Transgenic crops producing insecticidal proteins derived from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) have proved effective in controlling bollworm and reducing the need for pesticides in cotton crops in China. This study of Bt crop performance at sites across northern China identifies a decrease in aphid pests and a marked increase in the numbers of ladybirds, lacewings and spiders — natural enemies of insect pests — compared with conventional crops. There is also evidence that these predators thrive in neighbouring non-transgenic maize, soyabean and peanut crops. These results suggest that Bt cotton can promote biological control in agricultural ecosystems by decreasing insecticide use and increasing predator populations.
Archive for the 'Agriculture' Category
Tags: Biodiversity, GM-Food, GMO
Henry I. Miller reviews The Food Police, a new book by agricultural economist Jayson Lusk.
(…) he exposes the sophistry of current food movements that seek a return to a romantic but imaginary view of “nature.” He observes that certain journalists, columnists, celebrity chefs, and cookbook authors have conspired to create a distorted, dystopian picture of modern agriculture, promoting the view that “the prescription for our ailments is local, organic, slow, natural, and unprocessed food, along with a healthy dose of new food taxes, subsidies, and regulation.” (Just writing that makes me gag.)
Lusk confronts many of the sacred cows of food activism. One is the silliness of compulsory locavorism – specifically, forcing municipal hospitals, schools and other institutions to source an arbitrary percentage of their food locally. He is especially critical of government subsidies for locally sourced foods: Along with a few other cities, New York doubles the value of food stamps when used at farmer’s markets, which translates to a 100% supplement in the subsidy.
Why, Lusk asks, does locavorism need public subsidies? If local foods are, in fact, tastier (and they may be if you live in the right place at the right time of year), few of us would need to be coerced into eating them. Economics 101 teaches us about the importance of the economies of scale. Because of the efficiency of large, expensive pieces of equipment, the larger a farm grows, the more efficient it tends to become and the lower its per-unit costs of production. Lusk cites data: “One study of Illinois farms showed, for example, that average total costs were 82% lower on soybean farms and 38% lower on corn farms that were larger than nine hundred acres as compared to those that were smaller than three hundred acres. Another study showed that average incremental costs were 85% lower on dairies with herd sizes greater than 2,000 head as compared with dairies with fewer than 30 cows.”
The locavores seem to have missed other important lessons of elementary economics – namely, the benefits of specialization and comparative advantage. Lusk reminds us that “by letting people specialize in those things they are relatively good at making and then trading with others, we’re all richer,” better fed and better off than if we all tried to be self-sufficient. It’s no coincidence that the cultivation of crops such as corn, wheat, citrus and grapes is clustered in certain parts of the country best suited to them.
It may not be intuitively obvious, but buying local isn’t environmentally friendly. Although local foods do travel shorter distances, there is much more to calculating environmental impact than food miles. The vast majority of greenhouse-gas emissions are released near where the commodity is grown. Therefore, it is logical to find the most efficient spots to grow our fruits and vegetables and ship them to other regions. The reality is that on a pound-for-pound basis, collectively we are likely to consume more energy getting ourselves to the supermarket than it takes to deliver a trailer-truckload of Georgia-grown Vidalia onions or Florida oranges to Wisconsin.
Lusk heaps well-deserved ridicule on food elitists like Berkeley restaurateur, activist and elitist Alice Waters, who believes the “idea that we have been indoctrinated to believe, that food should be fast, cheap and easy…is destroying the world.” She believes that for everyone, obtaining and preparing food should be as slow, expensive and hard as it is for the poorest of the poor.
Lusk has an excellent chapter on the baseless, mindless, relentless antagonism of the food police toward genetically engineered plants. He describes the venerable and very long history of the genetic improvement of crop plants. “Ten thousand years ago, wild rice was little more than a stalk of grass,” and it was “only by interfering with Mother Nature did we reach the point where rice can now account for one fifth of the world’s total caloric intake.” He cites the many proven advantages of genetic engineering – the need for far less spraying of chemical pesticides, more efficient and effective control of weeds, higher yields, and environmental benefits.
Lusk reminds us of something that is revealing yet consistently eludes the food police, who have tirelessly opposed genetic engineering: Farmers have embraced genetically engineered crops at a pace that makes them the most rapidly adopted agricultural technology in history because these varieties increase the growers’ financial and food security. The “repeat index” – the percentage of farmers who plant genetically engineered crops again after trying them once – approaches 100%.
Lusk treats us to a delectable irony: The strict (and largely gratuitous) regulation of genetic engineering demanded by the food police actually benefits their worst nemesis, the Great Satan itself – Monsanto. How can that be? As Lusk observes, “Who benefits from stricter regulations that make it harder for new biotech seeds to enter the market? It certainly isn’t the small start-up firms trying to break down entry barriers to get their new invention on the market. Rather, it’s the established behemoths who have teams of lawyer and lobbyists and who can absorb the regulatory costs that keep out their smaller competitors.”
Tags: GE-Food, GM-Food, GMO
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The prestigious London School of Economics (LSE) and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and have entered the GMO discussion with a new report entitled “Feeding the Planet in a Warming World.” With the 39th G-8 summit to be held in Northern Ireland June 17-18, the LSE report is quite timely and significant. The agenda for the upcoming meeting established by Prime Minister David Cameron will continue the discussion of global food security started by President Obama last year at Camp David.
The LSE report offers insight and possible solutions to mitigating the rapidly growing challenge of global food security. Therefore, allow me to quote from the Executive Summary at some length:
“Even in the most ideal circumstances, diffusing existing agricultural technologies and practices is not enough to address the challenges we will face in the coming decades. In light of this, we propose several solutions. In particular, we argue that the critical, game changing solutions for building global agricultural resilience will come only from expanding the innovation and adoption of next-generation crops and agricultural practices. We need new and improved crop varieties that use less water, deliver increased yields and improved nutrition, and have built-in means for repelling insect pests, resisting disease, and withstanding extreme heat, cold, rain and drought. Agriculture will need every existing tool in the box, as well as the development of new ones, including the use of demonstrably safe crops improved through modern biotechnology, commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or transgenics…
Governments worldwide should reform GMO regulations. There is no agricultural policy change that could be adopted with more positive impacts and fewer downsides than drastically reducing regulations applied to crops improved through biotechnology. Foods derived from crops or animals improved through biotechnology have been subjected to more extensive scrutiny than any other agricultural product in human history. Humans and livestock have consumed billions upon billions of meals derived wholly or in part from these improved agricultural varieties for nearly two decades, which have sustained a strong record of safety for humans and the environment. Yet these innovative products, which are developed and brought to market with precise, predictable and safe techniques, are subjected to regulatory obstacles that dwarf those faced by older products and obsolete technologies, some with genuinely problematic legacies.”
University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta invests a lot of unpaid personal energy in science communications. In the volatile comments to Mark's Cornell speech, Kevin gently introduces the working scientist's perspective:
29 April 2013 at 8:31 pm
@Jim Bell . I’m sorry that you have such a negative view on the accomplishments of our human family. To me, I see it the other way around. Like you, I see us as remarkably clever, but I think we are somewhat wise. Where we don’t foresee a problem, we correct it, and learn from it.
The one instrument and technology that has changed the world the most is attached to that keyboard in front of you now. We are now instantly connected, interactive, learning together. Health care has brought our life spans to new highs with amazing new diagnostic methods and improved therapies. I could go on and on about how the human family has been a brilliant steward of technology.
There are bumps in that road. Use of nuclear weapons has been widely decried. Environmental disasters like DDT and others were halted, we learned, we corrected. Rivers once dead are alive. We make decisions with a consciousness that was not there years ago. We have a long way to go, but I think technology helps us be better caretakers of the planet.
There are successes. Nuclear power serves many in a carbon-free manner. DNA-based technologies now help diagnose and treat disease. We put a man on the moon 40 years ago. C’mon, this is good stuff.
We also have unprecedented means to predict and test for adverse effects of our technology. Genetic engineering is hardly a new science. We know more about how it works and its effects than ever. Our ability to detect problems, were they to occur, is amazing.
So unlike you I feel that our track record as a civilization is pretty awesome. Our handle on technology is great and the benefits massively outweigh risks.
Where we fail is in the deployment of technology. How can we use technology to get food, medicines, water, fuels to those that desperately need it? Once that is satisfied, how do we get them connected with educational resources and the best information?
Our job is to ensure that we leave the next 100,000 generations with a healthy, happy, functional world. Health, happiness and function will come from our understanding and implementation of science and technology.
More from Mark's Cornell speech:
(…) And real-world evidence so far gives grounds for optimism. The use of Bt cotton in China has been shown to dramatically improve biodiversity, unlike broad-spectrum insecticides which kill everything, pests and predators alike. The Bt protein only affects the insects which bore into the crop, is entirely safe for us, and has led to insecticide reductions of 60% in China and 40% in India on cotton.
The introduction of Bt brinjal in India, a project which I know people here in Cornell were closely involved in leading, would have dramatically reduced insecticide poisonings associated with that crop too, had the anti-GMO activists in India not succeeded in preventing its use.
India today seems to be perched on a scientific knife-edge, with a vociferous lobby pushing dark-age traditionalism on the brink of permanently capturing the entire political and legal agenda. If they succeed, hundreds of millions of food-insecure Indians will be the losers.
In Africa too there are a multitude of western-funded NGOs who all claim to be mysteriously protecting biodiversity by keeping cultivated plant genetic improvements permanently out of the continent. In many African countries GMOs are subject to the same kind of de-facto ban as is the case in Europe, leaving poorer farmers at the mercy of a changing climate and exhausted soils.
However, a showdown is looming, because some of the most exciting biotechnology initiatives are now based in African countries. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is putting substantial funding into these efforts – such as improved maize for poorer African soils, a project which is looking to get yield increases of 50% even where fertiliser is not available or the farmer cannot afford to buy it.
There’s also the public-private partnership called Water Efficient Maize for Africa, using biotech to produce drought tolerant corn specifically for African smallholders facing the challenges of a changing climate. There’s C4 rice, aiming to improve the photosynthetic capacity of rice and thereby dramatically increase yields.
Another Gates-funded project is based at the John Innes Centre in the UK and aims by 2017 to have cereal crops which fix their own nitrogen available for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. The list goes on: there’s biofortified cooking bananas in East Africa, and cassava fortified with iron, protein and vitamin A in Nigeria and elsewhere.
I haven’t finished! There’s resistance to cassava brown streak disease, which is currently spreading rapidly and threatens the staple crop for two out of every five people in sub-Saharan Africa.
And of course transgenic technology focused on conferring wheat rust resistance at the molecular level to head off the threat of a global pandemic which could otherwise threaten one of humanity’s most important staple foods.
But if the activists have their way, none of these improved seeds will ever leave the laboratory. And this brings me, by way of conclusion, to the essentially authoritarian nature of the anti-GMO project.
All these activists, strikingly few of whom are themselves smallholder farmers in Africa or India, claim to know exactly which seeds developing country farmers should be allowed to plant. Those which are not ideologically approved by self-appointed campaigners should be banned forever.
The irony here is that predominantly left-wing activists, who are supposedly so concerned about corporate power, are determined to deny the right to choose to the most powerless people in the world – subsistence farmers in developing countries. In fact, this is more than an irony – it is a cruelty. And it is a cruelty which must stop, and stop now.
HG Wells is often quoted as saying that civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. The New Yorker writer Michael Specter, who wrote a great book about anti-science movements called ‘Denialism’, updates this, writing that civilisation is a race between innovation and catastrophe.
Protecting our freedoms is hard. Consider freedom of speech, where we must defend the right-to-say-nonsense of charlatans like Vandana Shiva. Here's Mark Lynas:
Speaking of the lunatic fringe, someone else who claims scientific credentials is Vandana Shiva, probably the most prominent Indian anti-biotechnology activist, who incidentally draws much larger audiences than this one to her fiery speeches about the evils of Monsanto and all things new in agriculture. Shiva tweeted after my Oxford speech that me saying that farmers should be free to use GMO crops was like giving rapists the freedom to rape.
That is obscene and offensive, but actually is not the half of it. Let me give you my all-time favourite Vandana Shiva quote, regarding the so-called terminator technology, on which she launches constant blistering attacks without once acknowledging the salient fact that it was never actually developed.
“The danger that the terminator may spread to surrounding food crops or the natural environment is a serious one. The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that could eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans, from the planet”.
Now, I’ve said and done some pretty stupid things in my time, but this one takes some beating. You don’t need the intelligence of a Richard Dawkins or indeed a Charles Darwin to understand that sterility is not a great selective advantage when it comes to reproduction, hence the regular observed failure of sterile couples to breed large numbers of children.
As Shiva’s case so clearly shows, if we reject data-driven empiricism and evidence as the basis for identifying and solving problems, we have nothing left but vacuous ideology and self-referential myth-making. Indeed in many related areas, like nuclear power, the environmental movement has already done great harm to the planet, even as it has rightly helped raise awareness in other areas such as deforestation, pollution and biodiversity loss.
The source of this post is the Mark Lynas speech hosted by the International Programs – College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (50th Anniversary Celebration) , and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Cornell University. Here are Mark's opening remarks:
I think the controversy over GMOs represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century. Millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies on an unprecedentedly global scale.
This matters enormously because these technologies – in particular the various uses of molecular biology to enhance plant breeding potential – are clearly some of our most important tools for addressing food security and future environmental change.
I am a historian, and history surely offers us, from witch trials to eugenics, numerous examples of how when public misunderstanding and superstition becomes widespread on an issue, irrational policymaking is the inevitable consequence, and great damage is done to peoples’ lives as a result.
This is what has happened with the GMOs food scare in Europe, Africa and many other parts of the world. Allowing anti-GMO activists to dictate policymaking on biotechnology is like putting homeopaths in charge of the health service, or asking anti-vaccine campaigners to take the lead in eradicating polio.
I believe the time has now come for everyone with a commitment to the primacy of the scientific method and evidence-based policy-making to decisively reject the anti-GMO conspiracy theory and to work together to begin to undo the damage that it has caused over the last decade and a half.
On a personal note, let me explain why I am standing here saying this. Believe me, I would much prefer to live a quieter life. However, following my apology for my former anti-GMO activism at my Oxford speech in January, I have been subject to a co-ordinated campaign of intimidation and hate, mostly via the internet.
Even when I was at school I didn’t give in to bullies, and at the ripe old age of 40 I am even less inclined to do so now. Moreover, I have been encouraged by emails and other support from globally-renowned scientists who are experts on this issue, and who all said basically the same thing to me: ‘You think you’ve got hatemail? Welcome to my world’.
I think these scientists are the unsung heroes of this saga. They carried on with their important work and tried year after year to fight against the rising tide of misinformation, while people like me were belittling and undermining them at every turn. I won’t mention names, but they know who they are. Some of them are here today, and I would like to give them my deepest thanks.
So for me also there is also a moral dimension to this. The fact that I helped promote unfounded scare stories in the early stages of the anti-GMO movement in the mid 1990s is the reason why I now feel compelled to speak out against them. I have a personal responsibility to help put these myths to rest because I was so complicit in initially promoting them.
My activism, which I wrongly thought of at the time as being ‘environmental’, has done real damage in the world. For me, apologising was therefore only the beginning. I am now convinced that many people have died unnecessarily because of mistakes that we in the environmental movement collectively made in promoting anti-GMO fear. With that on your conscience, saying sorry and then moving on is not enough. Some restitution is in order.
Following a decade and a half of scientific and field research, I think we can now say with very high confidence that the key tenets of the anti-GMO case were not just wrong in points of fact but in large parts the precise opposite of the truth.
This is why I use the term conspiracy theory. Populist ideas about conspiracies do not arise spontaneously in a political and historic vacuum. They result when powerful ideological narratives collide with major world events, rare occasions where even a tiny number of dedicated activists can create a lasting change in public consciousness.
The anti-GMO campaign has also undoubtedly led to unnecessary deaths. The best documented example, which is laid out in detail by Robert Paarlberg in his book ‘Starved for Science’, is the refusal of the Zambian government to allow its starving population to eat imported GMO corn during a severe famine in 2002.
Thousands died because the President of Zambia believed the lies of western environmental groups that genetically modified corn provided by the World Food Programme was somehow poisonous. I have yet to hear an apology from any of the responsible Western groups for their role in this humanitarian atrocity.
Friends of the Earth was one of those responsible, and I note that not only has no apology been forthcoming, but Friends of the Earth Europe is still actively promoting GMO denialism in the EU in a new campaign called Stop the Crop. Check out their Youtube video to see how they have learned nothing in ten years.
Another well-known example is that of Golden Rice, genetically modified to contain high levels of beta carotene in order to compensate for the vitamin A deficiency which kills hundreds of thousands of children around the world and blinds many more every year. One study on the prospects for Golden Rice in India found that the burden of vitamin A deficiency could be reduced by 60%, saving 1.4 million healthy life years.
Here the actions of Greenpeace in forestalling the use of golden rice to address micronutrient deficiencies in children makes them the moral and indeed practical equivalent of the Nigerian mullahs who preached against the polio vaccine – because they were stopping a lifesaving technology solely to flatter their own fanaticism.
Mark proposes that we counter the anti-science, anti-GMO Greenpeace, FOE, UCS positions. To be effective against such rich, trust-funded activists requires a similar level of funding for full time staffing.
Tags: Agriculture, GE-Food, GM-Food, GMO
Jonas Kathage has posted a very approachable survey of Bt resistance issues and strategies at Biology Fortified, Inc. Jonas closes with the following discussion of both economics and resistance management strategies:
Meanwhile, entomologists are working on improving their incomplete understanding the complex mechanisms involved in resistance evolution. Recently published research suggests that pyramiding might not work as well in delaying resistance as previously thought. In the laboratory, scientists selected cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa zea) for resistance against Cry1Ac. They exposed the resistant insects and a susceptible control group to Bt cotton expressing Cry1Ac/Cry2Ab and found that the group resistant to Cry1Ac exhibited a much higher survival rate than the control group, violating the assumption of redundant killing that is crucial to this strategy. So far, despite multiple reported instances of resistant insects, large-scale failure of Bt crops due to evolved resistance has not occurred, but it may come sooner than expected.
Should refuge requirements be expanded?
This research finding is bad news because the potential of pyramided Bt crops might be lower than believed. (Actually, some scientists have been positively surprised at the long delays observed in resistance development.) Let’s assume the results also apply to other Bt pyramids and insect species (there is evidence to the contrary). What should be made of such a scenario? Should larger refuge areas be required?
Before answering that question, it must be recognized that the sustainable application of a particular technology is not a primary goal of farming. A much more important goal is efficiency. Efficiency means getting the most output (e.g. food) from a set of scarce inputs (natural resources, labor, capital). The technologies transforming inputs into outputs, be they biological, chemical, or mechanical, are valuable only insofar as they contribute towards efficiency.
When deciding whether to expand refuge requirements, policymakers must take into account that there is a tradeoff between the size of the refuge area and productivity. If refuge area increases, more plants will get damaged by pests and hence reduce effective yield. The crucial question is whether the benefits of delaying resistance outweigh the costs of these yield losses and other potential drawbacks of refuges such as the need for additional land, sprays, separation costs, and sowing and harvest times. Costs of monitoring compliance with refuge requirements must also be considered, while pyramiding will incur more R&D expenditures. (In some developing countries with larger monitoring costs, refuge requirements may be less efficient also because of natural refuge in small-scale cropping systems.) The point here is not to question whether the optimal refuge requirement is 0%, 20% or 40%, but to realize that there are costs that have to be weighed against benefits. It is possible that an arms race based on adding more Bt genes is more efficient than slowing resistance development by expanding mandated refuges.
Besides Bt crops, there is a host of other pest management options including chemical control, biological control and cultural control such as ploughing and crop rotation. Like Bt, they all have their particular drawbacks, be it risk of resistance development, low effectiveness, or environmental and economic cost. The most efficient pest management strategy depends on local context, but will involve multiple instruments. For breeders, genes producing insect toxins, whether introduced using conventional or GM techniques, are not the only route towards pest protection. There are exciting possibilities on the horizon, including transgenic plants that emit volatile organic compounds to repel herbivores or attract their natural enemies. The use of nano-silica that kill pests by purely physical means are just one example of potential applications of nanotechnology in pest management. New approaches will have benefits and costs to be assessed against existing alternatives. As of today, there are no magic bullets protecting crops from pests. But there are excellent reasons that we should keep looking for them. Bt will not be the end of the road.
A Greenpeace activist illegally destroys a genetically-modified (GM) wheat crop site in Australia. When ideology mixes with vast financial resources, the result can derail progress on climate change, energy, and food security.
Matthew Nisbet writing for The Breakthrough Institute pulls the covers off of Greenpeace, one of the most powerful global NGO’s. I have enormous respect for Mark Lynas, not least because Mark took responsibility for the bad things he did as a leader of the politically correct but oh-so-wrong activists. Personally I have a much harsher view than Mark of the responsibility that Greenpeace must take for both global warming and for hunger, poverty and malnutrition (anti-nuclear, anti-GMO respectively).
Matthew begins with this:
A March 9 profile on The Observer spotlights writer and activist Mark Lynas, who has gained notable attention for arguing that environmentalists need to reconsider their longstanding opposition to nuclear energy and genetic engineering. As Lynas told The Observer, during his days as an activist, he had viewed the Green movement as a brave, scrappy underdog – a little David battling the Goliaths of industry, government, and conservatives.
But the more he critically examined the work of Greens on issues like nuclear energy and genetic engineering, the more he was surprised to discover the vast financial and organizational resources available to organizations like Greenpeace.
The financial might of today’s environmental groups has helped narrow the gap with industry and their political allies across issues. Yet, as Lynas rightly argues, in some cases this same organizational wealth has helped institutionalize an ideological bias that threatens progress on issues like climate change and food security.
“The anti-nuclear movement is partly responsible for global warming,” Lynas told The Observer. “Everywhere, pretty much, where a nuclear plant was cancelled, a coal plant was built instead, and that’s because of the anti-nuclear movement. The environmental movement has been very successful in regulating GM [genetically-modified agriculture] out of existence in some parts of the world.”
Read the whole thing as Matthew peels apart the Greenpeace finances (almost 30% of your donations go to fundraising!).
And please do not miss the Mark Lynas lecture at the Oxford farming conference.
Tags: #GMOFAQ, Anti-GMO, GM-Food, GMO
Mark Lynas interviews top geneticist Nina Fedoroff. This is a terrific, authoritative rebuttal of all the main talking points of Mark's critics on the anti-GMO side. Be sure to read the comments section — there are the expected anti-GMO trolls, followed by evidence-bases rebuttals by people who know.
Dr. Nina Fedoroff is a leading geneticist and molecular biologist and a Distinguished Professor of Biosciences at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, where she is establishing a new Centre for Desert Agriculture. She is also an Evan Pugh Professor at Penn State University. She has contributed to the development of modern techniques used to study and genetically modify plants. From August 2007 to July 2010, she served as the Science and Technology Adviser to the US Secretary of State and to the Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Dr. Fedoroff is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the European Academy of Sciences, and is also a 2006 National Medal of Science laureate, the highest scientific honour that can be bestowed by the United States government. She was AAAS President in 2012 and is currently Chair of the AAAS Board of Directors.
Questions (by Mark Lynas):
1. You have read my speech to the Oxford Farming Conference. While it has attracted a lot of worldwide attention and support, it has also been attacked by some who make great play of their scientific credentials but who do not seem to actually be active in the plant science/molecular biology field. Since you are highly distinguished in this area, and indeed one of the pioneers of the field of transgenics, is there anything you think I got wrong which should be highlighted?
“But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.” (Mark Lynas speech to Oxford Farming Conference)
This is a bit of an exaggeration. There is more mixing between species through horizontal transfer (viruses and such) than we used to think happens, but it isn’t all that common. The real answer to the question is that genes are simply instructions for making a protein and they aren’t either “fishy” or “tomatoey.” The rules for making proteins are the same in all organisms, so if you express a gene in another species, it will do the same thing it did in the first place. So the fish gene for a protein that inhibits ice crystal formation would make the tomato a little more resistant to below-freezing temperature, but it won’t make the tomato fishy.
This is a relatively minor point. On balance, you got most of the most important issues and you got them right. I particularly enjoyed your assessment of the organic movement – a huge commercial hoax.
2. As 2012 President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and current Chair of the Board of Directors, you are in a good position to help laypeople understand what the real scientific consensus is on GMOs. For instance, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS – an environmental lobby group) attacked the AAAS board statement on GMO safety and yesterday in a tweet claimed that the AAAS statement was “in opposition” to the National Academy of Sciences, the NRC “etc”.
— Concerned Scientists (@UCSUSA) January 31, 2013
What is the consensus, and what is your take on the UCS critique?
The board statement is pretty careful. It says, as the UCS attack quotes: “Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.” You’ll notice that the AAAS Board statement DOESN’T say that “all plants genetically modified by modern molecular techniques are safe,” nor did it say what he [Doug Gurian-Sherman from UCS] claims it does: “a blanket statement that GE crops are “safe” is misleading.”
There is no evidence that modifying plants by molecular techniques causes problems to the plants, people, or nature. In fact, everything we’ve learned says that plant genomes are much less disturbed and altered when genes are introduced by molecular techniques than when changes are made by genetic crosses, or mutations are made by chemicals or radiation or by putting plant tissues into culture, then regenerating the plants.
Whether a human crop plant causes problems depends on the plant, how it is used and in what context and it matters not at all whether if was modified by modern techniques, old techniques or not modified at all. We have created problems everywhere in the world not just by our agriculture, but by moving plants, animals and insects around. Gypsy moths got out of someone’s back yard. Kudzu was introduced into the US from Asia to control soil erosion (which it did).
However, it is important to keep in mind that agricultural crops are much less likely to cause problems simply because they’ve already been modified over millennia to make them reproduce the way we want them to, make big fruits (sometimes seedless and therefore sterile) and grains that stick to the plants. The problems of agriculture are many: from an ecological perspective, there just isn’t anything as destructive as agriculture. But none of them have to do with the techniques used to modify the plants.
Next the writer of the UCS attack says: “We already have one clear example of a harmful engineered gene (though not commercialized).” Well, my guess is he’s referring to the story about the storage protein from Brazil nuts that was going to be transferred to a crop plant. That was caught in precisely the kind of modern testing, using modern knowledge, that we use now. The gene was expressed and the protein tested for allergenicity because it was a likely candidate and sure enough, it was a good allergen. That stopped the experiments, but the urban myth lives on.
Anyway, you get the picture. He insinuates allergenicity isn’t ever addressed and implies that the AAAS statement says it can’t cause problems. In fact, allergenicity is probably the biggest concern. But we actually know a fair amount about allergenicity and a developer of a transgenic crop has to express the protein or proteins he/she wishes to clone in the genes for and show the FDA that that they are not allergenic. There’s a whole complicated protocol for assessing this (I’m sure it could be improved) and crops have gotten a bad rap for naught because a protein failed one of the crudest tests for allergenicity (remember the Starlink fiasco?), even though it didn’t prove allergenic in subsequent testing. And while he’s technically correct that the FDA doesn’t mandate testing, companies cover themselves prospectively by making sure that they do everything the FDA (and the other agencies) require them to do.
And then there’s the proof of the pudding… there is no evidence that any of the proteins that have been introduced in the most widely grown GM crops have caused allergies.
And yet, there are some major allergens in foods, among the best-known are the wheat glutens and the peanut storage proteins. These are “natural.” GM techniques could be used to eliminate these allergens — and would be — if people weren’t so busy obsessing about some future unspecified danger… and creating regulatory blockades that cost tens of millions of dollars to penetrate on the way to market. Peanut allergies kill!
3. In your AAAS Plenary Lecture, you mentioned GM vitamin A-enriched ‘golden rice’ and the fact that it has been held up by unnecessary regulation. What do you think the effect of anti-GMO activism has been on the deployment of ‘golden rice’ (as opposed to, say, issues with technical development) and what effect if any has this had on people in poorer countries who suffer from Vit A deficiency?
The simple answer to this is that the continued GM activism against “golden rice,” especially the recent efforts to discredit the trials that were being carried in China, is a humanitarian abomination. As everyone knows by now, vitamin A deficiency is a major problem for people who subsist largely on rice, as it contains none of it. In the early days of its development, Greenpeace ridiculed it because they believed that alleviating the vitamin deficiency would require the consumption of unrealistically large amounts of it. As the beta carotene content was improved over the years, they found other reasons to demonize it. Today one reads that it’s a sinister plot of big biotech companies…
But the truth is that it was developed by individuals who were driven by the desire to help the poorest people of the world, not by the profit motive. The intellectual property issues have all been resolved and the “golden rice” is to be made available to farmers free of charge. So frankly, this will be one of the real success stories for development, if it ever makes it out of regulatory purgatory and becomes acceptable (which itself will take some marketing itself in view of the decades of GM demonization).
4. You also mentioned in the lecture the need to massively increase food production in response to population growth and other factors. What is your response to the often-heard objection that we already have enough food, and all the problems are in distribution and wastage or other social and economic factors?
The answer is that it isn’t either/or, it’s all of the above. Yes, today there is enough food if we could just reduce waste and spoilage …. and oh, by the way, solve the poverty problem, so that everyone could buy the food that is available. But it still won’t change the fact that the number of people will continue to grow for some decades and, paradoxically, reducing poverty creates more demand for food of higher nutritional value. As people climb out of poverty, they seek more food and particularly to add more animal protein to their food. This creates an even greater demand for the grain crops we largely feed animals – and which are now increasingly used for producing fuel. The central issue with animal protein is that it simply takes a lot more grain and water – and I mean like 10 times more — to make a pound of hamburger than it takes to make a pound of you if you’re eating the grain yourself.
Much food spoilage is attributable not to people discarding good food, but to insect, fungal and bacterial contaminants, as well as the inability to preserve food long enough to get it to a market, in some places hampered simply by the lack of roads. GM approaches can contribute to the amelioration of the spoilage problem – if the regulatory costs burden could be reduced. Reducing other aspects of spoilage in many less developed nations is about building roads, refrigerated storage facilities, and food processing plants. And finally, changing peoples’ food habits to get them to consume less is a social and sociological problem of significant proportions – we haven’t been especially successful in getting people to eat less of the salt, fat and sugar that gives them heart disease, hypertension and diabetes – but its important to continue and increase these efforts.
5. What developments in plant biotechnology do you think are most promising in terms of improving the sustainability of agriculture in future, particularly given the challenge of climate change?
There are all kinds of things that are either in the pipeline or in development that could improve sustainability – and many, many more that could be if we could dismantle the regulatory thicket that is choking it off. Among the most important are modifications that will increase nitrogen use efficiency and the ability to recover phosphorus. There’s just a plethora of modifications that will reduce loss to pest and pathogens, both during field growth and after harvest and during storage. But the real breakthroughs, if they ever come, will be in the efficiency of photosynthesis, which is not terribly efficient. That’s a very tough nut to crack and there aren’t many scientists directly working on it.
6. So I’ve admitted I was wrong to oppose GMOs. What do you think other current and former anti-GM activists should do under today’s circumstances? What lessons should they learn from the past two decades’ of scientific research?
Well, obviously I think they should do what you did: stop and learn what the science is about, what we’ve learned over the past almost 4 decades of working with molecular techniques in plants and what this can do to make it possible to grow more food for more people on less land with less water and energy. I would ask that they did what I did when I wrote my book “Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods.” What I did was to learn as much as I could about, for example, how organic farming developed, whether it’s better for people or the land than what we now call conventionally grown food, about what’s behind and under all of the prevalent scare stories about GM foods, just keep learning and evaluating.
I would also ask that they begin to understand that science is not a set of facts to be harvested from knowledge trees, but a very human process of testing, trying, repeating and only then coming to conclusions. At the heart is a hugely important concept of the “weight” of the evidence. What this means is that any given study can come to very wrong conclusions for a large variety of reasons, including such things that it wasn’t designed well and that the investigator is out to prove something he or she already believes, rather than testing an hypothesis. But if the pile grows and there are 10 studies that come to one conclusion, compared to 1 that comes to the opposite conclusion, and that ratio then grows to 15 to 1 or 50 to 1, then the balance is tipping toward the conclusion come to by the many and not the one.
In the GM field, there have been reports for example, that GM feed makes sickly animal pups, that it poisons rats, or gives them tumors. If you look a bit closer, you often find that these results were leaked to the press (and sometimes never published) or were eventually retracted by the journal in which they were published. But the most important point is, are there 10 or 30 publications that come to similar conclusions, or is the study standing alone against the 10 or 30 that have come to the opposite conclusion? If it keeps on standing alone, then it probably isn’t right…