Looking for the truth

Timothy LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute, has an article in the Huffington Post: Organic Agriculture Beats Biotech at its Own Game. Despite obviously being a very smart person, he doesn’t seem to be thinking very much as he goes through the same old talking points in an attempt to boil a very complex issue down to black and white. Let’s see what he has to say:

Real question #1: Why bother?

To this point, biotech crops have not produced the yield advantages or biological resilience to multiple stressors.

There are, unfortunately, only two biotech traits currently on the market: herbicide resistance and Bt (insect resistance). Both have significant yield increases when the trait is needed. When insects attack a Bt and a non-Bt field, the Bt field will have a higher yield. Similarly, if weeds are above a certain threshold, removal of weeds will obviously benefit. The traits act as advertised.

It’s not that other traits haven’t been developed, but our current system makes it so expensive to bring a new biotech trait to market that there is little impetus for seed companies big or small to work on them. This isn’t a failure of the technology, it’s a failure of a system that considers radiation induced mutagenesis and wide crosses safer than biotechnology. I’m not saying that all biotech is safe: each new crop line regardless of how it was made should undergo risk-benefit analysis. Regulation should be more or less stringent depending on the traits introduced in the new line.

If we’re looking for reliable, multi-benefit, future-oriented farming options in an input-limited world, biotech is not a player.

The question is rather: Why spend the time, money and scientific ingenuity manipulating a handful of genetic materials to end up with a specific new attribute when we should, and could, be rigorously advancing regionally adapted varieties and building up soils organically to achieve enduring nutrient content cycling and resistance to drought, flood and disease resistance.

This organic activity is sustainable in the long term, improves water-holding capacity in soil for all crops — not just those that happen to have a gene with drought resistance, leaving the other crops at risk.

Dr. LaSalle presents us with some false dichotomies here.

Improving soils with sustainable farming methods doesn’t preclude the use of biotech traits. Biotech traits can actually be used to improve soils. For example, nematodes can be devastating to some crops. A biotech plant that uses RNAi to combat herbivorous nematodes would eliminate the need for a dangerous soil fumigant which would kill beneficial as well as harmful soil organisms.

The use of biotech traits doesn’t preclude the use of good breeding in regionally adapted varieties. Why can’t we have regionally adapted varieties that have a drought tolerance boost in regions subject to the inevitable drought? The whole point of biotech is that it can be used to produce effects that either can’t be accomplished with breeding or would take too many generations of breeding to be of any use. This also means that most biotech traits will affect a small range of qualities, just like most single gene traits.

Real question #2: Who benefits?

Why have patented seeds good for a single planting when what most farmers in the world need are replicable, open-pollinated varieties that thrive in the particular mix of soil, degree days, weather and pest pressure where they are grown? The patented seed path is entirely under the control of a company and requires substantial chemical inputs to survive. The latter path, relying on finding the optimum fit with natural systems and fluctuation (thanks to climate change) over time, is controlled much more by sustainable farmers and the heroic seed companies dedicated to their service.

Royalties and restrictions on saving seed are both the result of an intellectual property framework that is sorely due for an overhaul and the previously mentioned expensive regulatory framework that makes it unlikely for companies to sell seeds without royalty fees to recoup their R&D costs. It doesn’t have to be this way. In China, for example, research into some biotech traits is paid for by the federal government. They can then decide how to license the seeds, such as a low or no royalty for farms up to a certain size, but with a reasonable royalty for larger farms.

Biotech traits do not add a requirement for “substantial chemical inputs” to a plant. However, the lines the biotech traits are put into are often high-performance conventional lines that were bred under conventional farming methods that include chemical inputs. The same biotech traits could easily be bred into open-pollinated varieties, but since farmers who use open pollinated varieties generally shun biotech, there is no point in doing so at this time.

Who’s using open-pollinated varieties, anyway? In both certified organic and conventional systems, hybrids are used for many crops. There are a lot of benefits to hybrids, most notably yield, but the seed can’t be saved each year because progeny won’t look anything like the parents. Purchasing seed (biotech, hybrid, or open pollinated) does cost money that potentially isn’t spent when seeds are saved, but it saves farmers time and effort of collecting the best seed from each year. Buying seed of any type also means that to be a farmer, one doesn’t also have to be a plant breeder, unless one wants to. There’s room for an entire spectrum of crop varieties.

Real question #3: Is the stuff safe to eat? And who knows?

There is no data from independent, long-term studies on the human health impacts from eating GM crops. There’s lots of research, but it’s all tucked within the files of the companies that paid for it.

See David Tribe’s list of 270+ published safety assessments on GM foods and feeds. After eliminating studies that were funded by industry, he’s estimated that 30% of these studies are conducted independently of industry.

The same companies prevent independent research on the efficacy and health impacts of their crop seeds. Many of the handful of intrepid researchers who do manage to carry out studies and dare to publish results showing problems with the GM approach face amazingly virulent reactions from the biotech community, and the institutional systems that depend on them for funding.

There is certainly a problem with transparency. I’m glad Elson Shields and the others stepped forward. On the other hand, I understand the companies’ need for control of their intellectual property. They also need to guard against bad science that has inappropriate methodology, draws inappropriate conclusions, or other problems. These sorts of studies deserve fierce reactions from all scientists.

Dr. Judith Carman of Australia is conducting one of the few long-term, independent animal feeding studies with GM materials. She says recent Australian and Italian studies finding reduced fertility and immune function, respectively, in mice are disturbing. Here she talks about extreme difficulty of doing meaningful research into this area. She is a PhD in medicine in the areas of metabolic regulation, nutritional biochemistry and cancer.

I don’t know anything about Dr. Carman, but I am already questioning her ability to be an unbiased researcher. In the article Dr. LaSalle links to, she mentions the Austrian study that “found reduced fertility in mice fed GM corn”, which still hasn’t been published in peer-reviewed journal because it is so flawed. Everyone makes mistakes, so I’m willing to hear why Dr. Carman held the study up as an example of the dangers of biotech, but even I was quickly able to see the huge flaws in the study, and I have no background in rodent feeding studies. For starters, there were missing rodents in the control group that were never explained. For more info on the study, see David Tribes’s Full report of Austrian study on GM maize Nk603xMon810 which includes links to quite a few posts that debunk Dr. Velimirov’s claims. Also in her article, Dr. Carman repeats the claim that there are few safety tests of biotech crops, when a search on PubMed will quickly result in hundreds of studies. If a scientist can’t conduct a simple review of the literature, I have to question his/her other statements.

To us, it does not make biological sense that you can create brand-new proteins through genetic engineering in food and expect that our bodies will have the enzymes and capacity to break them down. These novel proteins are foreign to our immune systems because they have never before existed in nature.

It is possible that completely novel genes could be developed and inserted into crops with biotechnology. In fact, protein engineering (including truly novel proteins and modified proteins) is a promising avenue to crop improvement, as described in The Outlook for Protein Engineering in Crop Improvement by A. Gururaj Rao (2008). Of course, the resulting proteins and crops should face higher levels of scrutiny before deregulation.

Most biotech traits, including Bt and herbicide resistant crops, generally do not fall into this category. Bt, both the bacterium and the extracted protein, is regularly sprayed onto crops as an organic pesticide. Herbicide resistance to various herbicides has been developed through breeding and mutagenesis. There is no evidence that we should single out biotech over other methods for more rigorous safety tests.

Given how much we are not being allowed to know, our scientific, agricultural and food safety leaders need to take the reasonable step of following the precautionary principle until we have the knowledge we need.

Organic agriculture proponents are eager for more high-quality research on biological systems, because the promise for improving soils, sequestering carbon and feeding more people with healthier diets is so great all around the world.

Simply, this means that, facing irreversible potential harm, the onus for generating the proof of scientific consensus falls upon those seeking to take the action. With biotech crops and our long-term health and ecological well-being, that’s a pretty big onus.

The organic community may eventually be open to biotech crops if long-term, independent studies would some day show there are no ecological or human health impacts. Because there is no research available to prove that yet, who needs them? Why risk it?

Advocating the precautionary principle for one small aspect of agriculture but not others is simply disingenuous. For example, we don’t have much knowledge about the safety of various biocides from natural sources that are advocated by some proponents of organic farming. Lavender plants may be harmless, but what happens in the ecosystem when large amounts of chemically extracted lavender oil is sprayed as a herbicide? Precautionary principle dictates that we should take no action unless we are completely sure it will do no harm. This is appropriate in some situations, but risk analysis is ultimately a more careful assessment of a situation that considers both current and potential actions.

The organic community as a whole has failed to recognize the many studies that show efficacy and safety. They keep raising the bar, asking for longer and longer studies, without science-based rationale. Long term studies of ecological and human safety are great, but testing for the sake of testing is not a very effective way to do science. They also ask for tests that are not conducted on plants bred with wide crosses or mutagenesis, despite studies like Microarray analyses reveal that plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene insertion by Rita Batista, et al. (2008) that show testing might be warranted, as I discussed in But, how safe is it? On transgenics, cisgenics, and mutants.

Thankfully, there is a way forward: Using metabolomics to estimate unintended effects in transgenic crop plants, as described by Owen Hoekenga (2008). It is becoming easier and cheaper to compare the metabolome (all small molecules such as hormones within a particular tissue) of a transgenic line and it’s non-transgenic isoline. From the studies that have been done so far, any variation of metabolome is no greater than line to line variation within the crop species. This information, along with reasonable safety studies of the novel protein and plants, if needed, is enough to show that a transgenic line is at least as safe as non-transgenic lines.

Now, maybe all of this doesn’t matter. Dr. Marion Nestle has finally come out and said that her crusade for “GM labeling as an issue of consumer choice, not of science” in the comments of her post Labeling GM foods: if the U.K. can do it, we can too! This is a legitimate standpoint. After all, we have special food considerations for certain religions that aren’t based on science at all. If this is the case, then actually say it, don’t try to twist the facts. Also, don’t try to force an agency like the FDA or USDA that is charged with determining food safety to test for religiously or philosophically based food qualities.