Interview with Margaret Mellon at MOSES

Back in February, Frank & I went to the MOSES Organic Farming Conference, and while Frank was quick to put up his pictures, and I got one video up, I’ve been a bit lax in getting the rest of the material up and annotated. While discussing genetic engineering over at Grist, Doug Gurian-Sherman from the Union of Concerned Scientist popped in to say a big hello and a response to my comment. One of the issues he brought up was that I criticized his report Failure to Yield as not being peer reviewed, which he dismissed as a “smokescreen.” His comment reminded me that the issue of peer review seems to be a sore point for the folks over at UCS. (They also keep bringing up Brookes and Barfoot without prompting, probably because they have been peer reviewed, but I’ll get to that later.) They’ve probably heard this criticism a lot. Actually, this is not the first time I brought it up to someone from the Food & Agriculture program at UCS.
The director of the Food & Agriculture program at UCS Margaret Mellon, graciously agreed to do an interview with me while at MOSES. This immediately followed her keynote speech, which I referred to in a couple of my questions. (might be required watching if you want to appreciate it fully.) For instance, she excluded mentioning commercialized GE traits that were not Bt and herbicide resistance, trying to say that that is all there was. I also asked her about Golden Rice, knowing full well that she was a critic of it in its early days. What is the position of the UCS on it today? I also asked about Failure to Yield, and how it was that so many people seemed to think that it concluded that there was either no increase in yield due to genetic engineering, or that the opposite was true. (3-4% estimated increase in yield due to Bt) I ended by saying that although there are a few things that I disagree with the UCS on, they are doing a better job of being critics of GE than pretty much anyone else. And then I expressed something about peer review… and something happened! I thought about editing it to put the goodbye’s at the end, but you know what, I decided that the flow of conversation should be preserved how ever it turned out.
Have a listen, and let me know what you think! (Music by the eminent Carl Winter)

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.

15 comments

  1. Meh, transcript please! (I have a bizarre aversion to video and audio – possibly because it’s too hard to copy and paste from)

  2. “they [UCS] are doing a better job of being critics of GE than pretty much anyone else.”
    According to what criteria?

  3. I should clarfiy – I meant that statement in the context of those who write papers and articles routinely criticizing genetic engineering. Just so there’s no confusion!
    Well, for example the Center for Food Safety claims that GE has decreased yield, and not increased it, based on some pretty sloppy research. UCS, in contrast had some pretty good math, and concluded no reduction in yield for HT, with a small gain in yield for Bt corn. And guess what, the Center for Food Safety actually cites UCS’s Failure to Yield as concluding a reduction in yield! Failure to Read again.
    The challenge would be, can you name one better? I can recognize when someone I disagree with is really trying, versus when they just throw noodles against the wall to see what sticks.

  4. The notion of anyone “doing a better job of being critics of GE” than anyone else rests on the notion that ‘criticizing GE’ can be well-done at all.
    Arpad Pusztai claims to have proven that GE as a process results in unhealthy outcomes for potato-eating laboratory rats. Perhaps he is therefore the best critic of all.
    It’s possible, of course, that I misunderstand the claim about the UCS. I am willing to be persuaded that the UCS has said or done some thing which has worked to the benefit of those who research, develop, or grow GE crops.
    I’m not holding my breath.

  5. As far as I know, there hasn’t been a single report out of UCS lauding any GE development, not even Golden Rice. Pam Ronald sat down with Margaret Mellon some years ago and came out with an interesting perspective on the goal of the Food & Ag program at UCS. But I know I would probably mangle it if I tried to summarize. Maybe she can enlighten us as to the content of the conversation?

  6. Heck, I’m inclined to run screaming from pharmacrops. For example, we have a group at ISU working on human collagen production in corn for the purposes of making pill capsules that dissolve well at body temperature. That’s all well and good, and probably completely safe. Still, can you imagine the public response on such a thing? Better to make it in yeast or bacteria, I think, like the fish protein that’s now used in some ice creams. Production in bacteria or yeast has the added benefit of not having to go through all the crazy levels of regulation.

  7. Sure, there may be some things done more appropriately or cost-effectively in one system or another. But complete opposition is unreasonable–which is something I see on some anti-GMO sites (which I won’t link to).
    I had heard about this cholera vaccine rice just prior to the floods in Pakistan. And every time I heard a news story on cholera in Pakistan after that I just cringed, and wished this was available to people. Some people might argue that traditional vaccines are the way to go–but obviously that’s not working, is it? There are a lot of considerations that aren’t obvious to most casual observers of this arena: shelf stability, transport, compliance, etc. Just because you could possibly make proteins in bacteria and make a vaccine out of it doesn’t mean that’s the best option for this situation.

  8. You know, I have not seen that page before, and I was chatting with Margaret Mellon at MOSES before the interview about pharmaceutical crops and that if a plant should be chosen it should be one that no one wants to eat anyway – a sacrificial crop for GE pharma. I joked that tobacco would be a good pick because the genetic tools are advanced, and even if there was a mishap and genes got out – the worst thing that could happen is people would stop smoking tobacco. Which might actually be a good thing. 🙂
    Anastasia and I have often talked about the fuzzy line between functional foods and pharmaceutical crops. The carrot breeder on my committee, has often remarked that conventional breeding has raised the levels of beta-carotene in carrots to pharmaceutical levels. The key distinction to make, I think, is between traits that do and do not alter the suitability of a plant and its parts as food. A vaccine produced in rice to cure and/or treat cholera might be an appropriate way to reach people in remote areas that have little access to medicine. And if there was some adventitious presence in food rice, I doubt any harm would come of it.
    Corn that makes Viagra, however, would be a bad idea, because it would be medically active in a very specific and undesirable way. (but it might keep the ears from drooping in the late fall!)
    Where this gets difficult is where to draw the line and determine whether or not it alters a food’s suitability for human consumption? If you talk to an anti-vax person, a plant-produced vaccine is unsuitable as food, period. Others might consider Viagra-brand Stiff Stalk Corn a good idea. Clearly, some attempt should be made at an objective measure.

  9. It is my impression that food crops are favored for pharma crops because of a long history of safe consumption, and a thorough knowledge of their components (proteins, lipids etc.) which facilitates purifying the pharma products. If they need to be purified, that is.
    Of course, it also opens the possibility of a ‘gene escape’ into crops destined for food. This could be ameliorated if the transgene is coupled to another transgene for a phenotypic trait, such as flower color, etc. This would not, however, work in a situation where the germplasm has been stolen because of the value of its pharma properties. The phenotypic trait could actually be used to ensure the pharma trait, whether stolen or not.
    So it may be necessary to develop and implement ‘terminator’ technology for such crops.
    In most cases, though, none of this would be relevant or necessary, except to assuage unfounded fears. For instance, rice with the lactoferrin gene for recovering from diarrhea-induced human dehydration would be fine for regular consumption, but would still frighten some to the point that its approval for cultivation would be denied.
    I suspect that opposition to ‘terminator’ technology by anti-biotech elements has arisen for precisely that reason — it would become impossible rationally to protest against ‘gene escapes’, and they’d have to find something else to scare people about.

  10. I LOVE where Frank N. Foode™ is in that picture with Margaret Mellon. Peeking out from behind the plant so she won’t freak out. 😀 Sooo cute!

  11. I don’t know that it needs to be a food crop, although I can see the reasons for that that you provide.
    But one of the advantages of doing them in a non-mammalian system is contamination. There’s a drug that Genzyme makes in human cell culture. But their facility got contaminated by something that could conceivably infect humans. FDA turned to the Protalix company that I learned about from UCS, actually. They make the same drug in carrot cell culture.
    And there are some other endogenous viruses that people are concerned about in human cell cultures. Of course, there are some people that claim vaccines are made from aborted fetal cells–and you’d like to think carrots would allay their fears, but that’s certainly just an excuse in their other huge bucket of objections….

  12. Mary M,
    You are right to be squeamish about mammalian cell culture for pharma production. Plant-based alternatives would seem to be nearly mandatory.
    However, I get the impression that the same does not apply to mammalian production using *live* animals. I’m thinking drugs expressed in the milk of transgenic mice, sheep and goats, or especially, pigs designed at the molecular level to provide organs for human transplant with reduced, or perhaps zero, likelihood of rejection.
    There are actually a lot of intriguing projects out there!

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