The GE crop Battlefield

Nature News has just published a long article by Emily Waltz about the sometimes harsh scientific debates and battles that are waged over genetic engineering in agiculture: GM Crops: Battlefield. Papers suggesting that biotech crops might harm the environment attract a hail of abuse from other scientists. Emily Waltz asks if the critics fight fair.
The article is pretty good, and it discusses a 2007 paper about Bt corn negatively affecting caddissfly larva when compared to non-Bt corn. “Toxins in transgenic crop byproducts may affect headwater stream ecosystems”, by Rosi-Marhsall et al. You can access the paper here, and also read Anastasia’s commentary about the paper with Even Scientists make Mistakes at Genetic Maize.
Waltz’s article doesn’t focus so much on the paper itself so much as the responses to the paper, with implications for the culture of scientific debate following controversial results. If someone comes along with a preliminary result that is based on a study with some problems, and there is a danger that it could be used politically to everyone’s detriment, what is the proper response? Shoot it down with all your guns blazing, snipe the problems at a distance, or politely suggest a more rigorous examination? Will the latter response prevent it from being used to make policy decisions?
In the case of this particular paper, it was used by anti-GE organizations, and found its way into supporting the French ban on GE maize:

Rosi-Marshall’s caddis-fly paper did find its way into the anti-GMO rhetoric, although on nowhere near the scale that the monarch butterfly paper did. For example, the London-based Institute of Science in Society, a not-for-profit organization involved in the GM debate, on 30 October 2007 posted its summary of the paper, saying that: “calling a halt to planting Bt corn next to streams … would be in keeping with the evidence [the authors] have provided”. Greenpeace included the paper in an April 2008 briefing on Bt maize, citing it as evidence of environmental risk.
The impact went further than that. On 9 January 2008, three months after Rosi-Marshall’s paper was published, France’s watchdog on GM foods ruled that one of Monsanto’s types of Bt maize, known as MON810, may have an impact on wildlife. The evidence it cited included Rosi-Marshall’s paper. Two days later, the French government announced a ban on cultivating the maize. “[The paper] got to every agency and non-governmental organization that doesn’t like the technology and gave them a flag to wave,” says Parrott. Not that he considers the effort wasted: “I have no doubt the impact on policy-makers would have been much worse had it not been countered.”

But if the response is too harsh it can be seen as discouraging scientists from conducting useful research. If it is too weak, then poorly conducted science gets a passing grade and makes its way into the poltical, cultural, and even scientific spheres and influences opinions. Besides just conducting research, it is the duty of scientists to point out flaws in their own and each other’s work to arrive closer to the truth than we were before. Even good science has its flaws, and pointing them out can improve future research. Rather than quote more of the article, I suggest you read it because it does a pretty good job discussing the various reasons that come up.
The ultimate goal should be the advancement of knowledge – predicated on the idea that knowledge if used properly can lead to a better life, of course. There is one thing that scientists should probably consider: If a bad paper is published and the response to that paper is too harsh, it might create a ‘career contrarian.’ Scientists work hard on their research, and have a personal interest in defending it. Rather than abandon the position they take in their paper, responses that are too personal or go over the top in terms of their wording might instead galvanize the opinions of these researchers. Now you have someone with hardened opinion on the topic, who will likely advocate their position more, and it could also potentially color what kind of research they pursue.
For example, John Losey, who authored the obsolete Monarch Butterfly Bt-pollen study mentioned in the quote above, got a lot of attention due to the responses, and participated in a four-way panel discussion that included Ignacio Chapela and Arpad Puztai – two other scientists that have become anti-GE career contrarians. The video doesn’t appear to be available anymore, but here is a description of the event. Those two scientists got attention due to the responses to the flaws in their research as well. Just as we should consider the potential impact of poorly conducted research, the impact of responses to that research should be considered for the future of the debate.
The attention to the paper could also have the opposite effect of what is intended, drawing instead more attention to the paper in political circles. Where to draw the line is a good question… one that I do not have an answer to.
I think the Nature article would have benefited by including an example in the other direction. For instance, Shane Morris has been the target of many politically-based as well as personal attacks due in part to a study he worked on that found that people preferred GE sweet corn over conventional sweet corn that had been sprayed with pesticides. That paper had a few problems, too, but they weren’t fatal to the conclusion, nor the award it received. You can read his take on it at GMO Ireland – Lessons in Biopolitics.

In my own case, speaking up as a public servant scientist who only has ever accepted public funds led to letters to my employer, intimidating e-mails, defamation (and retractions), comments regarding my wife on an anti-GM website and even a British 9/11 conspiracy theorist politician using the protection of Parliamentary privilege to make false statements to which one has no recourse. These are the daily trials and tribulations that the average politician faces and, though distasteful to most scientists, are ultimately short lived with no real impact. In fact, one only needs a thick skin, knowledge that this is the political norm and an understanding that your actions are legitimate because sense and sensibility will not prevail on their own.

Indeed, the excessive responses that anti-GE activists often give to inconvenient results can be quite jarring – for example, in the case of this same Bt sweet corn paper, Professor Emeritus Joe Cummins compares a journalist that reports on the affair – and the fact that other researchers found similar results – to a Nazi:

That is the issue that I and those international scientists joining a letter of complaint to the editor of the British Food Journal dealt with not Steve’s phoney comments and obfuscations.
Steve’s short bio comments ‘he still remains smitten by the enduring wisdom of the motto of Austrian writer Karl Kraus. Say what is.’ Unfortunately Steve seems closer in practice to the German Joseph Goebbels.

Last time I checked, no pro-GE critique of research has used Reductio ad Hitlerum. But there are several examples of anti’s using it. It isn’t just research on genetic engineering, either. When a UK study found that there isn’t enough evidence to say that organic crops are more nutritious than conventional crops – the barrage of hate-mail accusing the researchers of working for Monsanto was very telling. The research didn’t even have anything to do with genetic engineering – this was all political!
It seems to me, though, that both sides of the debate could use a little more collegiality. Then maybe the debate can be more about the science and not about who was a big bad meanie on the internet.

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Written by Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is a Postdoctoral Scholar at UC Riverside and works on Citrus genetics.

4 comments

  1. One seeming omition in the recent commentary, is the fact that Dr. Rosi-Marshall and co-authors issued several press-releases anouncing their paper and its over-reaching conclusions (now admitted by the authors to be unfortunate). I may be mistaken, but this seems to be a tactic designed to get attention. The commentary states that Dr. Rosi-Marshall and co-authors were surprised by the attention (both positive and negative) that they received in response to their paper. However, these press-release seem to have been aimed to get attention. There were critical flaws in their study. The most serious (in my opinion) was the use of a genetically unrelated control (in an attempt to normalize lignin content). Corn contains thousands of compounds in addition to lignin, and as ecologists, the authors should know that different varieties of any crop can vary dramatically and affect any animal that is fed soly on them. It seems predictable that highly publicized research with critical flaws will get criticised publically. Remember cold fusion?

  2. All scientists want some attention for their work, and I often see University press releases that go a little farther in their pronouncements than the actual research does. But you may be right that they made statements in interviews about how far-reaching the paper is, without realizing its shortcomings. I’m simply surprised that they didn’t present any evidence that the lignin was normalized. And considering that the ground up the pollen (And anther sacs, apparently) what prevented them from measuring the lignin content, and adding powdered lignin to normalize it?
    Not to pick on Ecologists, but there is a sizable number of scientists that don’t work in plant genetics that assume that there really isn’t much of a difference between one variety and the next. There are tons of differences in the content of different vitamins, minerals, matbolites and other compounds between different varieties of corn, for instance. Their assumption that the only meaningful difference between the two non-isoline corn pollens is troublesome. A basic necessity of scientific research is proper controls, so that you know that your result is due to the single difference you are trying to study (Bt in this case). Yet, I see plenty of feeding studies finding differences between a GE and non-GE food, where they just picked any ol’ ‘wild type’ as a control. And guess what, there were differences!
    But without comparing isolgenic lines, that differ only by the presence or absence of the transgene, they cannot draw any conclusions about what caused those differences.

  3. I would add that they should also test a variety of non-GM controls. What we should be looking for is whether or not a GM variety falls within “natural” variability found in commonly used varieties of the crop species.

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