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Author Topic: A review of Jonathon Foleys latest Ensia article
Bill Price
Elite Hybrid
Posts: 259
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Post A review of Jonathon Foleys latest Ensia article
on: February 25, 2014, 19:49
Quote

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EDIT: These ideas have now been posted as a blog article at: http://www.biofortified.org/2014/03/reductionist-thinking-and-gmos/
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Titled: "GMOs, Silver Bullets and the Trap of Reductionist Thinking"

http://ensia.com/voices/gmos-silver-bullets-and-the-trap-of-reductionist-thinking/

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I was hoping for more here, but was frankly unimpressed. He starts by stating that GMOs have come with "Big Problems" and then goes on to elaborate several points that are either old myths, untrue, or not really GE specific. In the move from “lab into the real world" his states "they end up being very disappointing." I wonder how many growers across the globe would agree with that?
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Problems he sees:
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"GMOs have done little to enhance the world’s food security."
Really? Perhaps this comes down to how you define security, but for growers risking their future with every crop, there has been an awful lot of wide spread acceptance, even to the point that seeds have been pirated for the chance to use them. Use of GE crops in developing countries has been shown to increase family incomes and thereby improve nutrition. That sounds like more security to me. In Western countries, their use has reduced financial risks and improved profits. That also sounds like more security to me. He explains that increased profits are the wrong goal and that the wrong crops have been targeted. Somehow actually making a buck at farming is a bad incentive and the US push on things like corn/ethanol is solely a GE problem. Were the wrong crops targeted? Perhaps in some cases, but those were driven by market forces, not science. In other cases, such as cotton, eggplant, or rice, good targets were selected, but have been tied down by political fighting. How can we then judge the potential effect on security? Would it have been appropriate to dismiss computer technology in the 60s or 70s because the corporate world of IBM and Cray had targeted the wrong uses in order to compute more accurate missile trajectories or maximize the kill ratio of a nuclear detonation while the government held back the technology from more acceptable populist uses?
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"GMOs have had uneven success in boosting crop yields"
Uhhh, please show me one GE crop that was specifically and intentionally targeted for increased yield. This is a complete strawman argument. The current GE events available have been aimed, not at yield, but at mitigating attacking and competitive plant pests. As it happens to turn out, if you reduce or remove pest pressures, the yields per acre of crop land can go up. Yes, the intrinsic yield (e.g. the number of kernels on a corn cob) did not change, but more overall production was gained. What’s more, those yields became more consistent and reliable. This, in my opinion, has been the real gain from GE technology. Intrinsic yield was never a goal.
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A net "increase in total pesticide use "
This is the usual canard heard from GE critics. To Mr. Foley’s credit, he does at least acknowledge that the use of "pesticides" and "weights used" is noninformative. He also admits that insecticide usage has dramatically decreased in the US. As usual in the pesticide debate, however, he follows through by playing the apparent trump card of increased herbicide usage, as if it were the nail in the GE coffin. The reality, however, is quite different. The herbicide argument relies on the false assumption that herbicide tolerant (HT) crops are somehow the unique problem child of GE technology. It ignores the fact that non GE HT crops can and do exist and are in use. That most HT crops were developed from GE technology is completely the result of circumstance and availability of the process. HT is a highly popular and useful crop characteristic for many growers. If GE had not been an option, HT crops would have been developed through traditional mutation/selection breeding techniques and they would still be widely available and used. The use of certain herbicides would have still increased and all the subsequent HT related problems would still be with us. Many of those problems actually predate GE use. This really is not a GE problem at all and implying that it is would be disingenuous.
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This extends to his next argument, blaming the decline of Monarch butterflies on HT GE use, but again, HT would have been around anyway and milkweed populations within crops would have still been affected. It should be also noted that there have been some doubts in the science community as to the importance of in crop milkweed populations to migrating Monarchs. More likely it is the declining available habitat due to expanded cropping that is a driving force in this problem. Perhaps Mr. Foley would be better to aim his ire at US ethanol production goals and subsidies rather than GE as a crop breeding technique.
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“we now realize more complex plant behaviors cannot be turned “on” or “off” by changing a single gene.”
Here he contends that crop improvement goals such as heat tolerance, nitrogen fixation, etc are unachievable because he can’t imagine them being simply operated upon. Recent work on drought tolerance, however, disputes this, and even current Bt technology has been shown to help with drought resistance simply through improved root structure due to reduced rootworm damage. I see this as the same line of argument that suggested that man was not meant to fly and could never go to the moon. The technology here is nascent in its abilities and dismissing it outright because you can’t imagine how it might proceed is naïve. He says “Why not put more effort into improved agronomic approaches — such as using cover crops, mulching and organic-style techniques — instead, which could yield results today?” I wonder how he does not realize many researchers and farmers are doing exactly this already. Does he really imagine no one has ever considered this? His title complains about people assuming GE as a silver bullet, and yet, he turns around and pulls out his own silver bullets as if they could address all our problems. We need to, and I believe we are, look at and use all potential solutions. It is quite likely that a combination of all these things will prove most effective.
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Picking on Golden Rice (GR), a GE rice alternative to vitamin A deficiency, he says “I have to wonder why GMO proponents feel it’s easier to change the fundamental biological character of rice (introducing a trait that could never arise in nature) than to simply grow more diverse crops, especially vegetables that already contain vitamin A?”
I don’t recall anyone saying this would be easier. It, from my reading on the topic, is viewed as one solution that has many potential benefits. His idea of “simply growing more diverse crops” is indeed simplistic. He posits that people will reject a grain of rice that is off color, yet somehow imagines they will accept with open arms and know how to use food materials that are completely foreign. He imagines everyone has the knowledge and ground to grow these non customary food crops. He imagines they would be somehow available and storable year round where they are needed (have you ever tried to keep sweet potato tubers for any length of time in a warm, humid environment?). Knowledge for rice production is widely known where GR is targeted. Once harvested, rice is easily dried down, compact to store and transport, and easy to prepare. Yes, diverse vegetables are a great goal where feasible, but if this was such a simple solution, why don’t we see it being used? Once again, no one has proposed a silver bullet here (except Mr. Foley) and the solution likely lies with use of all options from GR to diverse cropping to supplements.
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Speaking to the GE label wars he says “To people who say GMO labels are misguided, I ask, ‘Would you be happy if all the meat in your grocery store was simply sold as ‘mammal,’ whether it was beef, chicken, pork, horsemeat, dog or whatever?’”
I fail to follow his argument and he, apparently, has not followed the labeling issue well. If he had, he would know that all proposed label laws have suggested tag lines similar to “May contain genetically modified organisms”, which I find just as useless as his “mammal” label. He complains that GE proponents don’t understand what people want, while simultaneously failing to understand what label proponents are demanding and not acknowledging that label proponents actually comprise a very small, if not vocal, fragment of consumers. He implores GE proponents to use social sciences in such matters. Actually, GE proponents have already worked with and involved social scientists. They’ve told us that the majority of consumers don’t even recognize a desire to label GE unless they are prompted to. They have shown us that it simply isn’t an issue the general public is concerned with.
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Lastly, he takes the grand evil of science, “Reductionist Thinking” to task and proposes his own more holistic approach of organic farming (read: silver bullet) as a better model. We need to do more interdisciplinary research. He claims when he asked this of GE researchers he got silence. Perhaps he should broaden his Twitter feed a bit more, because I see lots of discussion and collaboration among all kinds of people on these issues. I have yet to find anyone who works in the vacuum he imagines.
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While I am being critical here, I do appreciate the sentiment of the article in proposing a wider scope of consideration surrounding GE and associated technologies. There is, in my mind, nothing to be lost there and everything to be gained. This treatment of the topic, however, is lacking. It is full of misinformation, bias, and lack of knowledge. IMO, Mr. Foley should study the subject more and consider refining and updating his arguments.

MaryM
Elite Hybrid
Posts: 420
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Post Re: A review of Jonathon Foleys latest Ensia article
on: February 25, 2014, 20:11
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Heh. He seems to have blocked me on twitter, so I can't reply.

Totally agree on all counts. I really just don't understand why he focuses on GMOness, while complaining we focus on GMOs. There's not a single complaint he has that is rectified if GMOs vanish tomorrow. What exactly is it about GMOs that prevents other "holistic" solutions? Nada.

It also relies on dreadful misinformers like Benbrook and Heinemann.

It's full of straw and fury.

EDIT: I laughed

MaryM
Elite Hybrid
Posts: 420
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Post Re: A review of Jonathon Foleys latest Ensia article
on: February 25, 2014, 20:29
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BTW: this was the tweeted question

And this excellent retort:

Again, as if "GMOness" was the issue.

Also: I once asked on a Saturday if Jon Foley stopped beating his wife. I got no answer...so....

EDIT: actually I found the conversation where I think he stopped talking to me. I asked him for evidence of his claims: https://twitter.com/GlobalEcoGuy/status/353217418593710082

Bill Price
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Posts: 259
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Post Re: A review of Jonathon Foleys latest Ensia article
on: February 25, 2014, 22:10
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Ahh, that would explain the block. Evidently, he is not familiar with atheist style comebacks :)

MaryM
Elite Hybrid
Posts: 420
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Post Re: A review of Jonathon Foleys latest Ensia article
on: February 26, 2014, 10:45
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I also wanted to point out that if he had actually looked he would find that people have considered whether people will eat Golden Rice--here's a guy who asked that question, AJ Stein:

http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/27/from-mark-lynas-to-michael-pollan-agreement-that-golden-rice-trials-should-proceed/?smid=tw-share

Finally, Pollan raises the question if people will eat yellow rice. There are various arguments out there that this may not be such an obstacle: There is good experience with the introduction of orange-fleshed sweet potato in Africa (where before only white-fleshed sweet potato was consumed), in many rice-eating regions there are specialty rice varieties that have different hues, and in spiced dishes (curry) the different colour many not even be very visible. But of course this was also a question that I asked local stakeholders and experts when I did my research in India and the general answer was that if the government approves of it and if its introduction is properly managed there is little doubt that people will eat it. That may be overly optimistic, and behaviour change can be different, but it is not impossible, and a conducive press will help increase acceptance of Golden Rice. Here I also see a direct responsibility of the media and key journalists, such as Michael Pollan, not to vilify a crop that may do a lot of good but to help and facilitate its acceptance.

This information is out there if people cared to look for it.

Karl Haro-
von Mogel
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Post Re: A review of Jonathon Foleys latest Ensia article
on: February 26, 2014, 16:38
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Great points, Bill. I think that with this piece and Foley's previous piece that touched on the topic, I feel compelled to respond in a longer form. I think he has some good ideas and a refreshing desire to make progress in the discussion, however there are some old-style misunderstandings in his pieces that need unraveling. Also, I would be upset at chicken being labeled as a mammal because it is a bird!

Bill Price
Elite Hybrid
Posts: 259
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Post Re: A review of Jonathon Foleys latest Ensia article
on: February 26, 2014, 19:23
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Well, yeah, I considered it, but I didn't hit on the chicken bit as it was probably just a mistake. I'm sorry to say, however, that I can not be as generous in my accolades as you are. On Twitter last week he tested the waters out on most if not all of these topics and a number of people countered and corrected his points with examples and references. In writing this article, he has apparently chosen to completely ignore them and has not even attempted to acknowledge the existence of those points in any way. These are not minor quibbles about data or methods. He is clearly and obviously wrong in many places. Those errors have been shown to him repeatedly, yet he does not even try to counter them. In my mind, this puts his "desire to make progress in the discussion" into serious doubt. GE issues happen to be a topic that I have a decent understanding of, so I feel I can judge him well here, but it makes me question if he is giving similar poor treatment to his other well known topics (water use and food waste, for example), where I am less informed. He has gone down a few notches in my book as a reliable source. Hopefully he can amend that as he is obviously gaining support and recognition in these fields. I do hope you are right in your interpretation. For me currently, though, he is descending to Pollan land.

John-
Fowler
Wild Accession
Posts: 1
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Post Re: A review of Jonathon Foleys latest Ensia article
on: February 27, 2014, 11:10
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Thank you Bill, I appreciate your writeup; and Karl, I look forward to seeing your longer discussion. Similar to Bill, based on the many incorrect points, imbalance in the writeup and tone of the piece, I now have real concerns about the seriousness to engage honestly in the debate. If I had written that article, I would be embarrassed, due to its obvious lack of thoroughness and rigor.

BTW, I'm a somewhat long-term lurker on Biofortified, but the piece by Foley disturbed me quite a bit. So, I've registered & posted this; and will make my way over to the Kickstarter at some point soon. Thanks for the website!

Anastasia-
Bodnar
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Post Re: A review of Jonathon Foleys latest Ensia article
on: February 27, 2014, 18:09
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Welcome, John! I hope to see you in the comments :)

Tom
Cultivar
Posts: 55
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Post Re: A review of Jonathon Foleys latest Ensia article
on: February 28, 2014, 08:03
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Judging from his Twitter feed, he seems very keen to maintain his sustainability/renewables/organic street cred "with the kids". I'm a big fan of his previous work on land-use but like Bill P. above, I'm starting to have doubts about it now.

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