aid solution to a critical-care emergency. The most effective way for humans and other organisms to have cleaner air is to stop producing so many VOCs and other air pollutatants – not to develop plants that could pull a tiny fraction of them out, and then use that as an excuse to continue putting out ever more pollution. Too many GMOs in agriculture (like Roundup-ready soybeans in the US) are solutions we don’t need, to problems that can be more effectively solved, and which cause further problems immediately and at the margins, in an ever-widening circle of techno-scientific hubris. Better to just take a step back, solve the original problem, and stop ramifying the whole situation.

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    • I think you missed the point of the post. I did not try to justify the GMO plant. It is also not really a pro GMO piece, although the scientific facts clearly support its use.

      This was about measuring peoples attitudes towards GMO, and the way in which people express their views.

      As far as getting rid of the VOCs – you would need to get rid of most things in your home, including the walls.

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  6. Interesting article, however, perhaps people shouldn’t be in a hurry to turn to science for their medicines as 134,000 US citizens die every year from IATROGENESIS the third cause of death in America. Deaths in other countries due to Pharmaceuticals have not been counted.

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  7. T he gmo’s we hear about usually involve changing a plant so it won’t die when herbicides, to kill competing plants, are used. I believe that different farming practices are needed and are safer, such as no tilling.

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  8. I’m in the UK. Yes, I’d grow GMO houseplants, as long as I like the plants and I can provide suitable conditions.
    1. GMOs are safe and potentially very useful.
    2. Besides, there is little chance of such genes escaping into the wild.
    3. I like houseplants. I grow a lot of them, including Pothos. Air-cleaning would be a great bonus.

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  9. “The pothos ivy does not flower in temperate climates”
    That would be fine, IFF the plants were restricted to temperate climates. Canada does not have many tropical zones.
    But what about the U.S.? The deep South? Ask anyone there how successful the Kudzu experiment was.
    What prevents this plant from crossing state lines (in people’s cars, or through the mail) and ending up in Florida? Or Puerto Rico? Or Mexico?
    It’s nice that Canada is trying to address global problems in air quality; but GMO usage is NOT the only criterion that needs to be addressed.

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    • Since the plant is different only in its ability to clean air, it can only be a benefit it it got out in warm climates. This GMO would not grow any better than the standard plant, and if it can survive in such climates – I am sure it is already there.

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  10. I personally do not trust the companies that create GMO plants – why, because they are only out for the profits (not out to do what is best for our earth and its lifeforms) and too many huge companies have been caught lying about their products or hiding facts. And most of their marketing is just hype.

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      • You are pretty right, I don’t trust most companies. Most will spin things to make their products sound fabulous with no negatives and that is not always so.

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  11. It would not survive outdoors–in Canada. But at some point in time, it could make it into the wild in the tropics where is could survive. What would be the ramifications of that?

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  12. This would be a more thoughtful piece if you included some non-trivial reasons why one might be opposed to even a seemingly harmless/beneficial GMO houseplant. If you can’t think of what some of those reasons might be, then you might want to ask your scientific peers for assistance. What you’ve written here is a straight opinion piece; no “myths” have been debunked, tested, etc. Your blog, your opinion, fine. But “Learn the truth about gardening”? Not at all in this post.

    Reply

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