Reductionist thinking and GMOs

posted in: Commentary | 18

While the article GMOs, Silver Bullets and the Trap of Reductionist Thinking has garnered some praise, I was hoping for more here and was left unimpressed. Written by Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota, the article begins by stating that GMOs have come with “Big Problems”. He goes on to elaborate several points that are actually either old myths, untrue, or not really GE specific. In the move from “lab into the real world” he states that “they end up being very disappointing.” I wonder how many growers across the globe would agree with that. I’d like to take a closer look at some of the “problems” that he sees:

“GMOs have done little to enhance the world’s food security.”

This is a very strong statement that has little, if any, evidence to back it up. Perhaps this comes down to how you define security, but for growers risking their future with every crop, there has been widespread acceptance, even to the point that seeds have been pirated by farmers simply for the chance to use them. Use of GE crops in developing countries has increased family incomes and thereby improved nutrition. That sounds like food security to me. In Western countries, their use has reduced financial risks and improved profits. That also sounds like security to me.

Foley 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 politics. 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 had concentrated on the military and industry uses, all while the government held back the technology from more acceptable populist uses?

“GMOs have had uneven success in boosting crop yields”

Another head scratching statement from Foley. I’d welcome anyone who could show me one current GE crop that was specifically and intentionally targeted for increased yield. This is a complete straw man argument. The GE events we have seen thus far have been aimed, not at yield, but at mitigating pest problems. It turns 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 overall production was improved. What’s more, those yields became more consistent and reliable. This is, in my opinion, the real accomplishment of GE technology. Reliable and predictable results are extremely important to farmers. Improving intrinsic yield has, as of yet, never been a goal of GE. [EDIT 3/5/2013: This research demonstrates that yield increases can actually be obtained when targeted.  GM wheat].

A net “increase in total pesticide use”

This is the usual canard from GE critics. To Foley’s credit, he does at least acknowledge that the use of “pesticides” and “weights used” is not informative. He also admits that insecticide usage has dramatically decreased in the US. As usual in the pesticide debate, however, he states that there has been increased herbicide usage, as if this were the final nail in the GE coffin. The reality, however, is quite different. While it is true that more herbicides have been used on GE HT crops (if measured in weight of active ingredient), the herbicides used today are less toxic and more environmentally friendly than those they replaced.

There is another problem with the “increased herbicide” claim. A fundamental assumption required for linking GE to herbicide use is the idea that herbicide tolerant (HT) crops are the unique problem child of GE technology. This, however, ignores the fact that non GE HT crops can, and do, exist. The fact that most HT crops were developed from GE technology is purely the result of circumstance given the availability of the process. HT is a highly popular and useful crop characteristic for many growers and GE technologies had the ability to deliver that trait efficiently and quickly. If GE had not been an option, however, HT crops would have still been developed through traditional mutation/selection breeding techniques and they would still be widely available and used today. The use of specific herbicides on these crops would have still increased and all the subsequent HT related problems we see today would still be with us. Many of those problems actually predate GE use. Although critics such as Foley like to point to herbicide usage as damning evidence against GE, this is not a GE problem at all. Implying that it is should be considered misleading.

Monarch populations (Orange) and Ethanol corn Acrage (Green).
Monarch populations (Orange) and Ethanol corn Acreage (Green). Source: USDA-ERS feed grains database and Click for a larger version.

The herbicide argument extends to his next line of attack: blaming the decline of Monarch butterflies on HT GE use. Again, HT crop traits would have been in use without GE 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 reduction in habitat due to expanded cropping that is a driving force in this problem. Perhaps Foley should aim his ire at US ethanol production goals rather than pointing to a crop breeding technique as the culprit.

“we now realize more complex plant behaviors cannot be turned “on” or “off” by changing a single gene.”

Here Foley 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 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 argument that people were not meant to fly and could never go to the moon. The technology here is fairly new and dismissing it outright because you can’t imagine how it might be used 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 this already. Does he really imagine no one has ever considered these methods? His title complains about people assuming GE as a silver bullet, and yet, he does not hesitate to put his own silver bullets on the table. We need to assess and use all potential solutions because it is likely that a combination of all these things will be required. Writing off one potential component because we can’t imagine how it might work is short sighted.

Picking on Golden Rice (GR), a method for addressing 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, and claiming this trait could never arise in nature is false. While the current GR variety has received its vitamin A capabilities from corn and bacteria, rice itself can produce vitamin A in its leaves, so it is not inconceivable the trait could be developed in the grain as well. The GE solution, however, provides a precise and relatively faster means to achieve the biofortified goal. [EDIT 3/6/2014: Rice can produce  beta carotene, a vitamin A precursor, in it’s leaves].

While critics like Foley seem to think GR is being promoted as “the single answer” to vitamin A deficiency, those actually doing the work consider Golden Rice as one possible solution with many valuable benefits. His idea that the people in need can “simply grow more diverse crops” is simplistic. He wonders if people will reject a grain of rice that is off color, yet somehow imagines the same people will accept nontraditional foods with open arms. He imagines that everyone who needs them has the knowledge and land to grow new food crops. He imagines that these crops would be somehow stored and made available throughout the year when and where they are needed.  To this, I ask: Have you ever tried to keep sweet potato tubers or leafy vegetables fresh for any length of time in a warm, humid environment?

Knowledge for rice production is widespread in the areas where GR would be useful. Once harvested, rice is easily dried, is compact to store and transport, and is easy to prepare. Yes, diverse vegetables are a great goal, but if this was such an easy solution, why don’t we see it being used more widely? Once again, no one has proposed a silver bullet here except Foley. Reducing malnutrition requires the use of all possible options ranging from GR to diverse cropping to vitamin A supplements.

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 do not 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 they actually comprise a very small, if not vocal, group of consumers. He implores GE advocates to use social sciences in such matters, but misses that GE proponents have already involved social scientists. They’ve told us that the majority of consumers don’t even desire to label GMOs unless they are prompted to. The social scientists have shown us that labeling simply isn’t an issue of concern among the general public.

Lastly, the article takes to task the grand evil of science, “Reductionist Thinking” and proposes the alternative of more holistic approaches such as organic farming (read: another silver bullet). He implores us to do more interdisciplinary research and claims that when he asked this of GE researchers on line, he got silence. Perhaps he should broaden his Twitter feed a bit more, however, 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.

While I am being critical here, I do appreciate that the article is 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 particular article, however, is lacking. It is full of misinformation, bias, and lack of knowledge. In my opinion, Foley should study the subject more and consider refining and updating his arguments.

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I've worked in agricultural research for nearly 40 years and I am currently a statistician in the College of Agriculture at the University of Idaho. Any words written here reflect my opinions and not those of my institution or colleagues. Disclosure: In 1981 I interviewed with Monsanto Corp. It was mutually agreed that my long hair and lack luster attitude towards the corporate atmosphere did not match their requirements at that time.