Lit search failures and hazards

Facepalm by Alex E. Proimos via Flickr.

On Twitter yesterday, @seekblunttruth shared a link with @franknfoode that I thought deserved greater scrutiny. The link is to an ISIS post* titled Bt Crops Failures & Hazards.
Others may spend some time criticizing ISIS itself, and that criticism may be worthy, but here I’d like to focus on the post. I’ll let you check out the post content  yourself, but I want to focus on the works cited list.
There are 29 citations. We find 11 sources that are by ISIS authors. It’s ok to refer to your previous work, we do it on Biofortified all the time, but having almost 40% of the citations be self-citations feels like an attempt to pad the citations list. Many of the rest of the sources are either by biased organizations or have been previously debunked either in the literature or in the blogosphere.
The following 6 sources are not peer-reviewed. Really, only one of these (the Bloomberg article) is a useful source (assuming that you feel that non-peer reviewed media is useful).

  1. EPA memorandum saying they plan to review insect resistance – This is not really useful, maybe ISIS meant to cite something else?
  2. Article in Bloomberg – Reasonably balanced and useful article about development of insect resistance to Bt.
  3. ISAAA brief on global status of biotech crops – Source used for number of hectares planted in biotech crops. Reasonably useful information source for this particular piece of info, but take with a grain of salt because this is a self-described pro-biotech organization.
  4. Report by Navdanya International – I’ll let you decide the seriousness of the report from the cover (hint – there’s no biotech traits in wheat).
  5. Compendium of Cotton Mealybugs” by India’s Central Institute for Cotton Research – I don’t know enough about this organization to judge (and I don’t have time to read the whole report at the moment).
  6. Pesticide Action Network report – By a self-described anti-pesticide and also anti-biotech organization.

The following 12 sources are peer-reviewed (41%). Of these, 5 have been thoroughly thrashed elsewhere, and citing them without critique is dishonest, in my humble opinion. One (#4) reminds us that biotech isn’t a silver bullet. The rest don’t really say “Bt good” or “Bt bad”, they’re details to be examined.

  1. Inter-laboratory comparison of Cry1Ab toxin quantification in MON 810 maize by enzyme-immunoassay 2011 in Food and Agricultural Immunity. Cited to show variability in Bt concentrations.
  2. Temporal and intra-plant variability of Cry1Ac expression in Bt-cotton and its influence on the survival of the cotton bollworm 2005 in Current Science. Same as above, although examines expression differences by genotype. Genotypic differences in gene expression are not unique to biotech traits, and are expected by breeders, so this isn’t unexpected.
  3. Seasonal expression profiles of insecticidal protein and control efficacy against Helicoverpa armigera for Bt cotton in the Yangtze River valley of China 2005 in Journal of Economic Entomology. Again, differences in expression, this time in different plant parts. Again, not an unexpected result.
  4. Mirid bug outbreaks in multiple crops correlated with wide-scale adoption of Bt cotton in China 2010 in Science. This paper showed that when you stop spraying pesticides, pests come back. Unfortunate, but not an unexpected result. This paper is a great example of how biotech pest resistance needs to be paired with integrated pest management. There are no silver bullets.
  5. Genetically modified crops safety assessments: present limits and possible improvements 2011 in Environmental Sciences Europe. This paper, by Séralini and Vendômois (and others) is based on a flawed paper that has been discussed elsewhere, including by the European Food Safety Authority.
  6. Cry1Ac pro-toxin from Bacillus thuringiensis sp. kurstaki HD73 binds to surface proteins in the mouse small intestine 2010 in Biochemical Biophysical Research Communications. I have not seen previous analysis of this paper. Perhaps a Biofortified reader would like to discuss it further. One question I have is whether other proteins from plants and bacteria have similar reactions with proteins on the intestine. Another question is whether the proteins binding has any actual physiological effect.
  7. Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada 2011 in Reproductive Toxicolology. This paper has been discussed elsewhere, including by Marcel Kuntz and Food Standards Australia New Zealand, then subsequently on Biofortified.
  8. Reduced fitness of Daphnia magna fed a Bt-transgenic maize variety 2008 in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. I have not seen previous analysis of this paper. Any Biofortified readers familiar with it?
  9. Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae 1999 in Nature. This famous paper by Losey (and others) has been extensively discussed elsewhere, including by Iowa State entomologist Hellmich.
  10. Decline of monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexico: is the migratory phenomenon at risk? 2011 in Insect Conservation and Diversity. The hypothesis of this paper is pretty silly. It proposes that an increase in glyphosate resistant crops resulted in more milkweed being sprayed with glyphosate so less food for monarchs. Never mind increased deforestation and conversion of natural lands to cropland (resulting in less milkweed) in the same time frame. Never mind the fact that if glyphosate wasn’t being used, some other herbicide (that also kills milkweed) would be used. This is not an argument against glyphosate resistance, or against Bt, or against biotech traits. It may be an argument for careful land use, set-asides of land for natural habitat, and integrated pest management – all of which can just as easily be done with biotechnology as without.
  11. Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico 2001 in Nature. As Mercer and Wainright point out, Quist’s results haven’t been replicated. I have written a post about gene flow that may be relevant to understanding the Quist paper.
  12. Toxins in transgenic crop byproducts may affect headwater stream ecosystems 2007 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This paper by Rosi-Marshall (and others) has been critiqued elsewhere (see the responses at the bottom of the article). I wrote about this paper back in 2008 (and in 2007).

The author of the ISIS post failed to do a proper literature search, so didn’t find any of the sources that showed anything but their preconceived notions of Bt. This is definitely worthy of a facepalm, if not a headdesk. If anyone has relevant points to add to this analysis, post a comment and I’ll update the post.
* They call it a report but if that is a report than most if not all of the posts on Biofortified are also reports.

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. Oh, my. The first sentence of the ISIS “report” was a facepalm. I’ll need a helmet for the rest:

    Rising insect resistance to genetically modified (GM) crops including Monsanto’s biggest selling crop, Bt corn, is threatening their utility and profitability.

    I don’t believe for a millisecond that they give a crap about utility or profitability of Bt. ROFL!

    1. This line is even better ‘secondary pests that are not susceptible to the Bt toxins can emerge as a result of reduced pesticide use, bad agricultural practices e.g. monoculture farming, and the reduction of food or niche competitors (target pests).’ But before that it says ‘GM proponents have repeatedly claimed that Bt crops can help combat world hunger by increasing crop yields while reducing pesticide use…these claims are false. Pesticide use has increased, while GM crop yields are lower than conventional varieties.’ Also on that piece, echoing similar statements elsewhere on the site claiming there are no benefits to Bt crops, they state of Bt crops that ‘the evidence for their functionality is still elusive.’ So, they increase pesticide use, except when other insects become pests as a result of them needing less pesticides, and they don’t provide any benefit, although they create a selection pressure that promotes resistant insects that threaten to erode the benefits they provide. Okay, that makes sense.
      And I just read some thing about wheat (conventionally bred obviously) losing resistance to hessian flies. Anyone expecting the ISIS and/or other such groups won’t uphold a double standard and will soon take issue with this and make sweeping statements about conventional breeding for also having resistance problem like the GE traits? Yeah, me neither.

  2. Have you read the quantum jazz sections of the ISIS website? Utter utter utter nonsense.
    If you need a good laugh I would also recommend reading the synopsis and articles/reviews of Mae Wan Ho’s book ‘The Rainbow and the Worm’ on their website.
    These people are completely cuckoo. Not even worth arguing with/about. I once wrote to them politely asking if there was a single area of scientific discovery that they did agree with as all they seem to produce are articles arguing against the scientific consensus. They wrote back basically saying every scientific or medical discovery ever has been a big conspiracy/scam and that only they know the truth. Deluded failures the lot of them.
    Antivax, anti GM, anti pesticide, AIDS deniers, pro-homeopathy, pro-traditional Chinese Medicine, anti-cloning, anti-stem cell research, anti-nanotechnology yet bizarrely pro-global warming. In effect they automatically take the anti-capitalist stance on any scientific issue and cherrypick the information that supports that viewpoint.

    1. I’d love to see that email if you can dig it up. 🙂
      I have a copy of Ho’s Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare book, and I gave it a shiny sticker of “Stephen Colbert’s Award for the Literary Excellence.” There are bald-faced utter falsehoods being stated as fact, and Ho is particularly preoccupied with the belief that GE crops are responsible for recent disease outbreaks, H1N1, Sars, et al. There are also unreferenced claims about specific genes that genetic engineers have put into unreleased GE crops that are supposedly behind the virulence of new deadly diseases.
      But hey, you can get a laugh out of the Google Ad Choices in the sidebar – they are advertising Pioneer Alfalfa seeds right now!

  3. Hi Karl
    I looked through my old e-mails but couldn’t find it. I’m wondering now if I didn’t just post my thoughts under one of the stories on their website to which Mae Wan Ho responded.
    It’s like a scientific lunatic asylum over there. One of their readers suggested execution of Monsanto scientists based on the infomration in Don Huber’s letter last year. It’s that mental.

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