Sex and death in the cornfields, Part II- Why rootworms?

Hi, I started this series to explain a little more background behind the news and opinion articles you may have seen about Bt-resistant corn rootworms, with scary titles like Voracious worm evolves to eat biotech corn engineered to kill it and Evolution one-ups genetic modification.  I started out talking about the system as it was originally developed for moths, but I wanted to come back to talk about why rootworms are so good at developing resistance to Bt crops.  Part I of this article talked about refuges and how they are used to slow insect resistance, so I’m assuming you know how a refuge works.  If you don’t, check out Sex and death in the cornfields: What is a refuge?

Diabrotica virgifera virgifera

Western corn rootworm. Image by S Gorski.

There are several different pestiferous species of rootworms, but they are often lumped together because their larvae are difficult to tell apart.  The Western corn rootworm (Diabrotica virgifera virgifera) is the most damaging and most studied.

As you may recall, transgenic Bt-expressing corn targeting rootworms has only been around since 2003, and there are already reports of resistance.  Resistance has been confirmed in Iowa.  Reduced susceptibility has been reported in Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota.  (Reduced susceptibility is basically the same idea as resistance, but is defined more loosely; there is a lower standard of evidence to meet.)  So it looks like there will be more resistance occurring in the near future.

It looks like we haven’t been as effective in slowing resistance development with rootworm-active transgenics as with moth-active transgenics.  Why? There are lots of things about the rootworm system that make it less simple and less elegant than the moth system. Continue reading.

GM Watch finds GENERA useful, “badly needed”

In a discussion about the scientific literature on genetically engineered crops, Claire Robinson of GM Watch has previously said: ”I am, as you say, unaware of your GENERA project. A comprehensive list of studies on all aspects of GMOs is badly needed but beyond our means to gather together.” Biology Fortified, Inc., with our limited resources and volunteer staff, have come to the rescue and created this “badly needed” resource. Happily, GM Watch is now aware that GENERA is in beta testing, with more to come.

In response to our recent press release about the beta test of GENERA, GM Watch* tried the resource out, and found it useful. They were able to use GENERA to search for literature, find the information they wanted, and they agreed with our evaluation of the scientific literature in at least two cases, as discussed in a post they published in response to our press release about GENERA. Although they thought it both needed and useful, their post took an odd tone in the form of a criticism – claiming that we were misrepresenting the research contained in GENERA and leaving out important information. There were so many misunderstandings in their post that I wanted to help them to understand what it all means and clear up their confusion.

GM Watch agrees with assessment in GENERA of at least 2 studies

While GM Watch is criticizing our conclusions, they have indicated that they found GENERA to be both useful and accurate. They mention two studies and show that they agree with how we have classified the results.

These include Pusztai’s study on GM potatoes, which the GENERA authors correctly note had a “negative” conclusion for food safety. To be specific, the GM-fed rats showed gut cell proliferation that was similar to a pre-cancerous condition.

The GENERA authors also include the multi-generational study by Kilic and colleagues, which they note had “mixed” results. These consisted of damage to liver and kidneys and alterations in blood biochemistry in rats fed GM Bt maize over three generations, though other measured parameters showed no effect.

GM Watch picks out these two studies, but they seem to misunderstand science. Science is done not by cherry-picking single studies or data points within a single study to make conclusions that are at odds with the rest of the literature. Biology research is messy and data is often hard to interpret.


Table 4 from Kilic et al.

The Kiliç et al study is a perfect example of this. They fed rats three different diets (standard diet, control maize, and transgenic maize) for three generations, as part of a masters thesis project. The data was highly variable and confusing, thus it was classified as mixed results, but there were some strange issues with the health status of these rats. One of the control groups fed non-GMO corn had an average liver size that was 1/5 the normal relative size! What is going on with these rats? This shows the perils of cherry-picking data points from individual studies to claim that GMOs are “toxic,” when if you took their approach, this table on the right would be interpreted to mean that non-GMO corn is “toxic” to female rats. The Pusztai study on GMO potatoes suffers from many other similar problems that have been discussed elsewhere.

Scientists have to take all of the evidence into account, and now GENERA gives everyone the ability to step back and see the bigger picture. While it may seem ironic to be using GENERA to dig up individual studies to argue that GENERA is “misleading” while also confirming its accuracy, GM Watch is showing us that they are finding GENERA to be a useful resource for them. In addition, based on previous comments, Claire Robinson of GM Watch has said that it is badly needed. Hence the title of this post.

Conflicts and interests

GM watch mentioned a 2011 paper by Diels et al. That paper found that studies conducted by authors classified as “industry-affiliated” were more likely to show a favorable result for genetic engineering (being safer than or as safe as conventional, or effective at achieving the desired outcome). However, the authors only considered 94 studies which is a small subset of the total research available, and they had some strange definitions for how they classified the studies. For instance, some government agencies were classified as industry-affiliated while others were not, and without seeing the actual data, there’s no way to tell if this classification system makes sense. In addition, there was no consideration in the paper of funding or affiliation to competing industries or NGOs (or agencies for that matter) that are affiliated with these industries. There was also a “one drop rule” for industry affiliation – if only one author or funding source was considered “affiliated” with industry, it was classified with studies done entirely by the industry. These issues may introduce a bias into the data analysis, which is amplified when it is done on such a small subset of the research. Even so, they found no association between funding sources and outcomes, only between outcomes and their novel “one drop rule” classification system. For another view about industry funding, including analysis of the Diels et al paper, see this post by Marc Brazeau.

When we planned GENERA we wanted to avoid these kinds of pitfalls. We included an array of classifications for funding sources that includes governments, individuals, and different kinds of industries and NGOs. Most importantly, everyone can see how we have classified each study in the Atlas – the data is entirely public and transparent. GM Watch’s comments about taking our conclusions “on faith” just don’t make any sense considering that our data is public and the data for the study they refer to is not. In fact, we encourage people to do searches, make charts, and check individual studies and tell us if they find any problems! (That’s how a beta test works!) Finally, our tentative conclusion that the clear majority of studies in the literature indicate safety is based off of 197 studies, which is more than twice the number of studies that was included in Diels, et al. And when GENERA reaches its full release, it will have many, many more.


(click for a larger image)

Additionally, GM Watch claims that the Diels review study already found that half of the research was independent, however, that is not the case. They found that 39% of the 94 studies they examined were independent by their classification system, which is not half. In fact, 39% is closer to the 1/3 estimate that we made early on before we began work on the Atlas itself. We highlighted this result because it disconfirms our previous rough estimate as well as many of the claims that are made on the internet, including in articles republished by GM Watch and the Diels et al. study. There is a perception that nearly all of the research is conducted by the biotech industry, and we wanted people to know that the GENERA beta version shows that approximately half of the research on the safety of GMOs for consumption is funded by government agencies and independent nonprofit organizations.

So how do the results of studies funded by these different sources compare? As an infographic produced by the Genetic Literacy Project shows, we have found that industry funded studies have more favorable results for genetic engineering (4 safer than, 35 as safe as, and 1 less safe) (at least with our randomly selected 400 papers from the literature). We also found that independent (non-industry) government funded studies also overwhelmingly show a favorable result for genetic engineering (7 safer than, 62 as safe as, 7 inconclusive, and 6 less safe). We hypothesize that this trend will hold as we add more studies to GENERA. Either the industry results confirm the government results because they are based on the same science and genetic engineering is indeed a generally safe technology, or there is a massive global conspiracy among scientists working for governments around the world. In my years as a scientist, I have not yet found evidence of such a conspiracy, so if GM Watch has such evidence I hope they share with the rest of us.


(click for a larger image)

Just a misunderstanding

In our press release, I was quoted as saying “Systematic reviews have concluded that genetically engineered crops are safe to eat, and when you look at the results collected in GENERA, it agrees with that conclusion.” but the press release didn’t include specific citations to reviews. GM Watch took issue with that, claiming that  I had an “avoidance of specific citations”. Perhaps they think that the press release was a scientific journal article. I’m not sure why they think that, but that’s okay, it’s obviously just a misunderstanding. Press releases, as a form of prose, generally don’t have citations. Blog posts usually don’t have citations either, however at the Biofortified Blog, our blog posts often have scientific citations, so if GM Watch thought that this was a blog post then maybe that would explain their confusion?

Claire Robinson has also said that her organization purposefully didn’t provide citations in a report they published, so you’d think GM Watch would understand not including citations in a press release. Ms. Robinson said: “The reason is that such a list would be boring in a report for the public.” Of course, the citations simply weren’t included in our press release because it’s a press release. Biology Fortified, Inc. doesn’t believe the citations are boring for the public, in fact the entire goal of GENERA is to make the citations more accessible to the public.

So where are the systematic reviews?

In the case of this press release, I was thinking more of the statements produced by various organizations around the world in favor of genetic engineering as a safe technology. For example: the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the World Health Organization (WHO). See statements from well-respected scientific organizations by clicking on the image to the right (image by Axis Mundi).

There have, of course, been systematic reviews in the literature as well as these consensus statements from well-respected scientific organizations. One of the largest is Nicolia et al in 2014 (PDF). This review included 1784 studies about various aspects of safety of genetically engineered crops for the environment and human/animal health. They conclude:

“We have reviewed the scientific literature on GE crop safety for the last 10 years that catches the scientific consensus matured since GE plants became widely cultivated worldwide, and we can conclude that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.”

Each consensus statement and review has its own focus. Once GENERA is complete, people will be able to do their own reviews of the literature and report their findings with our helpful graphs!

Perhaps GM watch wants to help

As we say in the press release, there are only 400 randomly selected studies in GENERA right now. Surely there are other studies that GM Watch and similar organizations would like to see represented in GENERA. And we say that’s just fine! We fully acknowledge that there are many more studies than just these 400 randomly selected ones in our beta test, and we fully acknowledge that the format and function of the database still need some tweaking. Check out GENERA and take our survey to let us know if you spot any errors, and let us know if we are missing any studies (but first check our page about what is included in GENERA).

* It would be lovely to put a name to the article, but unfortunately GM Watch does not sign their articles, so we don’t know who wrote this. Given the frequent references to documents authored by Earth Open Source, an organization also run by Ms. Robinson, it seems likely that this GM Watch blog post was written by Robinson.

Editor’s Note: Karl Haro von Mogel contributed to this post.

Concentrate Organic Matter at Surface to Improve Soils

tilling the field

Intensive tillage with moldboard plow

Organic matter is the key to soil quality, but building soil organic matter levels can be slow and expensive. There is an alternative. Research shows (Franzluebbers, 2002) many soil functions improve when organic matter is concentrated in the top 2-3″ of the soil, and that, for many soils and environments, this may be the most effective way to improve soil quality.

Soil organic matter (SOM) is crucial for many soil functions, and so has been a primary indicator of soil quality. The % organic matter of the top 6, 8, or 12″ of soil is often used to evaluate whether a soil is improving or degrading. In gardens and small fields, it is relatively easy to increase the quantity of SOM. Not so in large fields where crop residues are often the only source of organic matter, and where increasing SOM by even 0.5% may require a decade of costly effort. In these fields, shifting focus from the total amount of organic matter in a soil to the organic matter concentration at the soil surface is most beneficial. Continue reading.

The new Frank N. Foode™!

Here’s a short update that I’m sure everyone will be interested to hear about. After several redesigns and adjustments, I’m really pleased to announce that the design for the new Frank N. Foode plushie that many of you have been waiting for – is done!


So here’ what comes next. Continue reading.

Announcing the launch of the GENERA beta test

We are proud to announce the launch of the new GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas (GENERA) website and the public beta test of our system. Today, for the first time ever, the public will be able to see what we have been working on for so long. Check out our press release and let us know what you think about the new GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas! In addition, scroll to the bottom to see infographics made by the Genetic Literacy Project to illustrate some of the important preliminary findings of the GENERA project.

Press Release (PDF)

New resource shows half of GMO research is independent

Those who follow the issue of genetically engineered crops have heard claims that there is little independent research on their safety for consumption or the environment. A new public database of research tells a different story. The resource is the GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas (GENERA), and it goes public on 25 August 2014. The results show that independent peer-reviewed research on GMOs is common, conducted worldwide, and makes up half of the total of all research on risks associated with genetic engineering.

GENERA is a searchable database of peer-reviewed scientific studies on the relative risks of genetically engineered crops. The database includes important details at-a-glance to help people find and learn about the science of GMOs. GENERA has now entered its beta-testing phase with the first 400 out of over 1,200 studies that have been curated.

GENERA is a project of Biology Fortified, Inc. (BFI), an independent tax-exempt non-profit. The mission of BFI is to strengthen the public discussion of issues in biology, with particular emphasis on genetics and genetic engineering in agriculture. Founded in 2008 as a scientist-run information resource and public forum, Biology Fortified does not accept funding from industry sources, and is instead funded by the contributions of readers and grants.

Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel, Chair and co-Director of BFI, said that people are looking for independent information about GMOs. “People are looking for sources that they can trust that can help them find unbiased information about genetic engineering, but in a politically-charged debate, unbiased sources are difficult to find. We’ve been recognized for our independent expertise on this subject, so it was only natural that we should take a project like this on.”

GENERA started as a list of studies to show people how much research has been conducted on GMOs, however the members of BFI quickly recognized that something better was needed. To begin work on GENERA, BFI was awarded a peer-reviewed grant from the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) Educational Foundation in 2012. The Atlas was developed during 2013 and 2014. BFI enlisted the help of a team of awesome volunteers who tracked down and entered the details of hundreds of studies into the Atlas.

Journalists, scientists, public officials, and anyone else can use GENERA to search for research on the effectiveness of using genetic engineering to modify the genetics of plants, and can find studies that compare GMOs to non-GMOs to see if they are equivalent. Studies conducted on the safety of consuming genetically engineered foods and their impacts on the environment are also included in the Atlas.

“We’ve made it really easy for people to find the information they are looking for in the Atlas,” said Dr. Anastasia Bodnar, co-Director of BFI. “Every study has a page that tells you all about who did the research and in what countries, what crops and traits were studied, and who funded it.” Each study page also posts the results of the research, said Dr. Bodnar. “We read the studies so you don’t have to – and we have links to the studies so you can read them if you want to!”

GENERA also offers users a unique opportunity to look at the results of hundreds of studies at once with a built-in chart feature. After doing a search, users can turn that search into a chart of the selected studies to look at their results, funding sources, or almost any other attribute they want.

“We are really proud of the chart feature,” said Dr. Haro von Mogel. “If you want to know anything what animals GMOs were fed to, or what kinds of traits are being studied in different countries, you can do that instantly. This lets you look at the big picture and answer your own questions about what research is out there like never before.” The site currently includes two tutorials and a glossary of terms to help visitors learn how to use these features.

The team at BFI is already seeing patterns in the research. Out of the first 400 randomly-selected studies available in the GENERA beta test, half of them are funded entirely by government agencies and independent nonprofit organizations. Before the project began, rough estimates placed them at just a third of the research. And the government-funded research is worldwide in scope – concentrated in Europe and Asia, followed by North America and Australia. These findings should turn the heads of people who thought it was skewed to private, U.S.-based laboratories.

“Not all of our results are surprising,” said Dr. Bodnar. “Systematic reviews have concluded that genetically engineered crops are safe to eat, and when you look at the results collected in GENERA, it agrees with that conclusion.”

The Atlas is a work-in-progress, and BFI needs help to complete the project. Anyone can volunteer to help the project – you do not have to be a scientist to make a valuable contribution. Tax-deductible donations will help fund the maintenance and development of the Atlas. Even just trying out the resource and answering a brief survey will be a big help to the project.

Visit the GENERA website at or follow @GENERA_news on twitter for updates about this exciting project.

Media Contact:

Karl Haro von Mogel, Ph.D.

Chair, co-Director, Biology Fortified, Inc.

(608) 284-8842

Images (created by the Genetic Literacy Project):

Map of government-funded GMO studies around the world (jpg | PDF with links)


The scientific literature on the safety of GMOs for consumption (jpg | PDF with links)