4 July 2013

Good science, bad science, and the battle for biotech crops

In the near future, food made from genetically engineered (GE) crops will be labeled, not because it will allow worried consumers to avoid it, but because it will be the ethical choice at the grocery store. Although the first generation of GE crops mainly focused on improving production, with such enhanced traits as resistance to insects and herbicide tolerance, the next generation of genetically engineered crops will be even better for the environment and farm workers, requiring fewer harmful and expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and will have nutritional enhancements that will directly benefit consumers and particularly the poorest of the poor in food insecure countries.

Voluntary labeling: this soy sauce is clearly labeled as being made from soybeans that include genetically engineered varieties.

The GE crop varieties of the near future will be adapted to local climate and soil conditions, as well as local tastes and cultural idiosyncrasies. As such, the new generation won’t solely be developed by large multinational corporations like Monsanto, but also by local universities and small family-run businesses, and a significant proportion of these biotech crops will be cultivated using organic farming practices.  With public mistrust of biotechnology at an all-time high, these predictions seem far-fetched. Fortunately, scientists and government agencies worldwide are very aware of an urgent need for public education, which can ameliorate the spread of misinformation and fearmongering threatening one of the greatest tools for achieving the UN Millennium Development Goal of sustainably feeding a growing global population.

Improving the nutritional quality of crops is a Millennium Development Goal. These conventionally bred orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are higher in vitamin A than non-orange fleshed varieties. (Picture credit: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

The public perception is that there is raging controversy in scientific circles on the safety and utility of GE crops, with researchers arguing at the lab bench and in the field, and scientists locked in furious debate with one another at scientific conferences. However, this is simply not true. There is overwhelming scientific consensus on this issue (as there is on climate change, evolution, and the benefits of vaccination). Those who claim there is insufficient research on this topic are simply wrong. Many hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers have been published on many aspects relating to the safety of transgenic crops. The nonprofit GENERA (Genetic Engineering Risk Atlas) project curates the most extensive and complete database of these.  The vast majority of these studies (and I mean 99.9% of these, not just 51%) all come to the same conclusion: the risks to human health from consuming food made from GE crops are no different than those from consuming their conventional, non-GE equivalents.

This seems like an odd way of saying GE crops are safe, but the fact is that the very act of eating anything carries a small amount of risk anyway. Apart from the risk of food-borne bacterial infection (which can happen even with organic produce), we forget that plants don’t really want to be eaten: potatoes naturally produce a toxic alkaloid called solanine to protect themselves; celery naturally produces psoralens, a type of chemical that can cause severe skin burns; unless cassava, a staple crop for much of Africa, is properly prepared, it can lead to cyanide poisoning; and even seemingly innocuous red kidney beans are always served cooked, to deactivate a naturally produced protein called phytohaemagglutinin which causes severe vomiting and diarrhea. Saying something is good for you simply because it’s natural is a fallacy: arsenic is natural and that’s clearly not something anyone wishes to put in their body. Using biotechnology is just one way we can ensure our crops produce more of the nutritional molecules we need, and less of the harmful ones we don’t.

One way that cassava can be improved for human consumption is by reducing the amount of linamarin, a naturally occurring sugar that  releases hydrogen cyanide when broken down by the digestive system. (Picture credit: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

The leading scientific agencies, including the AAAS, the National Academies of the United States, the European Food Safety Authority, and the WHO have issued very clear statements emphasizing the scientific consensus on genetically engineered crops: the process of genetic engineering poses no threat to human health, and farming of biotech crops can lead to great economic and environmental benefits. Despite this comprehensive body of knowledge (and through manipulation by the anti-GMO movement), the media has focused undue attention on a very small number of studies that claim the opposite of the scientific consensus on the risks GE crops pose to human health and the environment. This is likely in an effort to ensure journalistic balance; however, there really aren’t two sides to the science here. Almost invariably, these contrary studies are exercises in bad science published in low-ranking journals by a few dissident scientists, often with conflicts of interest. Giving this much exposure to bad science can be downright dangerous: in the case of AIDS denialism, the South African government’s adoption of the fringe cost many human lives.

Thankfully, the South African government has since changed its stance on antiretroviral therapy, but the German government has still not approved the planting of MON810 corn (engineered with a bacterial protein that prevents caterpillars from feeding on the plants, diminishing the need for harmful chemical pesticides) despite the fact that the vast majority of evidence suggests it poses no danger to non-target organisms. These regulatory decisions were based on a very small number of poorly conceived or inconclusive studies that could not subsequently be duplicated by other laboratories, ignoring the vast number of scientifically rigorous studies that indicate that these crops are harmless to other insects.

A large body of scientific evidence indicates that corn engineered to be resistant to insects is safe for human consumption.

Again, a few insubstantial bits of data cannot sufficiently contradict a very large body of scientific knowledge and do not constitute “scientific controversy”. Nevertheless, and quite understandably, laypeople react emotionally to this perceived controversy, because it is presented to them as whistleblowing by the news sources and environmental and health blogs they trust. This makes otherwise rational people don honeybee costumes and pretend to die in public spaces in protest of GE crops (even though the use of engineered crops instead of pesticides increases biodiversity, and there is mounting evidence that a combination of pathogens and conventional pesticides may be what’s truly decimating bee populations). People are protesting GE crops because they feel they have been informed and need to be upset about something, when what they should be upset about is how scientific ignorance is being employed as leverage by special interest groups to divert attention and energy away from what we really need to be doing to fix the world’s food and agriculture systems.

At the March Against Monsanto held on the 25th of May 2013 in various cities across the world, anti-GMO protesters held up images of rats covered in large cancerous tumors, ostensibly caused by feeding on GE corn. The images came from a 2012 paper by Gilles-Eric Séralini of CRIIGEN, an anti-GMO group, and published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology. It purported to provide evidence that consuming corn engineered with a bacterial protein conferring tolerance to the herbicide glyphosate (sold by Monsanto under the trade name Roundup) causes cancer.  There were several serious problems with the study, from bizarre statistical manipulation of the data, to insufficient numbers of control rats. But the most glaring shortcoming was the fact that none of those gruesome images of rats were accompanied by images of healthy control rats. This is because the control rats (fed a non-genetically engineered diet) also developed tumors: the strain of rat used in the study is used to study chemotherapy drugs, and were bred to naturally develop tumors at a very high incidence. They were entirely inappropriate for this kind of study, and none of the data could be used to make the claims they tried to make. The Séralini paper has now been thoroughly discredited by several scientists, science journalists and scientific agencies. The whole fiasco is such a classic example of bad science that it now even has its own Wikipedia entry. However, a 2013 paper by Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff, published curiously enough in the small physics journal Entropy (note, not a journal focusing on biology), again spurred alarming news reports. This pseudoscientific paper claimed that Roundup is the cause of a mindboggling array of diseases, including Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and autism. However, the Entropy paper was written by authors who aren’t even biologists at all, documented no actual experiments, and in fact cited Séralini’s discredited study as a reference for a number of arguments they made. Again, this paper was adequately debunked by scientists and journalists. Dr Ariel Poliandri of the Cancer Division at Imperial College London promptly compiled a useful guide to detecting bogus research: in short, important research is published in important journals. If it’s not, be wary. It’s interesting to note that both these papers were published in low-tier pay-to-play journals with inadequate peer review. If this was really the solid, groundbreaking work it claimed to be, it would have been published in one of the big science journals, whether open-access or not. This stuff all looks and sounds very “sciencey”, but is not real science, and not only damages the good reputation of science in the public eye, but is now having a dangerous influence on governmental policy on GE crops all across the globe, with the governments of countries like Russia and Kenya basing much of their biotech policy on the little trickle of bad science, instead of the large volume of good science.

Even though it has been thoroughly discredited, anti-GMO protesters still use images from the infamous Séralini study. (Picture credit: Bill Baker.)

In an idealized world uncoloured by political agenda, the endeavours of science are neutral. Most scientists you’ll talk to about genetic engineering are in fact neither opponents nor proponents of GE crops: they only care about what the scientific evidence says. If the sum total of the scientific evidence said otherwise, the scientific consensus would change. (Disclosure: I am a plant scientist who studies the genes of cereals. I’m neither involved in the production of transgenic crops, nor am I funded by any companies that are.) It is not the job of scientists to increase public acceptance of genetic engineering, it is the job of scientists to increase public trust in and understanding of the scientific data: in this case the data overwhelmingly says that GE crops are safe. But perhaps where science needs most help is in explaining itself. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences are impenetrable to the public, but Dr. Oz gets beamed into every home with a friendly smile and a whole dose of hokum. Everyone should have a basic level of scientific literacy, so that we can stop expending so much energy on fighting misconceptions about science. Recently British environmentalist Mark Lynas, who helped start the anti-GMO movement in the 1990s, apologized for demonizing agricultural biotechnology and feeding into anti-GMO conspiracy theories, and some influential bloggers are also starting to let go of old, misinformed points of view. My hope is that sometime soon everyone will agree that biotech crops, like organic farming practices, are part of a larger set of really useful tools for sustainable agriculture.

10 June 2013

Embrace the biotech in your basket

Scientists are very good at explaining what it is they do—to other scientists. However, they are notoriously bad at explaining their research to the general public. Science is currently facing a PR crisis, as evidenced by polarizing media coverage of such topics as climate change, vaccinations, and genetically engineered crops. Growing public mistrust of agricultural biotechnology is especially disconcerting. During Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution of the 20th century, agronomists developed small-growing but high-yielding varieties of the world’s staple crops. These advancements in crop science are widely celebrated for saving billions of people from starvation. But in the 21st century, we’ve shifted from such public reverence for agricultural science to consumer rage and bewilderment in the produce aisle. How did we get here?

Rice plants in tissue culture. (picture credit: IRRI)

In doing your own research on a topic like genetically modified organisms (GMOs), you’ll come across online articles to support almost any claim. Figuring out whether those claims are made with authority and are based on sound science can be tricky. Just because something uses a lot of jargon and sounds ‘sciencey’, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is. Genetically engineered (GE) crops are some of the most intensively tested food we’ve got. The overwhelming scientific consensus from many large-scale studies published in leading peer-reviewed scientific research journals says that GE food crops pose no additional risk to human health and do not have nutritional profiles different from those of conventional crops. Entire nations of people have been eating them for a long time now, with absolutely no health problems that can be attributed to GE technology. Studies promoted by anti-GMO campaigners as supposed evidence of the harmful effects of consuming GMOs on our bodies are taken out of the context of the larger scientific consensus, and most often consist of dubious, inadequately reviewed research. Dissidents insist on touting badly designed junk science studies, attempting to generate the perception that there is disagreement in the scientific community, when this is not the case. The media, in a misguided attempt at reporting with balance, tries to give equal weight to both sides of the story. However, just like the scientific consensus on the theory of gravity, there really is no other side to the story—there is only gravity.

(picture credit: Oregon Dept. of Agriculture)

With the recent rejection of California Proposition 37, labeling of food made from GE crops has gained more media coverage worldwide. Merely labeling a product “contains GMOs” makes it seem like a warning of some sort, and in fact does not allow a consumer to make an informed choice at all.  It’s simple scaremongering, and a wasted opportunity to educate. As a consumer, I might want to know that a product is made from a crop engineered to use less chemical fertilizer bad for the environment, or to require less pesticide that might be harmful to farm workers. Food labeling helps us all make informed decisions, and it’s how that labeling is done that makes the difference.

(picture credit: Oregon Dept. of Agriculture)

We need to grow more and better food on less suitable land under increasingly variable climatic conditions. The best way to ensure future world food security is to combine biotechnology with sustainable agricultural practices. Subsistence farmers, growing crops like cassava and sorghum, stand to gain the most as scientific research expands beyond industrial commodity crops like maize and soybeans. Current and future research efforts will focus on engineering traits of direct benefit to the end consumer, delivering more nutrients to those suffering from hidden hunger, such as Golden Rice, engineered to help alleviate vitamin A deficiency.
Because of scientific progress, we are living healthier, longer lives than ever before in the history of our species. So embrace the biotechnology in your basket, because scientific agriculture is the greatest tool for sustainable living on this planet into the 21st century and beyond.

18 August 2012

Gone are the glory days of the glory pea

Phillip Island, as seen from Norfolk Island. Problems with soil erosion persist to this day, as evidenced by the red patches free of vegetation.

In the southern Pacific Ocean, somewhere between Australia and New Zealand, lies Norfolk Island. In 1774, the HMS Resolution brought Captain James Cook to its shores, as part of his great voyage to discover the mythical southern continent Terra Australis. Cook and his men explored Norfolk island and two smaller offshore islands, Nepean and Phillip. Uninhabited and with sheer sea cliffs, Phillip Island in particular appeared lush, with dense scrub and forest growing in its rich volcanic soil. What secret wonders of nature were hidden in its valleys?

Gone: the glory pea (Streblorrhiza speciosa).
Austrian botanist Ferdinand Bauer visited Phillip Island (named in 1788 for Arthur Phillip, first Governor of New South Wales) in 1804 on a collecting trip. One of the plants he discovered was a striking new member of the bean family. So unique was this plant that, upon receipt of Bauer's herbarium specimen back in Vienna, botanist Stephan Endlicher gave it its own genus, naming it Streblorrhiza speciosa. It quickly acquired the common name of glory pea: a scrambling woody vine, producing cascades of gorgeous pink blossoms. This was a plant that deserved to be grown by gardeners everywhere. Once introduced in Europe, the glory pea was an instant hit. Every nobleman with a conservatory wanted one. However, the glory pea proved quite difficult to grow well. Most gardeners kept it in pots in greenhouses. With its roots restricted by container gardening, instead of the deep volcanic earth of its island home, the glory pea flowered erratically. It gained a reputation as being intractable, and began to fall out of vogue.Why dedicate greenhouse space to something that promises a spectacle, but that you cannot get to flower? Within fifty years, no one was cultivating it any more. Which was such a big mistake.

Back on Phillip Island, something was going disastrously wrong. On his 1830 collecting trip there, English explorer Allan Cunningham noted that the "vegetation was thin on top and there was severe gullying in the valleys". This was neither the lush island discovered by Cook, nor that so gleefully explored by Bauer. Naturally, there's an anthropological component to the decline of the island. For you see, in 1788 goats and pigs were introduced as food for the newly established penal colony on Norfolk Island. Rabbits soon followed, precipitating ecological disaster. Pretty soon, the overgrazing of Phillip Island became so severe that all the goats and pigs died from starvation. As can be seen from the photo above, the island is pretty much a desert to this day, plagued by soil erosion. It took until 1986 just to eradicate all the rabbits, and projects are currently underway to remove some introduced plant species as well. The long term goal is to restore the natural vegetation of Phillip Island to its former glory. But, tragically, without the glory pea. Researchers have made several attempts to find surviving specimens of Streblorrhiza speciosa still hidden in the valleys of Phillip Island, but to no avail—the glory pea is listed as extinct on the IUCN Red List. The botanical illustration above and a handful of dried herbarium specimens are all that remain now.

If only those gardeners had known the value of ex situ conservation back then. If only they had realized that they could have saved the glory pea from oblivion. But perhaps, within the ancient walls of a palace garden outside of Vienna, or in the conservatory of a crumbling English manor house, someone had thought, Oh, might as well, and kept a specimen of the glory pea alive all these years. Hope lies dormant, like seeds buried deep in volcanic soil.

Picture credits:
Boat with Phillip Island in background by Steve Daggar
Plate of Streblorrhiza speciosa by Miss Drake in Lindley (1841)

12 August 2012

The mace pagoda: phoenix of the Cape

Adderley Street Flower Market, early 20th century.

One morning in 1847, German botanist Karl Zeyher stopped at Cape Town's Adderley Street Flower Market, like he often did. The flower sellers, as colourful as their wares, were only too eager to show him their latest finds, obtained on long and often dangerous expeditions into the rugged Cape Mountains. Among the bunches of proteas and irises blooming in deep buckets of water, Zeyher noticed something unusual, new. Well, new to science.

Marsh rose (Orothamnus zeyheri).
Slender, woody stems covered in an armour of velvety leaves supported nodding, crimson blooms: it was the marsh rose. He managed to coax the secret of this splendid plant's location from the seller, who told Zeyher he had collected it from the mountainsides above what is now Pringle Bay. In due course, Zeyher located the plant and sent specimens back to Europe. Fellow German botanist, Karl Pappe, gave it the scientific epithet Orothamnus zeyheri, after his colleague. One could argue that it would have been more fitting to name the marsh rose for its original discoverer, but this was colonial South Africa, and botanists of colour, no matter how intrepid, were unlikely to see their names recorded in the annals of history. However, this wouldn't be the last time the flower merchants of Adderley Street would bring something special to the attention of science.

The mountains of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve.

T.P. Stokoe amongst the marsh roses.
In 1911, Thomas Pearson Stokoe left his job and his wife and daughter behind in Sunderland, England, got on a ship, and arrived in Cape Town to start a new life as a lithographer for the Cape Times. Inevitably, he became enamoured of the wild places, exploring the mountains to look for new species whenever he could. Upon exploring the fynbos of the Cape Peninsula for the first time, he remarked, "I hesitated to trespass over what I thought was a private garden. Eventually I ventured forward and was thrilled at the sight of so much floral beauty." His desire to seek out novel plants would end up driving him into the hidden peaks and secret valleys of the Kogelberg, clear on the other side of False Bay. And what a place it is. The Kogelberg (Dutch for Cannonball Mountain) towers 1,265 m above the ocean, its ring of severe cliffs simply studded with unique plants. Today, the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is home to some 1,600 plant species, of which about 150 are totally endemic to this part of the Cape Floristic Kingdom. The core 320 square kilometres of the reserve harbour more species richness than any other place on Earth of a similar size, including the dense rain forests of the tropics. It's enough to give heart palpitations to any biodiversity fan. Almost every valley and mountainside supports something unique that lives there and only there. Some plants have an entire range limited to a few square metres on a single mountain slope. This place is precious. This place is delicate. This place is magical. Even the genus Protea (the very quintessence of the fynbos biome) is named after Proteus, the ancient shape-shifting sea god. A place of fog and fire, it's easy to imagine the Kogelberg as the home of mythological creatures.

Mimetes stokoei type specimen.
In February 1922, somewhere in the Kogelberg range, Stokoe came across a single specimen of a very unusual and beautiful plant, a tall and elegant member of the protea family. He collected flowering branches as herbarium specimens and sent them to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where it was described and named Mimetes stokoei, in his honour. Today, this plant is commonly known as the "mace pagoda". However, Stokoe himself always referred to it as his "golden protea". Whatever you'd prefer to call it, something weird was going on. Why was there only one plant on that hillside? Stokoe felt the mysterious and inaccessible Kogelberg, windswept, often wrapped in dense fog, calling out to him. He had to find another specimen. Subsequent collecting trips proved fruitless: it was like his golden protea had never existed at all. On 4 July 1925, Stokoe was perusing the wild flowers sold by the vendors in Adderley Street, when an old friend caught his eye. You guessed it: plunged into a deep bucket of water were the tall and elegant flowering stems of Mimetes stokoei. Stokoe bought the branches from the seller and proceeded to question her about their origins. The seller was less than forthcoming with the information: collecting sites were closely guarded secrets for people whose entire livelihoods depended on bringing the most exotic specimens to Adderley Street. Stokoe was relentless however, and after much persuasion, a deal was struck. With the merchant's supplier as his expert guide, Stokoe set off on an expedition into the Kogelberg range. In due course, the flower picker revealed to him a small stand of Mimetes stokoei, rising elegantly above the other vegetation. It was clear the mace pagoda was scarce; all told, Stokoe and his flower seller friends could only locate ten plants, in two small populations. What was more worrying, though, was that they were all old, mature plants, not seedlings. And it seemed that the plants were in trouble. Senescing. Withering. Dying. By 1959, Mimetes stokoei was listed as extinct.

CapeNature huts in the high valley of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve.

Marie Vogts, doyenne of proteas.
The overexploitation of the Cape's vulnerable flora became a growing concern after World War II, and the Adderley Street merchants were no longer allowed to collect flowers from the wild outside of a stringent permit system. In the 1960s, the South African government endorsed active research in the horticultural potential of fynbos, and proteas in particular. Instrumental in this movement towards horticulture as a form of conservation was Marie Vogts. Starting as a lecturer in Botany at the Paarl Teachers' College, she has written seminal works on growing proteas as garden plants and with her expertise and passion for Cape flora has done more to popularize fynbos than anyone. In 1960, she was appointed as a senior professional officer by the Department of Agriculture, and initiated plans for Oudebosch, an exciting experimental protea farm. It would be a permanent collection of horticulturally important species, and also a place of active scientific research. Vogts wanted to conduct transplant experiments: would proteas transplanted from the Cape Peninsula still flower at their regular time, or adapt to the flowering rhythms of their new home? In 1965, Vogts started developing Oudebosch in the high valley of the Palmiet River, deep in the Kogelberg. So how does one start a garden if there's already natural vegetation growing on the land, you may ask? In this case, the vegetation around the plots was clear-cut. Sometimes, however, it's easier just to burn it.

The solitary seedling, 1967.
In 1966, a weird weed sprouted in the Oudebosch nursery, right at the edge of a planting hole. Researchers realized with shock what it was: Mimetes stokoei, resurrected. The only mace pagoda in the entire world. The plant was beyond precious: here was an opportunity to obtain some seed, to save the species. A little protective wooden tripod was constructed around the seedling. This was a mistake. The Kogelberg is known for capricious weather: one morning after a fierce storm, the mace pagoda was found with a broken stem; high winds had snapped it against the very structure put up to protect it. It never even had a chance to flower. The year was 1969, and Mimetes stokoei was declared extinct all over again. So put yourself in Marie's shoes: you've managed to site your experimental farm right on top of the original location of the mace pagoda, all because the old botanists kept that location secret in their own attempt at conservation; clearing and trampling the site during construction of the nursery possibly doomed any other seedlings to oblivion; and when one still managed to sprout against the odds, it dies on your watch. You have such great passion for proteas and for nature conservation, yet in your preservation attempts you inadvertently cause the loss of the rarest one of all. Now: what do you feel? A terrible burden of responsibility? I certainly would, and I think Marie did, or at least accepted the criticism of her peers with good grace. In 1973, a new protea breeding program was started at Tygerhoek in the Overberg, 150 km from Cape Town, and the Oudebosch protea collection was moved there. The Kogelberg was transferred from the Department of Forestry to CapeNature in 1987 and declared a nature reserve. Marie Vogts passed away in 1998, one year before a devastating fire swept the Kogelberg. The fire that absolved her.

The mace pagoda, Mimetes stokoei, in bloom in the Kogelberg in March 2009.

The March 2011 fire creeping across the Kogelberg.
In December 1999, the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve was engulfed in flames. Four days of hot dry winds fanned runaway blazes, resulting in more than half of the reserve being burnt to ash. However, fynbos has evolved to deal with fire, and exploit its capacity for clearing space and returning nutrients to the soil. Previous wildfires had occurred during winter; the summer monster of 1999 was much hotter. That made all the difference. For you see, Mimetes stokoei is a botanical phoenix, rising anew from its own ashes. It grows very rapidly, towering above the other fynbos, but it has a very short lifespan, perhaps ten years at most. This might explain why Stokoe saw plants that looked past their prime, back in the 1920s. This remarkable plant instead relies on its seedbank, buried in the earth by ants, to start a new generation of plants from scratch. It's as good as if your parents had to die before you could be born (for this analogy to work, pretend that humans lay eggs, okay?) and every generation lived out their entire lives in isolation. What would be a very strange life cycle for us makes sense for plants rooted to a landscape prone to frequent fires. The seeds of the mace pagoda have been lying dormant all this time, until a fire hot enough to awaken them arrived. The amazing thing is that the locality where Mimetes stokoei grows had likely not seen a superhot fire since the early 20th century. Disturbing the soil at Oudebosch during construction of the experimental farm only enabled one seedling to sprout; subsequent controlled burns of the site were never hot enough to awaken any others. But many dormant seeds were still present, under Marie Vogts' nursery, under her feet, waiting patiently. If only she'd known.

In January 2001, reserve manager Mark Johns, out on a burn recovery inspection, noticed 24 unusual silver-leaved plants amongst the lush green post-fire vegetation of a hillside: Mimetes stokoei, the phoenix of the Cape, resurrected by the 1999 fire. The pagodas were growing strongly, rapidly: the first flowering occurred in 2004, with peak flowering reached in 2007. By 2009, the population already seemed to be in decline again, with only five plants left alive. With so much human activity, the incidence of fire in the Cape Floral Kingdom is on the rise. This is not a good thing. Fynbos species don't all deal well with frequent fires, most species instead thriving on a single hot inferno every 15 years or so. On 17 March 2011, a fire started alongside the road to the Bot River Estuary. Since the coastal sand flats are heavily infested with alien plants now, the fire rapidly blazed out of control, spreading into the high valleys of the Kogelberg. The tiny mace pagoda population got torched, and the regal flowers seen in 2009 are gone. For now: we know enough about the biology of Mimetes stokoei now not to call it extinct just because it is cycling between generations. The hottest flames will summon the fynbos phoenix.

Picture credits:
Kogelberg by FrikH
Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve by Ralph Pina
Oudebosch seedling by Fred Kruger
Mimetes stokoei, March 2009 by Nigel Forshaw
2011 Kogelberg fire by Ralph Pina

For much of the research in this story I am deeply indebted to the work of Peter Slingsby and Amida Johns. If you want to know more, purchase their scintillating and wonderfully illustrated biography of T.P. Stokoe here.