Plant Science Expert Panel


Sense about science is hosting a valuable Q&A between the public and a panel of plant scientists. You can participate

Send questions via our online form, Twitter to @senseaboutsci using #plantsci, or email us at

The linked science panel page is comprised of expert answers attached to the public questions. As you would expect given the makeup of the UK science panel, the quality of the responses is high. I’ve selected one example demonstrating the nuance offered by Professors Jones and Leyser:

“The environment secretary, Liz Truss, has said that US farmers growing GM crops use less water and less pesticide. Is she right to say this?”

Prof Jonathan Jones:
GM is a method that can be used to confer many different and useful traits. Liz Truss is right to say GM crops can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. In the US, Bt maize and Bt cotton require less insecticide to control insect pests. Glyphosate (Roundup) is a less damaging herbicide than the herbicides it replaced. Unfortunately, like antibiotics, reliance on one compound (glyphosate) has selected herbicide-resistant weeds in the US, reducing glyphosate effectiveness for weed control. Another GM trait in maize has been used to elevate tolerance of drought stress. For the UK, blight resistant potatoes will require less fungicide applications, and there are many other potential nutritional and agronomic benefits that could be conferred using the GM method.

Prof Ottoline Leyser:
Farming practices associated with each GM crop differ, depending on the specific characteristic that has been introduced. It is therefore not meaningful to state that growing GM crops results in less water and pesticide use, because it depends entirely on which GM crop you are talking about and what the normal practices are for the equivalent non-GM variety. For example, there is very good evidence that the use of GM cotton engineered to resist insect attack has reduced the use of insecticides in cotton production compared to previous practice. However, the use of GM technology to increase vitamin A production in rice does not affect how much pesticide is used.

One type of crop where there has been a particularly vigorous debate about the environmental impacts is herbicide-tolerant crops. There is no doubt that the widespread planting of herbicide-tolerant crops has led to an increase in the use of the specific herbicides tolerated by these crop varieties. Some argue that this has reduced the use of alternative, more environmentally-damaging herbicides. Others point to the negative effects on insect biodiversity caused by the reduction in weeds associated with more effective weed management. Others still highlight the emergence of weeds resistant to herbicides. These debates are important, but they have nothing to do with GM. While many herbicide-tolerant crops have been produced using GM methods, others have been produced using conventional methods, and all the arguments are about herbicides and their use, not about GM. Just as it is inaccurate to say that GM crops reduce pesticides, it is equally inaccurate to say that they cause superweeds.

We need to be able to choose the best solutions to each challenge facing the food supply chain. In some cases this will include a particular GM crop, but in many cases it will not.

Jennie Schmidt: The Costs of GMO Labeling


Jennie Schmidt is the proprietor of TheFoodieFarmer “Blogging about how your food gets from field to fork”. Jennie is very different from your typical Whole Foods customer, who has never set foot on a farm – she knows farming in depth. In particular she understands the supply chain – which is why she is especially qualified to write the captioned essay on what “right to know” really costs. This is the real deal, carefully researched, first-hand explanations of what is involved in establishing traceability of every ingredient that goes into food on your supermarket shelf. Read Jennie for the particulars. She closes with this summary:

Those who say GMO labeling won’t add to the consumer’s grocery bill need to go back to Economics 101 and some basic high school math.

True traceability in our food supply system will be hugely expensive.

Its likely that as a nation, we’d never capitalize all that infrastructure to achieve true traceability.

Which goes to the crux of the matter – this isn’t about labeling, as I cited in my last GMO blog, labeling is a means to an end. As noted by many activist groups, the ulterior motive behind labeling is not about a consumer’s right to know, it is about banning the technology.

Say NO to mandatory GMO labeling. Stand for science.

I liked Jennie’s essay so much that I posted the following comment:

Jennie – thanks heaps for taking the time to document some of the true costs that the “right to know” lobby wants to impose on consumers. I’m happy to see you already have a well-deserved pat on the back from Prof. Kevin Folta.

When we see such a “movement” promoting regulations that don’t make sense – that’s a good time to ask “who benefits?” If we follow the incentives we find there are a number of special-interests who are funding this campaign. David Tribe framed the smelly bedfellows as Big Quacka and Big Organic.

A concept from Public Choice economics that helps us understand how these hidden interests operate is called “Bootleggers and Baptists”. In your GMO labeling case the Bootleggers include Whole Foods and trial lawyers. Back in the CA Prop 37 fight I wrote a few posts on this concept, such as How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor and Scott Andes: Why California’s GMO Labeling Proposition Should be Defeated.

The key idea is that the Bootleggers have learned that the best media reception is obtained by fronting the Baptists, preferably worried-looking moms holding their beautiful babies.

The Bottom Line: if you want to know about food and farming – talk to farmers, not to Greenpeace.

Kevin Folta: letter to the editor of Food and Chemical Toxicology re Seralini retraction

Dr. Folta’s letter has been published. Personally I think the letter makes it obvious that the Seralini paper was designed to deceive.

Dear Prof. Hayes,

I have been withholding comments to the journal for a long time. I regularly participate in biotechnology education. The Séralini et al. paper in your journal frequently is presented as evidence against GM crops. I am one of thousands of independent, public scientists worldwide that see this work as a manipulation of the scientific process to achieve activist gains. I firmly stand behind the journal’s decision to retract the work.

There are many appropriate criticisms, but the most severe is the absence of a control rat presented as part of Figure 3. In Figure 3, panels J, K, and L, we see three grotesque rats, suffering and tumor laden. No data can be obtained from this image. Worse, no control is presented, but Table 2 shows that control animals also developed tumors.

Also, it is important to note that the panels are labeled “GMO” rather than the actual trait.

These points suggest a motivation for the authors was to frighten people with images of tortured animals (linked to the word “GMO”), rather than provide data and appropriate controls. The figure is only frightening if the control is not shown. In my expert opinion it is somewhere between sloppy science and deliberate omission to skew perception.

I fully support retraction. I feel that this paper was about perpetuating fear with soft statistics and conclusions that overstep the data, rather than providing sound science. There are many examples, but Figure 3’s lack of agreement with Table 2, coupled to inhumane treatment of research animals substantiates my case.

Best wishes and I fully support a journal-initiated retraction.


Climate change will make it increasingly difficult to feed the world. GMOs could help

MIT Technology Review:

(…) One advantage of using genetic engineering to help crops adapt to these sudden changes is that new varieties can be created quickly. Creating a potato variety through conventional breeding, for example, takes at least 15 years; producing a genetically modified one takes less than six months. Genetic modification also allows plant breeders to make more precise changes and draw from a far greater variety of genes, gleaned from the plants’ wild relatives or from different types of organisms. Plant scientists are careful to note that no magical gene can be inserted into a crop to make it drought tolerant or to increase its yield—even resistance to a disease typically requires multiple genetic changes. But many of them say genetic engineering is a versatile and essential technique.

“It’s an overwhelmingly logical thing to do,” says Jonathan Jones, a scientist at the Sainsbury Laboratory in the U.K. and one of the world’s leading experts on plant diseases. The upcoming pressures on agricultural production, he says, “[are] real and will affect millions of people in poor countries.” He adds that it would be “perverse to spurn using genetic modification as a tool.”


The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science


Distrust of GMOs has increased in recent years from initiatives to label, ban, or warn the public. The Lowdown on GMOs features contributions by public scientists, authors, farmers, science writers and journalists answering the hard questions with elegance, ease, and evidence. This is a book for those who want to know what the evidence says and the implications of our actions regarding GMOs. 

This is a very important new book The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science, compiled by Fourat Janabi. There are many contributors, including University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta. Kevin’s Q&A chapter is an excellent place to begin your exploration. Here’s a tidbit:             

(…snip…)The regulatory hoops are too difficult and expensive. Only the big companies can play in that space. Even little companies like Okanagan Specialty Fruits have to deal with the nonsense from those that hate the technology. Opposition to the science keeps the big guys in business, because nobody else can compete.

Who loses? The farmer, the consumer, the environment, the academic scientist and most of all the people around the world that don’t get enough food and nutrition. Who gains? Big Ag. 

I liked the blurb by Mary Mangan – it is very difficult for anyone outside the biotechnology field to access the science:

“It’s hard to find this level of quality discussion on this topic around the internet, where murky misinforming fear-mongers overwhelm the discussions.” ~ Mary Mangan, PhD, President and co-founder of OpenHelix LLC

The tarnishing of Golden Rice

A few ounces would ameliorate the ravages of vitamin A deficiency— Photo credit Getty Images

An editorial in Science magazine, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said it eloquently: “If ever there was a clear-cut cause for outrage, it is the concerted campaign by Greenpeace and other nongovernmental organizations, as well as by individuals, against Golden Rice.”

Gilbert Ross wrote this op-ed for the Financial Post 

Golden Rice is a genetically-modified food (often referred to with the shorthand GMO). Although there is no reason to suspect that this process has any innate risk — quite the contrary in fact — there is a highly vocal activist movement staunchly opposed to GMO foods for various reasons, none of which have any scientific basis. Perhaps the most relentless of these groups is Greenpeace, always in the forefront of anti-science advocacy, using any and all means at their disposal.

GMO crops are grown in nearly every country in the Americas and in Asia. For reasons of consumer preference, there is no GMO wheat, nor — with the exception of Golden Rice — is there bioengineered rice. After billions of servings consumed worldwide there are no valid reports of harm to anyone attributable to the GMO itself.

All this evidence notwithstanding, the anti-technology activist groups, in league with the organic food lobby, have succeeded in scaring most members of the EU away from accepting these products: “Frankenfood, Non!” is their rallying cry.

A few ounces would ameliorate the ravages of vitamin A deficiency


Golden Rice detractors have managed to convince the media and the public that Golden Rice is some sort of money-maker for agribusiness. On the contrary, the developers of Golden Rice were and are in the public domain, and they have vowed to provide their miracle rice free of charge where it’s needed — pending regulatory approval, if ever that should come.

Make your opinion known to anyone with authority in this area.

Ross is Medical and Executive Director, The American Council on Science and Health.

The Greenpeace anti-humanity campaign will reverse only when and if the leadership calculates there is more money to be raised, and more status to be gained — by supporting GMO crops, by supporting modern agriculture in Africa, and by supporting the elimination of energy poverty (i.e., nuclear energy). Oh — and there is that Climate Change issue isn’t there?

Eleven top scientists: Standing Up for GMOs

On 8 August 2013, vandals destroyed a Philippine “Golden Rice” field trial. Officials and staff of the Philippine Department of Agriculture that conduct rice tests for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) had gathered for a peaceful dialogue. They were taken by surprise when protesters invaded the compound, overwhelmed police and village security, and trampled the rice. Billed as an uprising of farmers, the destruction was actually carried out by protesters trucked in overnight in a dozen jeepneys.

The global scientific community has condemned the wanton destruction of these field trials, gathering thousands of supporting signatures in a matter of days.* If ever there was a clear-cut cause for outrage, it is the concerted campaign by Greenpeace and other nongovernmental organizations, as well as by individuals, against Golden Rice.


The eleven signatories to this AAAS Science bulletin are at the top of every relevant field and academy: 

Bruce Alberts is President Emeritus of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and former Editor-in-Chief of Science.

Roger Beachy is a Wolf Prize laureate; President Emeritus of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, MO, USA; and former director of the U.S. National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

David Baulcombe is a Wolf Prize laureate and Royal Society Professor in the Department of Plant Sciences of the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK. He receives research funding from Syngenta and is a consultant for Syngenta.

Gunter Blobel is a Nobel laureate and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Professor at the Rockefeller University, New York, NY, USA.

Swapan Datta is Deputy Director General (Crop Science) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi, India; the Rash Behari Ghosh Chair Professor at Calcutta University, India; and a former scientist at ETH-Zurich, Switzerland, and at IRRI, Philippines.

Nina Fedoroff is a National Medal of Science laureate; a Distinguished Professor at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia; an Evan Pugh Professor at Pennylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA; and former President of AAAS.

Donald Kennedy is President Emeritus of Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA, and former Editor-in-Chief of Science.

Gurdev S. Khush is a World Food Prize laureate, Japan Prize laureate, and former scientist at IRRI, Los Baños, Philippines.

Jim Peacock is a former Chief Scientist of Australia and former Chief of the Division of Plant Industry at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Canberra, Australia.

Martin Rees is President Emeritus of the Royal Society, Fellow of Trinity College, and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.

Phillip Sharp is a Nobel laureate; an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA; and President of AAAS.

Possibly they have just a bit more standing than Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, et al?

Are GMOs Safe? Global Independent Science Organizations Weigh In


Jon Entine at  the Genetic Literacy Project has released a very useful infographic on crop biotechnology safety. This is a summary of the unambiguous safety approvals of every national scientific academy on the planet.

This is the second inforgraphic from GLP. The first is also very useful, 10 reasons we need crop biotechnology


Mark Lynas: Using the tools of biotechnology to advance Borlaug’s legacy

Don’t miss the recent keynote speech by Mark Lynas to the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative 2013 Technical Workshop, New Delhi. Norman Borlaug would be proud. Excerpts:

We are gathered here today, under the aegis of an international collaboration that bears his name, to continue Borlaug’s lifelong battle with wheat rust. Rust wiped out his family farm’s wheat when he was a boy, and rust was the reason Borlaug initially established the research station in Sonora.

As we all know, he and his colleagues succeeded eventually in defeating wheat stem rust for many decades, until the emergence of the resistant race Ug99 at the very end of the last century.

Although the progress of Ug99 has not been as dramatic as initially feared, susceptible wheat is still being grown all over the world, and forms a mainstay of humanity’s food supply today. A fifth of all our calories come from wheat, and the global harvest is nearly 700 million tonnes per year.

While European wheat growers keep stem rust at bay with liberal applications of fungicide, this is neither ecologically sustainable nor financially desirable over the longer term.

In south and east Asia, meanwhile, both of which produce more wheat than the whole of North America, most growers cannot afford or do not have access to fungicides.

Billions of people therefore depend on susceptible wheat varieties that are sitting ducks, waiting for an epidemic of Ug99 to be blown over on the winds from the Middle East and Africa.

I was given the mandate to talk today about ‘Using the tools of biotechnology to advance Borlaug’s legacy’, and I cannot imagine a more appropriate area where this applies than the question of tackling wheat stem rust.

Borlaug was an unusual revolutionary in that he didn’t want his revolution to stop with him. He was a lifelong advocate of innovation – and a staunch supporter of biotechnology as the promising new frontier for plant breeding.

You can see why. By today’s standards, Borlaug had to work blind, using guesswork, chance and a lengthy process of elimination with thousands upon thousands of wheat crosses to try to get just the right genetic combination.

I cannot imagine a better embodiment of Norman Borlaug’s philosophy than this successful joint effort.


But unfortunately the progress of good science runs up against the hard rock of bad politics. As perhaps the world’s most political food crop, by virtue of its very nature in supplying our daily bread, wheat has so far been locked out of the biotechnology revolution.

Although many new wheats have been developed using recombinant DNA and even tested in field trials, not a single one has ever been made available to farmers – not because there was anything wrong with the new varieties, but solely because of the worldwide cloud of fear and superstition that surrounds the use of genetic engineering.

Thus, the most powerful tools offered by modern molecular biotechnology must seemingly be permanently discarded – not because of any rational assessment of risks and benefits – but because a tide of anti-science activism has drowned scientists and governments around the whole world in a tsunami of lies.

The Myth and Reality of Terminator Seeds

Farmers have historically been glad to buy seeds from seed companies. Seed companies specialize in making seeds, not making food. Farmers specialize in growing food, not seeds. Seed companies can grow plants/seeds to maturity, harvest at the right time, process and store the seed, then perform quality control to guarantee the best product for the farmer.

University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta recently posted a very concise puncturing of a favorite myth of the anti-GMO activists: 

The topic of ‘suicide seeds’ or ‘terminator technology’ is a deeply engrained in the fabric of the anti-GMO movement.Suchominouslanguage is the basis of many websites thatconjure fear spanning from farmer manipulation to the death of every plant on the planet. That would be one heck of a frankenfood!

 Sticking a loaded gun in the ear is a sure way to develop vivid misinformation.

However, the reality is not nearly so scary. In 1998 Delta and Pine Land, one of America’s largest cotton seed company, recieved wide patent protection for a series of traits, one that was called’technology protection system’. Through a ratherclever process a self-fertilizing plant cannot produce germinating seeds. The molecular basis is a gene that encodes a protein called a Ribosome Interferring Protein. You might recall that ribosomes are the cellular sites for protein synthesis, so ifthis interferring protein is expressed, the plant can’t make otherproteins (which comprise enzymes and structural feature) so the plant would die before germination.

The gene was placednext to a promoterfrom an LEA gene. Think of promoters as on-off switches. LEA stands for ‘Late Embryogenesis Abundant’. So this promoter switcheson the protein that interrupts protein synthesis during late embroygenesis. Anembryo that can’t synthesize protein is pretty much DOA.

All of this was regulated through a clever but complex process that activated this mechanism upon self-pollination. If you’d like to know more send me an email. I could go into detail here, but a picture is worth 1000 words. Probably more.

Why do they callit ‘terminator technology’? This term actuallywas devised from a Canadia NGO called theRural AdvancementFoundation International. They were not so excited about the technology.

But to your point, how does this technology help farmers? It doesn’t. It doesn’t hurt them either.Why? Because it was never used in a crop beyond the greenhouse. The technology was never commercially deployed. Why not? Probably because itbecame a PR nightmare coupled tothe fact that Delta Pine’s products had a long, expensive road to deregulation ahead.


There is much more detail at Kevin’s blog.