Nature’s Must-Read Special Issue on GMOs

By Keith Kloor | May 1, 2013 1:13 pm

By now it has become clear, as British environmental writer Mark Lynas said in a speech this week at Cornell University, that controversy over GMOs

represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century. Millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies on an unprecedentedly global scale.

What’s been most disconcerting to me is that smart environmentalists, food writers, and scholars perpetuate this fear and misunderstanding. Some of them are finally getting called out for this irresponsibility.

It is this group of media influentials, such as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Marion Nestle, who I hope take the time to read Nature’s special issue on genetically modified (GM) crops, which, as the introduction puts it, “explores the messy middle ground.” 

The collection of articles and commentaries puncture some of the biggest myths and falsehoods that poison debate on GMOs, like the oft-repeated claim that GM cotton has driven Indian farmers to suicide (false), which I have previously written about here and here. At the same time, Nature admirably drills down into some of the thorniest issues, like the contention that GM crops have bred so-called “superweeds” (true). But this story is also complex and must be viewed in a larger context:

On balance, herbicide-resistant GM crops are less damaging to the environment than conventional crops grown at industrial scale.

This kind of nuance is what eludes most GMO critics.

What’s most impressive about Nature’s special issue is its even-handed treatment of a highly politicized subject.  For example, one article by three UK-based scientists ends on this subtle, carefully considered note:

Genetic engineering is not essential, or even useful, for all crop improvement. But in some cases, it helps to improve yields and nutritional value, and reduces the risks and costs associated with the overuse of fertilizers, pesticides and water. Excluding any technology that can help people to get the food and nutrition that they need should be done only for strong, rational and locally relevant reasons.

There’s much more in the issue to read, including a report on new technological developments that are giving rise to the next generation of biotech crops. Kudos to Nature for its multi-dimensional coverage and for finding that “messy middle ground” in the GMO debate.

File:C5 plum pox resistant plum.jpg

[These genetically modified plums contain a gene that makes them "highly resistant to plum pox virus." Photo and source: U.S. Agricultural Research Service.]

  • Rafael Espericueta

    There is much “scientific” research that simply can’t be trusted. The influence of money can and does subvert science. Negative research results are simply ignored, and only research supporting higher profits are published. I for one do not trust Monsanto, and find it puzzling how many are willing to become lab rats in Monsanto’s word-wide experiments. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for REAL scientific research, but not as the lab rat.

    • http://twitter.com/RobertWager1 Robert Wager

      Why do you think this statement was made Rafeal?

      “Moreover, the AAAS Board said, the World Health Organization, the
      American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the
      British Royal Society, and “every other respected organization that has
      examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods
      containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than
      consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants
      modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.” AAAS 2012

      • dogctor

        Half truths and outright lies, as usual Robert.

    • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

      and you are probably one of those people who gets their “real news” from the Utne Reader. you certainly look like it!

      • bk

        snarky remarks are really not necessary to this discussion

    • jh

      “There is much “scientific” research that simply can’t be trusted.”

      Could you be more specific about when and why scientific research might not be “trustworthy”? How do you personally distinguish “real” research from “untrustworthy” research?

      I agree that consensus is an inadequate tool for assessing the validity of scientific research and that there is some scientific research that isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. But a sweeping statement about the untrustworthyness of scientific “research” in general isn’t helpful in getting to the core issues or in solving those issues. So what do you disagree with? Research design? Fundamental assumptions? Data? Conclusions? Interpretations?

      I also don’t agree with your sentiments about Monsanto. When you “trust” in GMO products, you’re not putting your trust in Monsanto alone. You’re putting your trust in a generation of academic research, private research organizations like the Gates Foundation and regulatory agencies like the FDA. All of Monsanto’s products are either built upon previous independent research or verified by these organizations. So it’s not an issue of trusting or not trusting Monsanto. You’re going up against much more than that.

      I haven’t yet seen any significant holes in the fundamental assumptions that ensure the general safety of GMO products. No doubt, GMOs will come with some drawbacks and negative consequences – many of which probably aren’t apparent yet. But, like the automobile and electricity, over the long haul, the positives will far outweigh the negatives.

      • dogctor

        For one thing, JH most of the industrial studies are either unpublished or are not peer reviewed.
        I would be more than willing to discuss the safety studies which were passed by the FDA and don’t qualify as legitimate science; unless used as cat litter box material to observe and research bowel movements of cats.

  • dogctor

    Unfortunately, I see nothing in this issue about http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1240732/ nor any discussion of health risks. I find it difficult getting excited about what agricultural biotechnology “could” do, which it certainly “could” one day, but not today. Today it exposes farmers and millions of consumers to ever increasing amounts of glyphosate and proprietary toxic adjuvants, having delivered $12 billion-worth of just two traits. Looking forward to Nature publishing a serious comprehensive review on safety of today’s commercialized crops with input from independent members of the medical profession and the public health community.

    • Keith Kloor

      I would have been shocked if you responded any other way. I’m hoping some minds that aren’t completely inflexible being open to the material covered in the Nature articles, but I don’t expect yours to be one of them.

      • dogctor

        I am a radical liberal, Keith–my mind is way open. And, unlike whoever edited this issue of Nature, it operates in the context of exploring etiologies and preventing chronic diseases which cause real pain and real suffering in the present.
        I read that Monsanto is rolling out a campaign to “educate” consumers about biotechnology….I guess Kevin’s little health sleuth blog wasn’t it; but, damn, this issue of Nature is just so very timely and convenient.

        Warmest regards,
        Ena :)

        • Keith Kloor

          You think being a “radical liberal” predisposes you to being open-minded? That’s hilarious.

          I love your insinuation, too, about the timing of Nature package.

          • dogctor

            No, Keith. This is (hilarious):

            A woman went to a doctor.

            Her complaint :”Doctor, every time I sneeze, I have an orgasm”

            Doctor: “That’s very interesting.
            What are you taking for it?”

            Woman: “Pepper”
            ———————-

            My Rx for Nature: ” a couple of smart medical doctors on their editorial staff”
            There isn’t a single one- I checked.

    • http://twitter.com/berniemooney Bernie Mooney

      Well, look who shows up. It’s the Orly Taitz of the anti-gmo movement.

  • Buddy199

    What do the peer-reviewed studies indicate about the adverse health effects of GMO crops? Apparently not much. If these widely consumed foods were dangerous wouldn’t it be obvious in daily life at this point? This is like the anti-flouridation paranoia, alar scare, windmill syndrome, etc. Give it a rest. You want something to worry about? Worry about the printing press stock bull market, the new govt. driven real estate bubble and what will happen when the QE economic house of cards crashes again in a couple of years. Not so much about GMO pomegranates.

    • dogctor

      Please do post links to peer reviewed studies, because I haven’t found any from independent sources and none vetted by the medical profession. No -having actually practiced medicine in the real world I can most assuredly state that chronic adverse effects would not be traced when the medical profession has been robbed of evaluating chronic diseases like Crohn’s colitis and Ulcerative colitis out of the context of the patients ingesting GMO foods.

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    I haven’t read all of it yet, but it is pretty good. I did see a couple of aspects of push-back though.

    A weed scientist takes issue with the “superweeds” answer: Can we PLEASE stop using the term “superweed”?. Andrew Kniss is spot-on there.

    And on Fields of gold Wayne Parrott comments that the story neglects to take into account the odious decade-long process required to get through to use. Many groups can’t carry that burden so there are great things languishing in labs. That is, if they can get funding at all–which we have seen is not always the case.

    I also think that story lacked any acknowledgement of the real physical threats scientists and their work face. The big money that the Swiss just had to allocate for the secure test area. The Rothamsted crimes. Or the burning of Beatriz’s lab:

    The sentiment is echoed by Beatriz Xoconostle Cázares, a biotechnology researcher at Cinvestav, who is experimenting with transgenic crops resistant to drought and insects — and who regularly debates with ETC in public forums. Last September, Xoconostle arrived at work to find that her lab had been set on fire. A month later, arsonists attacked the lab of a neighbouring researcher.

    I really don’t think anyone gives a shit that labs are burning. But can you imagine if a climate scientist’s instruments were destroyed? We’d be prosecuting the criminals to the fullest extent of the law.

    • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

      Oh, I forgot to add Greenpeace’s destruction of the nitrogen use efficient wheat:

      According to plant geneticist Andrew Jacobs at the ACPFG, early trials show this wheat is performing well using 15-25% less fertiliser. This nitrogen-efficient wheat was also in the Ginninderra plot, and was also destroyed by the Greenpeace action.

      IF EVER THERE WAS A GM plant to please environmentalists, this was it. So why did Greenpeace try to destroy it?

      http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/features/brave-new-wheat/

      This really sets back research, especially on plants that need field testing. Let’s not pretend that this doesn’t impact how quickly we are getting the traits we want to see.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dave.siebert.9 Dave Siebert

    All GMO crops are toxic,and should be burned to the ground.Just look at all the other countries around the world that have BANNED them.Eat only organic foods,or risk having your stomach explode by Bayer Science,Dow,Monsanto.They only care about profits.Be sure to keep us updated with your health problems,in the comming future. :)

    • http://twitter.com/RobertWager1 Robert Wager

      You are apparently not aware the EU highest court over-turned the ban on Mon810 for lack of evidence of harm.

      • dogctor

        How many members of the medical profession are on the EU highest court? Zero!

    • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

      Wow, this goes all the way to the top.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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