Is opposition to GE crops in Europe a Scientific Flip-Flop?

Just out today, Seed Magazine has assembled a “Scientific Flip Flop” about Genetically Engineered crops. The article begins with an introduction into the curious case of European nations who embrace scientific conclusions in other areas of science, but not in this area.

Most Europeans don’t consider themselves to be anti-science or particularly technophobic. In fact, Europe’s full embrace of the scientific consensus on another environmental issue, global warming, has enabled the continent to take the clear lead on climate change, with the most ambitious emissions targets, the first carbon trading market, and the greenest urban infrastructure plans on the planet.

Europe’s scientific disconnect is more broadly true of eco-minded citizens worldwide: They laud the likes of James Hansen and Rajendra Pachauri but shrink in horror at the scientist who offers up a Bt corn plant (even though numerous studies indicate that Bt crops—by dramatically curbing pesticide use—conserve biodiversity on farms and reduce chemical-related sickness among farmers).

So why the disconnect? Why do many environmentalists trust science when it comes to climate change but not when it comes to genetic engineering? Is the fear really about the technology itself or is it a mistrust of big agribusiness?

Contributing their views (in order) are Pam Ronald, Raj Patel, Nina Fedoroff, and Noel Kingsbury. Read the article, I’ll offer a few opinions about it after the jump.

In my humble opinion, the opposition is chiefly due to anti-corporate sentiments, some of which are not entirely unfounded. The conflict of interest of making a product and simultaneously ensuring its safety does not go unnoticed – that is why we have government regulators at the EPA, FDA, and USDA. Other nations around the world have set up their own governmental oversight and have come to the same conclusions as in the U.S., and the article does not mention that the European Union has approved several GE crops, while individual nations are sketchy about them. Germany seems to be having a particularly harsh case of food fears, and have gone after public research into the technology as well.

My first complaint about a contribution to the article was when Raj Patel said,

This points to my concerns about the state of scientific debate. The direction of research priorities in agriculture is predominantly shaped not by the relative merit of different technologies, but rather the research priorities of the private sector. The largest publicly funded examination of genetically engineered agriculture—the UK government’s field trials—found GM crops inferior to conventional agriculture in most respects. But conventional and GM agriculture are not the only two comparison points.

First, it is frustrating when people do not give any specific details about when studies were conducted, by whom, and where they were published. It makes it difficult to look up the precise details to verify whether they are accurately reporting the results. Several anti-GE groups have put up position statements about these field trials, which seem to have been completed in 2002-03 and declared the GE crops to be a failure. The Naked Scientists podcast, however, tells more about the story:

After a three years of farm-scale trials looking at the environmental impact of GM crops the results are finally out this week. These were the biggest trials carried out anywhere in the world, showing just how concerned the government are that they get enough information to make a decision about whether Britain should adopt the new technology. The trials were looking at three different crops, sugar beet, maize and oilseed rape- all of which had been genetically modified to be resistant to particular herbicides (chemicals that kill weeds). The idea behind the crops is that farmers will be able to treat fields less frequently with weedkillers, as the treatments will be more effective and only target the weeds without damaging the crops. This would save time and money, as well as reducing the amount of chemicals farmers are using in total.

But the fields trials suggest that at least two out of the three GM crops, beet and oilseed rape, had a harmful impact on the environment in and around the fields where they were grown. This included a decrease in the number of bees and butterflies, as well as a reduction in the number of wild plant seeds available to feed animals like birds. But they did find more soil insects present in the fields sown with the GM beet and oilseed rape, which may be because herbicides were used less often. There was good news for fans of GM technology as well- GM maize was found to be better for wild plants, animals and insects than normal maize. It’s important to point out that these effects on the local wildlife are nothing to do with the actual genetic modification of the plants, but more to do with the levels and types of weedkillers used by the farmers, as well as how often they treated their fields. (emphasis added)

Reductions in insect life that depend upon weeds growing in your fields are going to be fewer when you are controlling the weeds. Interestingly, in the case of herbicide-tolerant beets, it was later discovered that if you strip-sprayed your field of GE beets, it actually provided MORE plants for insect life, without damaging the crop. This is one of the things that happens when you rely on older results. (Here is a link to another option for providing food for wildlife.)

It is good to note that biased reporting of results is going on here. In this field trial (assuming I have found the correct one), they also reported that soil insects were increased in the same fields. They also concluded that the GE Bt maize was better for the environment than the conventional counterpart, mostly because it reduced pesticide sprays.

Next, I would like to comment on Nina Fedoroff’s contribution. She co-wrote Mendel in the Kitchen, which is an excellent book that I highly recommend. In this article, she was straight to the point, accessible, and talked about the way people’s attention spans (including the media) cause facts to be ignored and trumpted stories to be preferred instead. But it may be that Fedoroff is committing a similar sort of error.

With a computer and bit of effort, almost anyone can extract the facts from the gloom and catastrophism. Fact: Modern genetic modification of crops is responsible for most of the crop yield increases of recent years. This means, of course, that the farmers who’ve adopted GM crops have benefited the most.

There have been yield gains in Bt cotton, Bt corn, and with soybean farmers elsewhere in the world that have been able to fit a second soy crop into the same year due to GE technology, however I take issue with her potential mis-statement that genetic modification is responsible for most of the yield increases in recent years. Breeding still provides a large part of yield improvements, which is ongoing, especially for those breeders utilizing marker-assisted or “precision” breeding. The reason why I characterize it as a potential mis-statement is that I know that Fedoroff calls breeding genetic modification. (It is) If she meant that genetic engineering contributed most of the yield gains I would probably disagree, but if she meant all forms of genetic modification then I think she could have been more clear in her statement.

Next, I would like to address a couple of Tom Philpott’s claims. He points out that the kind of consensus that has formed around climate science amongst climate scientists is stronger than the consensus that has formed around GE crops, and I agree with that for the most part. There is a good consensus amongst plant scientists on the subject and some environmentalists, but not all other branches of science fully agree.

The real question becomes: How can serious publications like Seed claim that skepticism toward GMOs reflects a “scientific flip-flop”? To be sure, the illusion of a broad consensus holds sway in the United States, and the IAASTD has clearly failed to correct it. The US media greeted its release with near-complete silence—in stark contrast to its reception in the European media.

The possibility that the IAASTD’s statements about genetic engineering might be symptomatic of this dissonance doesn’t seem to occur to him. There’s a lot of politics involved, for example, the US government was very resistant to climate change agreements under Bush’s presidency, which has quickly turned around now that Obama is in office. The U.S.’s position on GE crops seems not to have changed (and indeed, has been repeatedly emphasized). Could that not be more parsimoniously explained by political opposition to GE crops from people (and even scientists) outside the U.S.? I would like to note that the EU is moving toward growing GE crops steadily year by year.

Next, Philpott brings up a report written by Don Lotter, attempting to explain the pursuit of GE crops in terms of mere economics and politics without the strength of scientific evidence. I have already begun reading the report, and without going into too much detail at this time, its conclusions and analysis are problematic. For example, some major claims are made that do not correspond to the references cited. I will provide more details in another post, but I think referring to a paper with more scholarly rigor would bemore appropriate.

Philpott brings up the multi-generational Austrian feeding ‘study.’

When there have been long-term trials by independent researchers, the results have hardly been comforting.

For example, writes Lotter:

In a 2008 report (Velimirov et al., 2008) of research commissioned by the Austrian government, a long-term animal feeding experiment showed significant reproductive problems in transgenic corn-fed rats when all groups were subject to multiple birth cycles, a regimen that has not hitherto been examined in feeding studies comparing transgenic and non-transgenic foods.

Thus in the first-ever multi-generational study of the effects of GMO food, evidence of serious reproductive trouble comes to light: reduced birth weight and fertility.

As detailed here, this study was raising its mice under poor conditions. How do we know? They fed GE maize and non-GE maize to two groups, the experimental group and the control, and allowed them to breed for several generations. For a properly conducted feeding study, they should have had a very low mortality rate in the control group – about 1%. But as the study authors reported, they lost an average of 8% of their control mice. This means that the mice were living in poor conditions, and is seriously calls into question any conclusions that could be drawn from it. And if you take a look at the average pup losses per generation, you’ll notice something odd:

The curious incidence of silence about mistreated animals

The curious incidence of silence about mistreated animals

Notice the high numbers of mouse pup losses in the control (ISO), and low losses in the transgenic? The GE-fed mice survived better, yet this is not mentioned anywhere. And the European media is silent on this… the argument goes both ways.

It is also exceedingly important to note that this study was not peer-reviewed – and I daresay it would not have survived even the most lax of scientific journal reviews. David Tribe has posted more about the study and its problems. We need to base our opinions on the best available evidence from reliable studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. As Nina Fedoroff said, anyone with a computer can find out this information. Why hasn’t Tom?

Curiously, after claiming that this study was independent, Tom Philpott then ‘flip-flops’ and supports the notion that no truly independent study exists.

A group of 23 US scientists signed a letter to the EPA declaring that, “No truly independent research [on GMOs] can be legally conducted on many critical questions.”

Which one is it?

I would like to note that intellectual property issues when it comes to public research are in issue that needs to be addressed.

Noel Kingsbury, whose book Hybrid, the history and science of plant breeding comes out later this year, closes the deal:

The fact is that the scientific case against GM is pretty threadbare. It is far more precise and predictable than some of the most important breeding technologies of the last 50 years. If you get hot under the collar about GM, why not the far more frightening “radiation breeding”? Mention that to most anti-GM activists and they look puzzled. Radiation breeding involves zapping seeds or cuttings with radiation, or treating plant material with gene-altering chemicals. Many countries in the 1960s invested in “radiation fields” where trees were grown behind big earthen dykes so that they would be permanently irradiated. The goal: obtaining mutations that might be useful, as one in several tens of thousands was. The first radiation-bred rice was sold as “Nuclear Rice” in Hungary in the mid-1950s. Imagine marketing that today! Radiation breeding is unpredictable, uncertain in its results, and causes widespread genome damage. But no one has ever suggested that it has ever done any harm! Much Italian pasta has been grown with an irradiated durum wheat. Nearly all Asian pears are the offspring of irradiated grafts. And—get this— much European organic beer is brewed from radiation-bred barley! No one complains or protests. Wake up! Be realistic! Why get so excited by GM?

GM crops must be looked at and judged variety by variety. The first generation Roundup varieties are giving way to second generation crops with some highly valuable characteristics, like resistance to pests (thousands of deaths by pesticide poisoning have already been avoided by Chinese and Indian caterpillar-proof cotton) and drought-tolerance. Once we start to see soy with omega-3s or nutrient-enhanced tomatoes, attitudes will surely start to change.

World population is increasing, arable land availability is decreasing, and water resources are shrinking. We need every technology possible to increase yields, reduce toxic pesticide use, improve nutritional value, and feed the world. The European and Indian opposition to GM is rooted in a hopelessly romantic view of farming. Farming is not a romantic business—it is about feeding the human race, and we must listen to the overwhelming consensus of plant science—that GM is safe and desirable.

The important distinction being made here is that there is a consensus within plant science, but not necessarily one between disciplines. The key difference between how these two kinds of genetic changes are being treated politically and socially have more to do with the political and social climates in different hemispheres and less to do with the science that has been conducted around the world. In some cases, science is being ignored in the interest of societal issues, and in other cases, bad science is being wielded as a weapon to draw attention away from the good science that exists.

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Karl is a Ph.D. Candidate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison. In addition to his research on the genetics of sweet corn, he is also completing a minor in science communication and is working on several media projects about plant breeding. His favorite produce might just be squash.


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5 comments to Is opposition to GE crops in Europe a Scientific Flip-Flop?

  • James

    Great post Karl. One thing that doesn’t come across clearly is that you mention twice the idea that while plant scientists are in consensus about the benefits of GM crops, this is not true of other branches or disciplines.

    What areas of science do you mean? Obviously if quantum physicists are worried about genetic engineering that is less worth losing sleep over than if we were instead talking about the concerns of biochemists. It’s important to establish what types of scientists are unconvinced and what the connection is between their field of study and the techniques and results of genetic engineering.

  • Mary

    The interesting thing about using Europeans as the model for stalwart opposition is that the data doesn’t bear that out either. I found a discussion of various survey results here: http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/news/stories/415.an_overview_european_consumer_polls_attitudes_gmos.html

    It turns out only ~20% of consumers actively avoid the products. And I’ve heard that governments are pretty coy to use the activists to keep the GE products out for trade reasons.

  • Re James: I do know that there are scientists in the environmental disciplines that disagree on GE crops. There are also plenty of them who are in favor of it. In some cases I think there may be a miscommunication going on about environmental goals.
    In other cases, I think there are some ecologists who aren’t thinking like geneticists – I know some believe that low-level presence of transgenes due to gene flow is a problem, yet, don’t think about all the other genes bred into modern cultivars from wild relatives, came from mutagenesis, etc. For example, there is an herbicide-tolerant wheat generated through mutagenesis – and there are absolutely no regulations covering this trait, whereas if a human being created it purposefully the alarm bells ring. Herbicide tolerance, no matter how it is generated, poses the same concerns.

    I happen to know a public researcher in plant gene flow, and I asked them what the biggest gene flow risk they know of is – and the answer was Elm Trees, not GE crops.

    Re: Mary – thanks for reminding me about that study. It certainly backs up the research that has occurred in Oregon that found the same result – about 20% of consumers were willing to pay more for labels, the rest were not. The question then becomes, why is the 20% in Europe more influential than the 20% over here?

  • [...] Haro von Mogel on his Biofortified blog provides an analyis of the articles. He write: “The important distinction being made here is [...]

  • [...] Haro von Mogel on his Biofortified blog provides his analyis of SEED Magazine’s examination of the debate over GMOs in Europe. He [...]

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