Even scientists make mistakes

I went to a seminar titled “Harvesting ecosystem services from cellulosic biofuel landscapes” at Iowa State yesterday. The speaker was Michigan State Professor of Entomology Douglas Landis. His research is very practical, focusing on which types of plants should be used in biomass production for biofuels to encourage the highest biodiversity of insects. This is important because insects provide many ecosystem services, including pollination and predation of pests.
His work shows that switchgrass and mixed prairie encouraged higher numbers of some native insect species, but also encouraged some invasive insects. Corn likewise had mixed results (especially encouraging native insects that like to eat corn!). His methods of data collection are simply fun – low tech but effective – nets, sticky traps, leaf blowers turned into vacuums, and such.
It’s good work, because we really need people working on the sustainability issues associated with farming. Growing biomass for fuel, as any farming, could be beneficial or detrimental to the environment – it’s up to people like Dr. Landis to make sure it’s the former.
Unfortunately, Dr. Landis seems to be misinformed on one issue – Bt crops. I won’t go into too much detail here, but Bt crops have been shown to increase insect biodiversity because overall levels of pesticide are decreased. I would have thought that an entomologist concerned with biodiversity would at least contemplate a cost-benefit analysis of Bt.
In the introduction of his talk, Dr. Landis mentioned the 2007 PNAS paper “Toxins in transgenic crop byproducts may affect headwater stream ecosystems”. This paper is more than a little controversial, because the authors make broad claims that do not follow from their results. The authors make the typical mistake of lumping that is never appropriate in science. All Bt is not the same, all aquatic insects are not the same, all corn fields are not managed in the same way… Dr. Landis should have at a minimum mentioned that the paper has been contested before trotting it out as evidence.
I wrote about the press release of the paper when it first came out, and I continue to be frustrated by the mediocre science and the terrible way that people twist results to make the point they want. Feel free to read the paper for yourself, but don’t pass up the rebuttals. Beachy, et. al. make the point that papers like this are taken by the popular media and used to fuel debates – regardless of the strength of the science. It truly is the responsibility of every scientist and especially of every reviewer to put aside personal bias for or against the paper and make sure the conclusions are supported as much as possible by hard evidence. The reviewers of this paper should have sent it back, requesting some of the experiments explained in the rebuttals (such as dose-response measurements, as suggested by Parrott).

Streamhead with and without corn residues

Dr. Landis showed this pair of images from the Rosi-Marshall paper, implying that corn residues in streams are all the fault of genetic engineering, as if organic corn crops or other crops in general don’t clutter up streamheads. He seems to think that harvesting switchgrass or mixed prarie would somehow not leave the same sorts of residues in streams.
Of course, all crops are going to leave residues in nearby streams, plant matter that is not a natural part of the ecosystem. What I find most ironic is that, if crop residues actually do damage streams, we should start harvesting them for biofuels right now!
To make things even worse, Dr. Landis told the audience (full of impressionable sustainable ag majors) that “the Bt toxin leaches from crop residues into streams where it kills aquatic insects.” This statement is wrong for a lot of reasons, the main one being that there is zero evidence that Bt leaches from the plants that produce it. If you know of any evidence showing that it does, please let me know, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
ResearchBlogging.orgE. J. Rosi-Marshall, J. L. Tank, T. V. Royer, M. R. Whiles, M. Evans-White, C. Chambers, N. A. Griffiths, J. Pokelsek, M. L. Stephen (2007). Toxins in transgenic crop byproducts may affect headwater stream ecosystems Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (41), 16204-16208 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0707177104

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar is a science communicator and science policy expert with a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Anastasia has had various risk analysis roles in US government and military service. She serves as BFI's Director of Policy and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog.


  1. The now-discredited Rosi-Marshall paper is one of the main reasons for France’s newly-announced ban on Bt maize. French farmers estimate this ban, if not lifted, will cost them EUR 10 million if not lifted in time for planting next year.

    Bad science can be costly!

  2. I think something that a professor gave a student in my plant breeding graduate student seminar class today is quite apt here: Don’t claim something in your talk unless you know 100% for sure that it is backed up.

    Scientists have to be very careful when they publish results that they anticipate will be controversial, lest the public and the politicians take it to mean that it gives them the fodder they’ve been waiting for. But there are always scientists who themselves will get caught up in their positions and instead want their results, however tenuous, to be used in such a way… hard to get them to hold back.

  3. Dear Anastasia,

    I’ve just discovered your blog. It’s really a pleasure to read the articles you wrote about GMOs. I’ve read around ten of them and I think I share 95% of your point of view about GMOs. There are many articles where I would like to add a comment but it would takes time. Actually I’m french scientist working on Arabidopsis and I have currently a post-doc position in Germany. I prefer to keep my identity for myself because in Europe a scientist who defend GMO could have troubles with the anti-GMO movment.

    I was looking for websites in USA that would debunk this stupid film made by this french journalist Marie-Monique Robin… and I found your blog… thanks to google.

    I would like to react to the comment from Andrew Apel. Actually the ban of GMO in France is a pure political reason. At that time there was election under way and Sarkozy wanted to gain more vote, that’s all. Around 80% of people are against GMO in France. 13 out of 15 scientists members of the commission desagree with the conclusions of the report. Anyway, the dossier provided to the EFSA is uncompleted and soon french farmers will be allowed to grow MON810 again… if their field is not destroy by these stupid activists.

    I would like to know if there are other websites or blogs that talk about this film “the world according to Monsanto” in the US. In France there are few blogs trying to exposed the public the way this “journalist” is manipulating datas… and people. This film made lot of dommage in the public opinion also because it was shown on Arte, a public channel which is normaly known for his seriousness. I posted some comments on the blog of MMR (http://blogs.arte.tv/LemondeselonMonsanto/frontUser.do?method=getHomePage) but quickly I was treated of liar and accused to be payed by Monsanto. This is how it works in France when you want to defend the truht and expose facts. Anyway MMR has no argument and keep repeating the same lies. The main problem is that many people like to be manipulate and the idea that a “big” american compagny wants to control the food fits with their spychotic vision of the world. I’m sorry but many french people are anti-american and this point doesn’t help for the acceptance of GMO by the public. Moreover the TV news and news paper like to interview José Bové and Séralini (two famous activists) when the subject is related to GMO, it doesn’t help either.
    Congratulations again for the great quality of your blog.

    Best Regards
    PS: Sorry for my poor english.

  4. I saw a study, or at least a blurb in a Science Daily feed, that showed that crops in the vicinity of Bt modified plants benefit from having Bt modified crops nearby. I will try to find the link so you can have a look.

  5. Thanks, Mike. I’m actually surprised that that conclusion wasn’t found sooner. Pamela Ronald explains a similar idea in her book in the case of virus resistant papya – nearby non-resistant plants benefit because the total amount of virus is decreased.

  6. GFP, I’m so sorry to hear about your predicament. Activists are an important part of society but they only do harm when they spread fear and lies. It’s not only in France that people try to suppress science. People have accused me of all sorts of things when I say anything opposing their viewpoints on US sites as well.

    I’m watching the movie now. Hopefully I’ve have time to post a review soon.

  7. yes! that part about Arabidopsis made me crazy. I don’t know who that lady was, but she certainly doesn’t deserve to call herself a scientist.

    I actually just wrote a bit about the “monstrous” maize in my latest post. I look forward to reading your comments.

  8. Thanks a lot Anastasia,
    Actualy I know Marcel Kuntz, not personnaly, but he is scientific director at the INRA (Institut National pour la Recherche Agronomic) and member of a association for scientific information (AFIS). He was one of the only scientist in France who complain about this movie. Just for the anecdot the journalist defend herself by telling that what he says cannot be trust because he’s manipulated by monsanto… without any proof of course. I have few http links where all the pseudo science used by the journalist is discussed but unfortunately thery are all in french. Maybe you can try babel fish but the result is not so accurate in general.
    If you are watching the movie I’m sure you will appreciated a lot the link between the “local flower” (it’s how MMR call an Arabidopsis) and the “monstruous” maize in Mexico. A great way to twist science and minds.
    Anyway, I have the feeling these last years the situation for science is getting worse and worse… and not so many scientist agree to let the bench away for few hours just to defend a point of view that seems so evident to them but which hard to accept by a misinformed public opinion.

  9. Actually she’s not a bad scientist. I’m quite convince the journalist cut some part of her presentation to misuse her talk. I don’t believe that she didn’t tell the journalist that expression level of a trasngene vary depending of the insertion site… and that’s why there is or not a flower phenotype. You gave recently the exemple of Barney Gordon and The Independant, I think here the situation is quite similar except here Elena Alvarez Buylla didn’t complain about that… and I really wonder why.

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