In this month’s “Better Know a Scientist”, I’m interviewing Dr Nir Oksenberg. He works in a lab that actually makes transgenic crops! Nir’s career seems to have taken a very windy road: he completed his PhD at UCSF studying a gene implicated in autism, but is doing his post-doc in Dr Pamela Ronald’s lab at UC Davis (if you aren’t familiar with Dr Pamela Ronald, please view her TED talk or her book “Tomorrow’s Table”. Her book is a fantastic read for anyone interested in learning about genetically modified crops and organic food). We “met” over the internet, when he kindly sent me an encouraging email on one of my articles. I have yet to take him up on his offer of visiting the lab in Davis, mostly because my kid would probably knock over someone’s research project or trample on a crop that took a few years to make.
Q: Please explain what you’re currently working on (unless you will be assassinated for divulging it) and why it’s important?
A: My research focuses on how rice protects itself from environmental factors, which is particularly important in places in the world where people rely on rice for survival. Rice is a staple food for ½ the world’s population. However, 25% of rice is grown in flood prone areas. When rice is completely submerged in water due to floods, the plant will die after a few days, and the farmer will lose his or her crop. Pam Ronald and others were able to identify a gene that would cause rice to survive much better if completely submerged. Through breeding techniques (not GM technology), they were able to transfer this gene into strains of rice that farmers prefer and now millions of farmers in flood prone countries in mostly in South Asia are producing higher yields with the flood tolerant rice.
I think it is important for people to understand that we are not just trying to make a bunch of GMOs and hope one works. We spend years, sometimes decades, studying these plants. We don’t just want to make a plant better and move on, we want to understand the biology of how it works.Now, in the lab, we are asking: can we learn how to make rice or other plants resistant to other stresses, such as drought, or diseases like bacterial blight? I am focusing on drought tolerance and have identified a candidate gene that could protect rice from drought. We engineered rice in the laboratory to either silence the candidate gene, or express excess amounts of it. We are currently testing our genetically modified rice for its ability to survive drought conditions and have some promising preliminary data. If we are successful, it could lead to rice that requires less water to grow. The information we gain on how the rice survives drought can also be used to attempt to engineer drought tolerance in other crops.
[Layla’s Note to Nir: After providing this detailed answer, you will probably have to move into a bunker for having provided information about your research, which we all know is sponsored by Big Ag, and is therefore considered a trade secret. Syngenta: if you’re reading this, we’ll know it was you if anything ever happens to Nir!]
Q: Like me, you did your PhD in human genetics (I was actually in a lab that studied the genetics of autism, too, although my thesis project wasn’t related to autism). Why did you decide to do a postdoc in plants? Was it a difficult switch? Would I be able to switch easily into a postdoc in plant sciences to fulfill my dream of making the perfect pomegranate?
A: In 2012, California Prop 37 was put on the ballot. Voters were being asked if California should mandate labels on all genetically engineered foods. At the time I was in grad school studying the role and regulation of the AUTS2 gene in autism. As the token scientist in my group of friends, and with contradictory commercials constantly airing on Prop 37, people would ask me all sorts of questions about GMOs. For the first time ever, I actually read the ballot measure. It made a lot of scientific claims such as genetically engineered foods “can lead to adverse health or environmental consequences” without any scientific references to back them up. The measure claimed that “Mandatory identification of foods produced through genetic engineering can provide a critical method for tracking the potential health effects of eating genetically engineered foods”, which is not true given the exemptions to certain interests such as alcohol. I found that I was really interested in the topic, and moreover, I enjoyed educating my friends about the science, helping them make informed decisions.
I also very much enjoy researching human genetics. The switch was hard, but I made it because I wanted to learn how genetically engineered foods are actually made and studied in the lab. I joined Dr. Ronald’s lab because of the research she does and her active role in biotechnology education.
[Layla’s note to self: Phew! Sounds like my plan to move into plant research is feasible. POM: if you’re reading this, you’d better have a job opening for me in about 10 years time so that I can start working on a peelable pomegranate.]
Q: Why are you working on a technology that will make half of children autistic in just a few years, particularly after you spent so many years trying to understand autism?
A: If you were to believe the internet, you’d think that academic scientists are out to: 1) kill all the butterflies, 2) make everyone sick, 3) stuff our pockets with Monsanto cash. Finding information about genetic engineering online is ridiculously difficult. I would rather do my taxes while at the dentist than try to learn about genetic engineering by googling the term “GMO”. But, for the sake of science education, let’s dissect the article about autism which you’ve provided above.
The article is peppered with scientific red flags. The first thing you notice (not including the terrifying title) is a man in a mask and protective clothing pouring chemicals into something that is presumably used for agriculture. This picture (with no credit or reference) has one goal: to scare people. This red flag is known as “the scary science scenario” and is your first clue that you are about to dive into some less than reputable reporting. If you decide to keep reading, it starts with “A senior scientist at MIT”. BAM! Another red flag: stressing status and appealing to authority. If you move on, it talks about how the use of the herbicide known as glyphosate has doubled from 2001 and 2007 due to the introduction of engineered plants that can resist the herbicide. It is true that glyphosate use has increased, but the article cherry picked (red flag) this information. It left out that with the increase of glyphosate use, there was a dramatic decrease in the use of other, more toxic and persistent herbicides. It is a bad sign when an article spits out some hard facts with no sources to back them up. Keep an eye out for that!
The article goes on to accuse science writers that have “taken up the Monsanto banner”, a science red flag known as “charges of conspiracy”. But there is a glimmer of hope. The article mentions the biggest concern many people have with the conclusion that autism is connected with genetically modified crops: confusing correlation with causation. The claim that “half of all children may be autistic by 2025 due to Monsanto” is based on a graph that shows the increase use of glyphosate overlaps very well with the increase in autism diagnoses over the years. I have seen the exact same graph showing how the increase in organic sales correlates with increased cases of autism. Correlation does not mean causation.
I did end up making it to the end of the article. This is the last sentence: “Seneff’s predictions can only be ignored at grave risk to the human race.” The deafening irony! The real risk is if people reject a beneficial technology due to shoddy science. This is exactly what happened with autism and vaccines. Don’t let it happen with genetic engineering.
[Layla’s Note to Nir: You, my friend, are an evil genius and I bow before you. This incredible answer goes to show that you have taken the Secret Oath of Scientists very seriously. By the way, I just sent you an email: could I borrow your apartment in Monaco during Thanksgiving weekend? If that doesn’t work, how about your yacht in Turks & Caicos?]
Q: What traits and crops would you like to work on in the future?
A: Good question! I would be interested in studying coffee. I love coffee. I love roasting it, brewing it, drinking it, talking about it, reading about it, and obviously, taking a break from work to get it. Figuratively, I rely on coffee to survive. Literally, millions do. Coffee is responsible for the livelihood of 25-125 million people and 90% of coffee production is in developing nations.
Coffee is potentially in some trouble. Coffee leaf rust (CLR) is a fungus that has become epidemic, and resulted in severe loss of yield (for more information, see here). I am not saying that using genetic engineering is the solution to this problem. There are currently other strategies being implemented with success. For example, there are CLR resistant varieties of coffee trees, and breeders are crossing these varieties with coffee varieties that farmers like due to their taste and high yield. However, I believe we should use multiple approaches to study this very serious problem. Traditional breeding techniques may not keep up with the devastating fungus. Genetic engineering can more accurately, and sometimes more quickly, insert resistance genes into favorable varieties without introducing undesired genes (like conventional breeding does). Moreover, we can use genetically engineered crops as a tool to study the fungus and better understand how to stop it.
Would I drink GMO CLR-resistant coffee? Hell ya! And I would do so knowing that it may be responsible for the livelihood of millions of individuals.
Or maybe I should make a football sized hippo that hangs out on your desk, and laughs when you tickle it. It would munch on cabbage, maybe relax in a little pool.
[Layla’s note to Nir: It sounds like you’re forgetting your priorities. Do you know how much money you could make by selling football sized hippos as pets, particularly around Christmas time? Forget this whole “let’s help people” thing that you’ve got going. You have a golden opportunity before you! Never forget the Oath: dough before bros.]
Q: You are also interested in science communication. Why do you think that genetically modified crops are feared by the broader population? Is there anything that can “fix” that perception?
A: I think this is an issue of where we live. In parts of the world where your life depends on being able to produce food, or getting the right nutrients from the food you produce as in the case of Golden Rice, for many people there isn’t a fear of GMOs, there is a fear of death. However, in the United States and many other places, we have the luxury of caring about every single aspect of food production. This is not a bad thing, but we need to keep things in perspective: we need to understand true risks and true benefits. We want our phones and other technology to improve greatly every year, but we want our food to stay exactly the same despite a growing population and a warming climate. There are a handful of reasons why people oppose genetic engineering. But I think the main reason the technology is feared by the broader population is because we like thinking of our food as “natural” and “whole”, rather than “engineered”. People will say “the banana is perfect the way it is, why would you want to change it?!” And yes, the banana is perfect the way it is if you want to feed a population a fraction of the size that it is today. Humans bred our crops to sustain a much smaller number of people. Traditional breeding techniques do not always keep up with our demands.
Can we “fix” the perception that GMOs are something to be feared? More and more scientists are getting involved in the conversation, and I think it is helping. From my experience, public opinion is actually shifting a bit. I have no evidence of this, just a feeling. More people I talk to, and more articles I read are less critical of genetic engineering and more focused on the science and facts. Instead of trying to change people’s mind (which is very hard), we should focus on educating those who want to learn. I have links to many good resources for the public (and no, they are not Monsanto leaflets). Don’t hesitate to contact me on Twitter with any questions: @NirOksenberg
[Layla’s note to Nir: Yes. Science and facts… *wink, wink* .]
Q: After a quick search on the internet, I learned that to make a GMO you take a syringe filled with fluorescent liquid and inject it into a plant (look at all the pictures of GMO tomatoes that I found! Strangely enough, there’s no GMO tomato currently on the market…). How many syringes do you use when you make GM rice?
A: This may be the best question anyone has ever asked me. I took a selfie to show you. Turns out I only use 1. With blue.
Jokes aside, understanding how a crop can become genetically engineered can get a bit confusing. The best video I have found describing the process is this one. There are multiple ways to genetically engineer a crop. The method described in the video mechanically introduces the gene into the genome. In rice, we often use Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer. Scientists found a neat bacteria that has a way of transferring its genomic material into its host’s. Scientists now use this bacteria to their advantage. We delete all the genes in the bacteria that could cause any harm to the host. Then, into the bacterial genome, we insert the new gene we want introduced into the plant. Now the bacteria does all the work and transfers just the gene we want into the plant we want. This technique has been tested and retested for safety and efficacy countless times. This description of Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer is oversimplified. I am happy to go into more detail with anybody who wants to know!
Q: We all know that research into GMOs is funded by big Ag, who probably have a patent on what you’re working on, and will release these GMOs into the wild without any testing. What do you say in your defense?
A: Next question.
Just kidding I’ll answer. A lot of people hate big anything. Big Ag, big oil, big retail, big donut and so on. I talk to some people who tell me that they don’t have a problem with genetic engineering in theory, but they have a problem with corporations. It is fine to have problems with Big Ag, whether it is economic, environmental, humanitarian or for other reasons, and to try to reduce their footprint. What people do not realize is that demonizing genetic engineering as a whole is counterproductive to this end for multiple reasons. First of all, companies like Monsanto are also making mad profits off of conventional and organic seeds. If you want to protest Monsanto, avoiding genetically engineered corn but munching down on their non-engineered carrot doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Secondly, public disapproval of genetic engineering has tightened regulations on the technology so drastically that only mega corporations can afford to go through with them. That means if a small company tried to produce a genetically engineered crop, they would rarely be able to afford to move it forward, and would have to sell the company or patent rights to one of the big guys. The rich get richer. My point is that if you have a problem with big corporations, don’t necessarily focus your attacks on genetic engineering technology.
Q: If there’s one thing you’d want everyone to know about transgenic crops, what would it be?
A: Each genetically engineered crop needs to be assessed on a case by case basis. Remember that we are talking about a technology, and not an ingredient. The technology is inherently neutral. If I use the technology to improve nutrient consumption in regions with nutrient deficiency, that is good. If I use the technology to make artichokes have even less eatable flesh, that would be bad. Really bad. Every new genetically engineered food is tested rigorously for safety. People will say that we don’t know the long term effects, or that we can not prove they are safe. But we have safely been eating genetically modified foods for decades. Maybe that is not long enough for you. Maybe you are hesitant to try new products. Fine. But if you ask a scientist who studies these plants, she or he will tell you that the benefits of the technology greatly outway the risk.
Q: Recently, several public sector scientists who do research on GMOs or advocate for these crops have had their emails read under a Freedom of Information Act. Has it impacted you in any way? What are your thoughts?
A: FOIA can be an important tool to discover scientific fraud, but it is obvious that is not what is happening here. The actual scientific methods and results are not being investigated. The goal of this inquiry is to link public sector scientists to Monsanto or other private companies. Proponents of the inquiry claim that the public has a right to know how publicly funded scientists conduct themselves. This “right to know” argument is one we saw a lot with GMO labeling too, and is very powerful. Why would I fight against somebody’s right to know? Especially if I claim to be a science communicator! What I have discovered is that a fact that is out of context can be more dangerous than no fact at all. Not to say that people should hide information from people, but facts without details can be misleading. Here is a fact: GMO plants are bad for the environment. That’s something you can quote and put on twitter. Here is the rest of the story: All agriculture is bad for the environment. We have known that for centuries. GMOs are not necessarily better or worse for Earth than conventional methods.
Yelling that an academic scientist has accepted $25,000 from Monsanto is a tactic anti-GMO groups are using. They are tricking people, using an out of context fact, to make them believe that all pro-GMO people are in Monsanto’s pocket. In truth, the money used in this real example was not used for research to support Monsanto’s products. The money was used for science communication, where Monsanto had no say over the material presented.
Sometimes, industry does sponsor academic research. In these cases, it is important that the researcher disclose potential conflicts of interests, whether the science is funded by a biotechnology company, or a company that sells organic deodorant.
I think I forgot to answer your question. No, the FOIA has not personally impacted me or the way I conduct myself. Except now I write all my letters to Monsanto on hundred dollar bills instead of email. Jokes aside, the FOIA has deeply affected scientists I admire and look up to, and I sympathize with them. You can read about their stories here and here.
Nir and I wanted to close on a more serious note: we’d like to draw attention to the fact that the number of groups and organizations exploiting the unknowns surrounding Autism are vast, and we consider this to be misinformation of the worst sort. Other than Dr. Seneff’s paper where she outlines a murky hypothesis between ASD and glyphosate, there is no data that we know of that associates autism with GMOs, much less a causal relationship. If parents have any concerns about their children’s diet, we recommend that they consult with their pediatricians.