The GE crop Battlefield

posted in: Science | 4

Nature News has just published a long article by Emily Waltz about the sometimes harsh scientific debates and battles that are waged over genetic engineering in agiculture: GM Crops: Battlefield. Papers suggesting that biotech crops might harm the environment attract a hail of abuse from other scientists. Emily Waltz asks if the critics fight fair.

The article is pretty good, and it discusses a 2007 paper about Bt corn negatively affecting caddissfly larva when compared to non-Bt corn. “Toxins in transgenic crop byproducts may affect headwater stream ecosystems”, by Rosi-Marhsall et al. You can access the paper here, and also read Anastasia’s commentary about the paper with Even Scientists make Mistakes at Genetic Maize.

Waltz’s article doesn’t focus so much on the paper itself so much as the responses to the paper, with implications for the culture of scientific debate following controversial results. If someone comes along with a preliminary result that is based on a study with some problems, and there is a danger that it could be used politically to everyone’s detriment, what is the proper response? Shoot it down with all your guns blazing, snipe the problems at a distance, or politely suggest a more rigorous examination? Will the latter response prevent it from being used to make policy decisions?

In the case of this particular paper, it was used by anti-GE organizations, and found its way into supporting the French ban on GE maize:

Rosi-Marshall’s caddis-fly paper did find its way into the anti-GMO rhetoric, although on nowhere near the scale that the monarch butterfly paper did. For example, the London-based Institute of Science in Society, a not-for-profit organization involved in the GM debate, on 30 October 2007 posted its summary of the paper, saying that: “calling a halt to planting Bt corn next to streams … would be in keeping with the evidence [the authors] have provided”. Greenpeace included the paper in an April 2008 briefing on Bt maize, citing it as evidence of environmental risk.

The impact went further than that. On 9 January 2008, three months after Rosi-Marshall’s paper was published, France’s watchdog on GM foods ruled that one of Monsanto’s types of Bt maize, known as MON810, may have an impact on wildlife. The evidence it cited included Rosi-Marshall’s paper. Two days later, the French government announced a ban on cultivating the maize. “[The paper] got to every agency and non-governmental organization that doesn’t like the technology and gave them a flag to wave,” says Parrott. Not that he considers the effort wasted: “I have no doubt the impact on policy-makers would have been much worse had it not been countered.”

But if the response is too harsh it can be seen as discouraging scientists from conducting useful research. If it is too weak, then poorly conducted science gets a passing grade and makes its way into the poltical, cultural, and even scientific spheres and influences opinions. Besides just conducting research, it is the duty of scientists to point out flaws in their own and each other’s work to arrive closer to the truth than we were before. Even good science has its flaws, and pointing them out can improve future research. Rather than quote more of the article, I suggest you read it because it does a pretty good job discussing the various reasons that come up.

The ultimate goal should be the advancement of knowledge – predicated on the idea that knowledge if used properly can lead to a better life, of course. There is one thing that scientists should probably consider: If a bad paper is published and the response to that paper is too harsh, it might create a ‘career contrarian.’ Scientists work hard on their research, and have a personal interest in defending it. Rather than abandon the position they take in their paper, responses that are too personal or go over the top in terms of their wording might instead galvanize the opinions of these researchers. Now you have someone with hardened opinion on the topic, who will likely advocate their position more, and it could also potentially color what kind of research they pursue.

For example, John Losey, who authored the obsolete Monarch Butterfly Bt-pollen study mentioned in the quote above, got a lot of attention due to the responses, and participated in a four-way panel discussion that included Ignacio Chapela and Arpad Puztai – two other scientists that have become anti-GE career contrarians. The video doesn’t appear to be available anymore, but here is a description of the event. Those two scientists got attention due to the responses to the flaws in their research as well. Just as we should consider the potential impact of poorly conducted research, the impact of responses to that research should be considered for the future of the debate.

The attention to the paper could also have the opposite effect of what is intended, drawing instead more attention to the paper in political circles. Where to draw the line is a good question… one that I do not have an answer to.

I think the Nature article would have benefited by including an example in the other direction. For instance, Shane Morris has been the target of many politically-based as well as personal attacks due in part to a study he worked on that found that people preferred GE sweet corn over conventional sweet corn that had been sprayed with pesticides. That paper had a few problems, too, but they weren’t fatal to the conclusion, nor the award it received. You can read his take on it at GMO Ireland – Lessons in Biopolitics.

In my own case, speaking up as a public servant scientist who only has ever accepted public funds led to letters to my employer, intimidating e-mails, defamation (and retractions), comments regarding my wife on an anti-GM website and even a British 9/11 conspiracy theorist politician using the protection of Parliamentary privilege to make false statements to which one has no recourse. These are the daily trials and tribulations that the average politician faces and, though distasteful to most scientists, are ultimately short lived with no real impact. In fact, one only needs a thick skin, knowledge that this is the political norm and an understanding that your actions are legitimate because sense and sensibility will not prevail on their own.

Indeed, the excessive responses that anti-GE activists often give to inconvenient results can be quite jarring – for example, in the case of this same Bt sweet corn paper, Professor Emeritus Joe Cummins compares a journalist that reports on the affair – and the fact that other researchers found similar results – to a Nazi:

That is the issue that I and those international scientists joining a letter of complaint to the editor of the British Food Journal dealt with not Steve’s phoney comments and obfuscations.

Steve’s short bio comments ‘he still remains smitten by the enduring wisdom of the motto of Austrian writer Karl Kraus. Say what is.’ Unfortunately Steve seems closer in practice to the German Joseph Goebbels.

Last time I checked, no pro-GE critique of research has used Reductio ad Hitlerum. But there are several examples of anti’s using it. It isn’t just research on genetic engineering, either. When a UK study found that there isn’t enough evidence to say that organic crops are more nutritious than conventional crops – the barrage of hate-mail accusing the researchers of working for Monsanto was very telling. The research didn’t even have anything to do with genetic engineering – this was all political!

It seems to me, though, that both sides of the debate could use a little more collegiality. Then maybe the debate can be more about the science and not about who was a big bad meanie on the internet.

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.