Looking for the truth

Timothy LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute, has an article in the Huffington Post: Organic Agriculture Beats Biotech at its Own Game. Despite obviously being a very smart person, he doesn’t seem to be thinking very much as he goes through the same old talking points in an attempt to boil a very complex issue down to black and white. Let’s see what he has to say:

Real question #1: Why bother?

To this point, biotech crops have not produced the yield advantages or biological resilience to multiple stressors.

There are, unfortunately, only two biotech traits currently on the market: herbicide resistance and Bt (insect resistance). Both have significant yield increases when the trait is needed. When insects attack a Bt and a non-Bt field, the Bt field will have a higher yield. Similarly, if weeds are above a certain threshold, removal of weeds will obviously benefit. The traits act as advertised.
It’s not that other traits haven’t been developed, but our current system makes it so expensive to bring a new biotech trait to market that there is little impetus for seed companies big or small to work on them. This isn’t a failure of the technology, it’s a failure of a system that considers radiation induced mutagenesis and wide crosses safer than biotechnology. I’m not saying that all biotech is safe: each new crop line regardless of how it was made should undergo risk-benefit analysis. Regulation should be more or less stringent depending on the traits introduced in the new line.

If we’re looking for reliable, multi-benefit, future-oriented farming options in an input-limited world, biotech is not a player.
The question is rather: Why spend the time, money and scientific ingenuity manipulating a handful of genetic materials to end up with a specific new attribute when we should, and could, be rigorously advancing regionally adapted varieties and building up soils organically to achieve enduring nutrient content cycling and resistance to drought, flood and disease resistance.
This organic activity is sustainable in the long term, improves water-holding capacity in soil for all crops — not just those that happen to have a gene with drought resistance, leaving the other crops at risk.

Dr. LaSalle presents us with some false dichotomies here.
Improving soils with sustainable farming methods doesn’t preclude the use of biotech traits. Biotech traits can actually be used to improve soils. For example, nematodes can be devastating to some crops. A biotech plant that uses RNAi to combat herbivorous nematodes would eliminate the need for a dangerous soil fumigant which would kill beneficial as well as harmful soil organisms.
The use of biotech traits doesn’t preclude the use of good breeding in regionally adapted varieties. Why can’t we have regionally adapted varieties that have a drought tolerance boost in regions subject to the inevitable drought? The whole point of biotech is that it can be used to produce effects that either can’t be accomplished with breeding or would take too many generations of breeding to be of any use. This also means that most biotech traits will affect a small range of qualities, just like most single gene traits.

Real question #2: Who benefits?

Why have patented seeds good for a single planting when what most farmers in the world need are replicable, open-pollinated varieties that thrive in the particular mix of soil, degree days, weather and pest pressure where they are grown? The patented seed path is entirely under the control of a company and requires substantial chemical inputs to survive. The latter path, relying on finding the optimum fit with natural systems and fluctuation (thanks to climate change) over time, is controlled much more by sustainable farmers and the heroic seed companies dedicated to their service.

Royalties and restrictions on saving seed are both the result of an intellectual property framework that is sorely due for an overhaul and the previously mentioned expensive regulatory framework that makes it unlikely for companies to sell seeds without royalty fees to recoup their R&D costs. It doesn’t have to be this way. In China, for example, research into some biotech traits is paid for by the federal government. They can then decide how to license the seeds, such as a low or no royalty for farms up to a certain size, but with a reasonable royalty for larger farms.
Biotech traits do not add a requirement for “substantial chemical inputs” to a plant. However, the lines the biotech traits are put into are often high-performance conventional lines that were bred under conventional farming methods that include chemical inputs. The same biotech traits could easily be bred into open-pollinated varieties, but since farmers who use open pollinated varieties generally shun biotech, there is no point in doing so at this time.
Who’s using open-pollinated varieties, anyway? In both certified organic and conventional systems, hybrids are used for many crops. There are a lot of benefits to hybrids, most notably yield, but the seed can’t be saved each year because progeny won’t look anything like the parents. Purchasing seed (biotech, hybrid, or open pollinated) does cost money that potentially isn’t spent when seeds are saved, but it saves farmers time and effort of collecting the best seed from each year. Buying seed of any type also means that to be a farmer, one doesn’t also have to be a plant breeder, unless one wants to. There’s room for an entire spectrum of crop varieties.

Real question #3: Is the stuff safe to eat? And who knows?

There is no data from independent, long-term studies on the human health impacts from eating GM crops. There’s lots of research, but it’s all tucked within the files of the companies that paid for it.

See David Tribe’s list of 270+ published safety assessments on GM foods and feeds. After eliminating studies that were funded by industry, he’s estimated that 30% of these studies are conducted independently of industry.

The same companies prevent independent research on the efficacy and health impacts of their crop seeds. Many of the handful of intrepid researchers who do manage to carry out studies and dare to publish results showing problems with the GM approach face amazingly virulent reactions from the biotech community, and the institutional systems that depend on them for funding.

There is certainly a problem with transparency. I’m glad Elson Shields and the others stepped forward. On the other hand, I understand the companies’ need for control of their intellectual property. They also need to guard against bad science that has inappropriate methodology, draws inappropriate conclusions, or other problems. These sorts of studies deserve fierce reactions from all scientists.

Dr. Judith Carman of Australia is conducting one of the few long-term, independent animal feeding studies with GM materials. She says recent Australian and Italian studies finding reduced fertility and immune function, respectively, in mice are disturbing. Here she talks about extreme difficulty of doing meaningful research into this area. She is a PhD in medicine in the areas of metabolic regulation, nutritional biochemistry and cancer.

I don’t know anything about Dr. Carman, but I am already questioning her ability to be an unbiased researcher. In the article Dr. LaSalle links to, she mentions the Austrian study that “found reduced fertility in mice fed GM corn”, which still hasn’t been published in peer-reviewed journal because it is so flawed. Everyone makes mistakes, so I’m willing to hear why Dr. Carman held the study up as an example of the dangers of biotech, but even I was quickly able to see the huge flaws in the study, and I have no background in rodent feeding studies. For starters, there were missing rodents in the control group that were never explained. For more info on the study, see David Tribes’s Full report of Austrian study on GM maize Nk603xMon810 which includes links to quite a few posts that debunk Dr. Velimirov’s claims. Also in her article, Dr. Carman repeats the claim that there are few safety tests of biotech crops, when a search on PubMed will quickly result in hundreds of studies. If a scientist can’t conduct a simple review of the literature, I have to question his/her other statements.

To us, it does not make biological sense that you can create brand-new proteins through genetic engineering in food and expect that our bodies will have the enzymes and capacity to break them down. These novel proteins are foreign to our immune systems because they have never before existed in nature.

It is possible that completely novel genes could be developed and inserted into crops with biotechnology. In fact, protein engineering (including truly novel proteins and modified proteins) is a promising avenue to crop improvement, as described in The Outlook for Protein Engineering in Crop Improvement by A. Gururaj Rao (2008). Of course, the resulting proteins and crops should face higher levels of scrutiny before deregulation.
Most biotech traits, including Bt and herbicide resistant crops, generally do not fall into this category. Bt, both the bacterium and the extracted protein, is regularly sprayed onto crops as an organic pesticide. Herbicide resistance to various herbicides has been developed through breeding and mutagenesis. There is no evidence that we should single out biotech over other methods for more rigorous safety tests.

Given how much we are not being allowed to know, our scientific, agricultural and food safety leaders need to take the reasonable step of following the precautionary principle until we have the knowledge we need.
Organic agriculture proponents are eager for more high-quality research on biological systems, because the promise for improving soils, sequestering carbon and feeding more people with healthier diets is so great all around the world.
Simply, this means that, facing irreversible potential harm, the onus for generating the proof of scientific consensus falls upon those seeking to take the action. With biotech crops and our long-term health and ecological well-being, that’s a pretty big onus.
The organic community may eventually be open to biotech crops if long-term, independent studies would some day show there are no ecological or human health impacts. Because there is no research available to prove that yet, who needs them? Why risk it?

Advocating the precautionary principle for one small aspect of agriculture but not others is simply disingenuous. For example, we don’t have much knowledge about the safety of various biocides from natural sources that are advocated by some proponents of organic farming. Lavender plants may be harmless, but what happens in the ecosystem when large amounts of chemically extracted lavender oil is sprayed as a herbicide? Precautionary principle dictates that we should take no action unless we are completely sure it will do no harm. This is appropriate in some situations, but risk analysis is ultimately a more careful assessment of a situation that considers both current and potential actions.
The organic community as a whole has failed to recognize the many studies that show efficacy and safety. They keep raising the bar, asking for longer and longer studies, without science-based rationale. Long term studies of ecological and human safety are great, but testing for the sake of testing is not a very effective way to do science. They also ask for tests that are not conducted on plants bred with wide crosses or mutagenesis, despite studies like Microarray analyses reveal that plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene insertion by Rita Batista, et al. (2008) that show testing might be warranted, as I discussed in But, how safe is it? On transgenics, cisgenics, and mutants.
Thankfully, there is a way forward: Using metabolomics to estimate unintended effects in transgenic crop plants, as described by Owen Hoekenga (2008). It is becoming easier and cheaper to compare the metabolome (all small molecules such as hormones within a particular tissue) of a transgenic line and it’s non-transgenic isoline. From the studies that have been done so far, any variation of metabolome is no greater than line to line variation within the crop species. This information, along with reasonable safety studies of the novel protein and plants, if needed, is enough to show that a transgenic line is at least as safe as non-transgenic lines.
Now, maybe all of this doesn’t matter. Dr. Marion Nestle has finally come out and said that her crusade for “GM labeling as an issue of consumer choice, not of science” in the comments of her post Labeling GM foods: if the U.K. can do it, we can too! This is a legitimate standpoint. After all, we have special food considerations for certain religions that aren’t based on science at all. If this is the case, then actually say it, don’t try to twist the facts. Also, don’t try to force an agency like the FDA or USDA that is charged with determining food safety to test for religiously or philosophically based food qualities.

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.

9 comments

  1. I’ve only recently come across this preference for open pollinated varieties. Ran into a fellow out here in California that was trying to tell me hybrid maize was just an industry plot to make farmers pay for seed every year, and "farmers were sacrificing long term sustainability for short term profit."

    I don’t have to explain to the benefits of hybrids to you or your audience, but it seems to be a symptom of the increased opposition (at least in some parts of society) to any connection between science and food production. Even something has low tech and sustainable as hybrid seed (which could even be produced by each farmer individually.)

    Anyone with access to B73 and Mo17 can both propagate their inbreds year to year and make a, now outdated, hybrid. If you want something more modern, Pioneer and some of the other seed companies patented a bunch of inbreds back in the 90’s that either are or soon will be out of patient which means anyone can order relatively modern inbred seed from ATCC.

  2. James, I think you might be on to something with regard to the affinity for open-pollinated varieties. Perhaps there is also an aspect of independence involved as well. OP varieties would seem to satisfy the desire to keep from being dependent upon someone else for your seed. Maybe they feel like they aren’t in control when it comes to science being involved.

    One of the weird things about patents in plant genetics is that inbreds can be proprietary as well, not just GE crops. Not that that is weird in an of itself, but it is weird that so few of the people who complain about the very idea about ‘patenting life’ even know about them.

  3. Wow, that’s very helpful Anastasia–thanks for this. I’m sure it will crop up on blogs I read and I’ll be able to point people here.

    HuffPo is well known to be not very rigorous in its sciency-ness.

    And it’s funny, I often have to tell Rodale adherents about the data in their own papers which they selectively ignore.

  4. Hi guys,
    I find it interesting that the CEO of an organization that would benefit greatly from the failure of biotech and the elimination of pesticides and herbicides has the chutzpah to wag a finger at profit based industries–excepting, of course, the organic food industry.
    If Mr. LaSalle wants the rest of the farming community to live according to the precautionary principle, perhaps he should see to it that his own minions do the same. As somoeone on HuffPo pointed out, the dangers of organic methods are quite real. Manure, if not properly composted, can contaminate crops with E. coli. Failure to control insect damage and/or fungal infestation can result in high fumonisin or aflatoxin levels in grain. People die from this. What do you think would happen if it was one of the biotech outfits that was being fast and loose with the health of your kidneys?!

  5. thanks for this post Anastasia. I would just add that an important point missed by the Rodale CEO is the dramatic reduction in insecticide use on BT cotton crops. In Arizona, growers were able to cut insecticides in half while maintaining yields. In India, farmers saw increases in yield of up to 80% when they switched to BT cotton.

    Does the CEO not know about these studies or not believe them (despite being published in peer-reviewed journals (eg. science) or is hoping readers wont notice these lapses? I don’t understand why an advocate of organic farming would not be a proponent of reduced insecticide use

  6. Pam, good point. I really wonder how such an important person (there’s no doubt Rodale is a big deal) can be ignorant of things like pesticide reductions with Bt. At first I thought that perhaps he didn’t have a background in biology, but in addition to a PhD in something called Depth Psychology, he’s got a Masters in Population Genetics and a BS in Biology. Google Scholar popped up 2 papers about mice response to selection from the1970s (nothing came up in Web of Science or PubMed) when I searched for TJ LaSalle – so even though it’s been a while, I know he knows how to do a literature review.

  7. "The organic community may eventually be open to biotech crops if long-term, independent studies would some day show there are no ecological or human health impacts"

    Don’t hold your breath. Greenpeace have said on more than one occasion that they will oppose GM crops even if evidence irrevocably shows their safety to human health and the environment.

    In other words, philosophy is the basis of the anti-GM supporters beliefs whereas understanding of scientific processes and risk are the basis of our (scientists) beliefs.

    The twain shall, unfortunately, never meet.

    Jonathan

  8. Jonathan, would you be able to find such quotes from Greenpeace and put a link here? I would be very interested to see it. I know they have for one thing said that field trials must not be done until safety is evaluated 100%… but in order to do that you have to do a field trial. 🙂

  9. Hi Karl

    Just spent 20 mins searching the web for the interviews I have read but cannot find them. I thought they were on GMOPundit’s blog. Guess I’m just as bad as the anti-GM/Science/Globalisation brigade on this one as I can’t quote my sources! I do deserve a slap on the hand for that one.

    Having said that it is an opinion I have heard several times, leading me to my conclusions that this is an unsurpassable argument between scientists and philosophers. Our minds work in different ways therefore one side will never convince the other.

    Jonathan

Comments are closed.