Taking Credit for GMO Failures

By Keith Kloor | October 31, 2014 11:46 am

Earlier this year, the earth scientist Jon Foley wrote an article that laid out why he was skeptical about agricultural biotechnology. Among other things, he said “that GMOs have frequently failed to live up to their potential” because of the way they have been deployed:

GMOs have done little to enhance the world’s food security. Mainly, that’s because GMO crops primarily in use today are feed corn (mostly for animal feed and ethanol), soybeans (mostly for animal feed), cotton and canola. But these aren’t crops that feed the world’s poor, or provide better nutrition to all. GMO efforts may have started off with good intentions to improve food security, but they ended up in crops that were better at improving profits. While the technology itself might “work,” it has so far been applied to the wrong parts of the food system to truly make a dent in global food security.

This struck me as a shortsighted, wholly incomplete view of GMOs, which I and others, such as Ramez Naam, commented on at the time. I thought of Foley’s essay and his main argument while attending a recent conference called, Techno-Utopianism & the Fate of the Earth: Why Technology Will Not Save the World.  One of the panels–The Quest for a “New Nature”–featured Andrew Kimbrell, the founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, which for years has spearheaded opposition to biotechnology.

Since the 1990s, Kimbrell has been an influential biotech critic and at the forefront of legal and public relation efforts that have prevented the commercialization of various GMOs. “We think of Monsanto as a juggernaut, but it’s not,” he said during his talk at the recent conference in New York City. He then ticked off the anti-GMO movement’s successes. “We stopped GMO potatoes, we stopped GMO wheat, we stopped genetically modified rice, and we stopped genetically modified salmon,” he said. (The last one has been in regulatory limbo for over a decade.) It’s impossible to quantify how much credit biotech opponents should receive for the failed commercialization of the aforementioned GMOs.

But there is little doubt that “frankenfood” scare tactics has poisoned public perception of GMOs and that continuous legal challenges and a high regulatory bar has dampened investment in R & D, particularly for public institutions, as an article in The Nation recently discussed.

In any case, next time you hear someone say GMOs haven’t lived up to their potential, much less contribute to food security, remember the biotech crops and foods that never made it to market, and how Kimbrell and his fellow anti-GMO activists proudly take ownership of that.

  • mem_somerville

    And just this morning I was reading a story about how Greenpeace has blocked the papaya in Thailand. This is a papaya that has *nothing* to do with pesticide use (in fact reduces it), involves no new proteins (that fearmongers claim cause allergies), and has been shown to be a huge benefit to Hawaiian small farmers.

    Greenpeace anti-GMO suit junked

    They want to have it both ways–saying that there aren’t useful GMOs out there, while blocking the development and access to them. And they get away with this BS.

    • Warren Lauzon

      Green Peace is pretty much the eco-Luddites of the 21st century. Amazing that they could manage to block that for years with zero evidence using just scare tactics.

      • http://brent.fm/ Brent Norris

        Did Monsanto ever figure out how their “Golden Rice” got out of the box. No. I sure hope real biotechnologists don’t take lessons from chemical companies like Monsanto.

        Every single illegal pesticide was legal at one time. Did you support Agent Orange? Well, you’re supporting it now in a variance. Chemical farmers are no better than the worst eco-luddite. First, do no harm.

        • Tom

          Blah blah blah Monsanto blah blah blah Agent Orange blah blah farmer suicides in India blah blah blah PATENTS! blah blah CHEMICALS! blah blah blah…

        • Rod Herman

          How did Monsanto get hold of “golden Rice” since they have had nothing to do with it?

        • Warren Lauzon

          Uhm.. Monsanto has nothing to do with Golden Rice, never has. And you obviously have no clue about what Agent Orange is.

        • Loren Eaton

          What are you, like 12 years old? A luddite is someone who is opposed to progress. Out of what box?

    • http://brent.fm/ Brent Norris

      It’s okay to test inside in a controlled environment, not in the open air as you’re supporting with your comment.

      • mem_somerville

        Why don’t you tell me more about the consequences of open-air papaya in Hawaii? The only one I know about is the vandalism by uninformed thugs. When you can’t win on science, ironically activists take to book burning, I mean the to courts or to crime.

        • Aidan Benelle

          And how about the ‘industry’ thugs who
          appear against every single GM related article
          fighting back any poster who dares to have a cautionary view of the technology you are all so willing to promote

          • mem_somerville

            So you are saying you have no evidence of any issues with open-air papaya, but shill shill shill shill shill conspiracy shill shill shill.

            Yeah, That’s very compelling.

          • JH

            Caution is fine when you don’t understand the threat.

            But once you find out that there’s no bogeyman under the bed, you don’t have to be cautious anymore, right?

            That’s what 20-30 years of GMO testing and use in the field has shown: There’s no bogeyman under the bed.

          • Loren Eaton

            Thugs? Talk to Mike Adams and then come back and call me a thug.

  • Tom Scharf

    They are proud of the success they have had in preventing crops from being used, and then say GMO’s haven’t made a dent in food production? A bit of a convoluted message.

    Plant scientists urge Europe to stop blocking GM trials on ‘political’ grounds

    Amusing psychological strategy:

    “At the heart of the new letter are three demands. First, that funding for fundamental and applied plant science should be maintained or, if possible, increased, to develop plants that are resilient to climate change.”

    • RobertWager

      Public research in agriculture has dropped by >70% since the haydays of research in the 1970’s. the point is very valid.

    • Aidan Benelle

      Major GM food company Monsanto ‘pulls out of Europe’

      The news is a major blow to the nascent British GM industry which ministers have been championing this year as fears grow about food security.Monsanto, whose name is synonymous with GM crops, confirmed that it is withdrawing all of its EU applications for approval for new crops.”

      “A Monsanto spokesman told The Daily Telegraph: “Monsanto´s business in Europe is very strong and growing. In order to better serve farmers in Europe we will be investing several hundred million dollars in Europe over a decade to expand our CONVENTIONAL SEED production and breeding.”


      • mem_somerville

        So when you get rid of GMOs you don’t get rid of Monsanto? Wow, I’m shocked, of course.

        • Aidan Benelle

          Senseless statement. The point is: .

          Monsanto is expanding “our CONVENTIONAL SEED production and breeding.”

          Because of the failure of GMO’s in Europe.

          Corporations follow growing markets and leave the failures behind. But you know that mem

          • Loren Eaton

            Are you being obtuse on purpose?? Monsanto’s vegetable seed division, Seminis, has always had a non-GMO seed business in Europe. Syngenta sells veggies there as well. Get a program and learn the players BEFORE you hyperventilate.

          • Aidan Benelle

            Europe feeds “your” GM’s
            to their animals ~ not their people

          • Rod Herman

            What animals does the imported GM canola oil get fed to? Just one example of your silliness.

          • Loren Eaton

            And exactly what does that have to do with vegetable seeds? To my knowledge the VR squash is the only one on the market…not sure its being sold in Europe.

          • Wackes Seppi

            There is no « failure of GMO’s in
            Europe ».

            There is only a failure of policymakers
            to keep their pants dry and clean when addressing anti-GMO FUD.

            Spain successfully grows MON 810
            maize (corn), to the satisfaction of farmers AND users.

          • Aidan Benelle

            “There is no « failure of GMO’s in

            Delusional..Guess you’ve never lived in Europe.

            The “Gm Market in Europe” primarily feeds their animals (GMO feed) not their people

      • Wackes Seppi

        Monsanto has NEVER left the
        conventional seed sector in Europe. And since there is little hope
        introducing GM varieties in Europe in the next few years (decades)
        and there is (still…) an agricultural sector which requires seeds,
        they invest in the… conventional seed sector.

        By the way, Monsanto is not a « major
        GM food company ». Seed perhaps, food certainly not.

        • Aidan Benelle

          I suggest you reread the article

  • RobertWager

    Since the 1990s, Kimbrell has been an influential biotech critic and at
    the forefront of legal and public relation efforts that have prevented
    the commercialization of various GMOs. “We think of Monsanto as a
    juggernaut, but it’s not,” he said during his talk at the recent conference in
    New York City. He then ticked off the anti-GMO movement’s successes.
    “We stopped GMO potatoes, we stopped GMO wheat, we stopped genetically
    modified rice, and we stopped genetically modified salmon,” he said.

    Save this gem. it clearly shows his “right to know ‘ is nothing but a means to an end aka ban all GE crops.

  • Bearpants42

    I see this in a lot of controversial topics. Make something impossible to work, then blame it for not working.

  • jfowler

    Did Foley ever respond to the criticisms of that article, e.g., Naam or others from the comment thread? I recall being very disappointed by many aspects of it, as you refer to above. It was well written, and framed as a ‘can’t we all get along/let’s move forward’ type of article. And, based on social media response, it was seen as that by many. But, to me it was organized such that important points were ignored or mis-portrayed. I expected much more…

    • http://dev.blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      No, there was no engagement from him. I think he was content (and obviously pleased) with the positive social media reaction to his piece.

  • Aidan Benelle

    GMO’s have benefited the industry that produced them and their associated herbicides.


    • RobertWager

      And according to the National Academy of Sciences 2010 report-Impact of GE crops on Farm Sustainability in the US:

      “In general, the committee finds that genetic-engineering
      technology has produced substantial net environmental and economic benefits to U.S. farmers compared with non-GE crops in conventional agriculture.”

    • Tom

      Ignorant and proud of it.

      • Aidan Benelle

        And I see you have the entire biotech Chemical Posse including Rod Herman (from Dow) uptick your comment

        And or course the ever constant Robert Wager pipes in below

        Industry operatives are so predictable its laughable

        • Tom

          Blah blah blah industry shill blah blah how much is Monsanto paying you blah blah blah scientists told us tobacco was safe blah blah blah…

          • mem_somerville

            Heh. I have riffed on this, I enjoyed it very much. I’ll tell our corporate overlords that I have used this idea.

          • Tom

            Tell them I’m still waiting for my check.

  • Buddy199

    “We stopped GMO potatoes, we stopped GMO wheat, we stopped genetically modified rice, and we stopped genetically modified salmon,” he said.

    Lean Backward.

  • Mike

    Sadly most of the people that are against biotechnology don’t have a clue why, they just accept the twisted lies that the anti technology crowd feeds them daily. I wish the biotech industry would be more aggressive at public education of consumers about all the benefits these crops bring today and will bring tomorrow. But, until you understand the science behind the product, the scare mongers will have the attention of the American consumer.

    • http://brent.fm/ Brent Norris

      I’m a technologist and have spoken with families on the subject of gmo pesticides. No one really cares what you call it. When you get poisoned and you can’t tell the Doctor what the name of the poison is called, treatment is nearly impossible.

      So would you disagree with all the Doctors and nurses in Kauai? The pediatricians and caregivers who are helping the 26 families on one street in Waimea suffering from cancer? What exactly do you think you know about gmo pesticides that they don’t know? Because if you know something, like what combination or RUPs they’re using maybe you could save a life.

      The biotech industry isn’t to blame. It’s chemical companies whose products are illegal in their own countries that share the shame.

      You imply that you understand the science. Do you know anything about scientific method, the precautionary principal or the need for failure in science to progress?

      It’s a big experiment, you’re part of it. So maybe you know. If you knew anything about the scientific method you would surely be against the open air testing happening on Kauai this week and everyday. And if you do and you are accepting of this kind of science then you share the responsibility to inform the people you’re choosing to ignore in your post.

      • Rod Herman

        The medical term for the condition that you describe is a dangerous interaction between hypochondria and ignorance that could be coined as “ignochondria”. Symptoms include a profound inability to understand causation combined with zealously making false claims. If allowed to progress unchecked, a shiny metallic cap can form on ones head resembling tin foil.

        • Loren Eaton

          …And all of it drizzled with some Dunning-Kruger.

          • Rod Herman

            And there goes my chance to coin a new name for an old disease…:(

      • mem_somerville

        So many unsourced claims, and you cite Smith? What is “technologist” training exactly? If you think it was science training you should ask for your money back.

      • JH

        Uh oh…the precautionary principle rears it’s ugly head!

      • Aidan Benelle

        Completely agree

        There’s science ~ then there’s ‘industry science’ and their industry cozy “theory” of Substantial Equivalence which only benefits Industry and not consumer health and safety

        • Loren Eaton

          Wrong dude, there’s science….and whether it passes statistical muster…PERIOD. Feelings, motives and funding don’t change quality. Then there’s Seralini.

          • Aidan Benelle

            Not true
            Initially certain biotechs published what they chose leaving unfavorable studies behind not to see the light of day.

          • Loren Eaton

            Citation? Proof? If it is not published how do you know it exists?

      • Paul Shipley

        So you don’t like the AMA, USDA, FDA, EPA, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society websites or the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Here’s their link that speaks of how harmless they are. Now Brent what I want you to do is find a link to some blog that will refute it all. Please Brent play the game. It will be fun.

  • JH

    “Why Technology Will Not Save the World. ”
    Because we won’t let it.

  • JH

    I don’t believe it’s appropriate to call Foley an “earth scientist”. Earth sciences is typically geology, geochem, geophys. Foley belongs to the College of Biological Sciences. He appears to call himself a “global ecologist”. In the vein of Ehrlich, no doubt.

    Surprisingly difficult to find out what Foley’s expertise actually is. His faculty page lists only the year and institution of his PhD. Would be most interesting to know more.

    • Tom

      Foley is legit – I just don’t agree with his posturing on GM agriculture. He’s done really good work on land use and agricultural yields and many of his studies are cited as proof that GM agriculture has an important role to play in feeding a growing population (although he himself seems to disagree).

      Some of my personal favorites:


      • JH

        I don’t know about “legit” or otherwise. But he’s not an “earth scientist” – certainly not in the traditional sense.

        Thanks for the refs.

        From the PLOS ONE paper:

        “We find that yields in these top four crops are increasing at 1.6%, 1.0%, 0.9%, and 1.3% per year, non-compounding rates”

        What is a “per year” increase that’s “non-compounding”? Isn’t a “per year” increase a “compounding” increase by definition? A non-compounding rate isn’t a growth rate. It’s not a rate at all.

        which is less than the 2.4% per year rate required to double global production by 2050.

        From 2012 to 2050 is 38 yrs, Yes? To double anything in 38 years the compound growth rate is 1.84%, not 2.4%. That’s basic math. This “non-compounding” rate needs a serious explanation.

        Population growth today is at 1.15% – and falling. Why does ag production have to increase at (by their claim) more than twice that rate? Or by the real numbers about 1 1/2 times the rate of population growth?

        • Tom

          By legit I mean that he has a solid publication record in reputable journals (including Nature, Science and PNAS) going back at least 15 years.

          I’m still trying to find his thesis…

          I’m not that familiar with the specifics of the PLoS ONE paper (it’s way outside my field of research). You could try just sending Foley an email if you have specific questions (although technically Deepak Ray, the first author, is the corresponding author on that publication).

          • JH

            Ah thanks Tom. Yes, in that respect he appears to be legit.
            The “increase” percentages strike me as odd right off hand.

          • Tom

            If you were to find what you consider to be a serious flaw in any scientific publication, you can always send a letter to the editor pointing it out. You can even demand to get the authors’ raw data set and redo the analysis – and even publish the results if you were to reach a significantly different conclusion.

          • JH

            Sure. Keeping in mind that I’m not sure why they do it that way – seems not the best way, but maybe there’s some legit reason for it. Just the same, it jumps out to a person who thinks about growth rates a lot. It’s an odd expression IME.
            I’ve read thousands of papers. Every paper has something that someone can legitimately take issue with. Some people regularly draw – in my view, and to put it kindly – heavily biased conclusions. But that doesn’t mean they’re incorrect or erroneous – except in someone else’s opinion. I have one buddy that loves the word “permissible” – that is, it can’t be rejected by the data.
            I don’t doubt that the “non-compounding” “increase” (“growth” and “rate” having been carefully avoided) is a legitimate measure. But it *might* not be the best or the most representative measure.

          • Tom

            No worries!

    • mem_somerville

      No, he didn’t have biology training–don’t foist him on us. I remember seeing that at one point and it made sense why he was so evasive on specific questions about the biology. He described his background as this once:


      He’s a gadfly. He’s also not in that job anymore. I find that a lot of folks who come in from physics, or engineering, swoop in and think that they have some equations that sort out all of biology. And folks with biology training roll their eyes back in their heads and hope nobody takes another “physicists model [cancer, autism, ecology, evolution, etc]” seriously.

      • JH

        “–don’t foist him on us.”

        He alludes to this and that but doesn’t even say what his PhD was in. Tried to find his PhD, no luck. Probably not enough effort on my part. In the late 1990s he called himself a climatologist.

        But there’s no evidence he belongs to Earth Sci, that’s for sure. He’s yours mem! :)

        Sure he’s no longer at UM? All the refs I find are to him as the director of the UofM IonE.
        The IonE is itself a strange beast. It’s website reads more like an NGO than an academic program. No reference to its faculty.

        • mem_somerville

          Nuh-uh! He’s got no biology (like Shiva, Smith, and so on…).

          I am sure he’s got a new job. You can see it from his twitter account: https://twitter.com/GlobalEcoGuy

          And I have a friend who was looking at a job at CalAcademy, I’m quite certain he’s there now.

          • JH

            Well, he’s no geo, dang it! :)
            Yes, I see that he’s off to Cal Academy now. Now I get where that fits in.

      • Loren Eaton

        I never trust anyone who slaps the prefix ‘eco-‘ onto their title…you know, eco-guy, eco-feminist. And they’re always experts in ‘global sustainability’. I love buzzword bingo.

  • http://www.drstevesavage.com stevesavage

    they were able to stop biotech in these cases because there were downstream players which sufficient market leverage who could be intimidated by the threat of activist protests (e.g. McDonalds, EU wheat importers on behalf of their food company customers). So if you really want to “control the food supply” you threaten valuable brands.

    • http://dev.blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor


      Good point!

  • Aidan Benelle

    Former Pro-GMO Biotech Scientist

    Admits GMOs Aren’t Safe, Refutes Claims by Monsanto


    • Tom

      Thierry Vrain has no particular expertise in GM technology. His background is studying phytoparasitic nematodes (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=vrain+t%5Bau%5D ). He’s yet another has-been hungry for some attention (see Pusztai, Suzuki, Huber et al.)

      • Aidan Benelle

        Keep trying no one’s buying

      • JH

        Ooo! Suzuki! He’s my hero! Get a degree in biology, smoke some dope talk about Gaia and dig on Che – the timeless route to granola immortality.

        • Loren Eaton

          Can I get a kumbaya!!

      • Loren Eaton

        Pusztai and Huber were respected scientists in their day. When the rest of them criticize GM science, the question should be “When was the last time you did any?”

    • Chris Preston

      I don’t think Thierry Vrain was ever “Pro-GMO”. This seems to be a handle he has adopted as part of his show. He seems to be a nonentity who is interested in 15 minutes of fame.

      The fact that he bases his claims on retracted research from Seralini and unpublished research from Ermakova tells you that he doesn’t care about reality, but whether data matches his pre-existing prejudices.

      The fact that he is also an organic farmer may have something to do with his claims.

    • Rod Herman

      This sounds serious. Would you please link us to his scientific publications on the startling safety findings with GMOs? As a scientist, I am sure he has published his findings in a scientific journal. Just post the link so we can all review his groundbreaking findings. Such profound science should be shared widely!

  • Alex Reynolds

    Because Monsanto deserves to be singled out with its sordid past history. Take Monsanto out of the biotech business and you get rid of the black eye, plain and simple. And tell them to take Agent Orange with them.

    Even pro GMO people admit the Monsanto Monopoly needs to go.


    But less than 20 years later, over a dozen weeds have developed resistance to glyphosate, meaning that farmers have to use more of it, as well as other more hazardous chemicals such as 2,4-D, a powerful herbicide linked to reproductive problems and birth defects, says Chuck Benbrook, PhD, a research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. On the basis of 16 years of pesticide data, collected since GMOs were introduced, Benbrook predicts that use of 2,4-D will increase more than fourfold in the next decade, spurred by new GMO crops. “Twenty years from now we will look back and deeply regret the misuse and mismanagement of current-generation GMO technology,” he says.

    This is Agent Orange, the same carcinogen that Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, et. al, poisoned Vietnam and our soldiers with. Now they are trying to patent it as their new pesticide- this is the part everyone should be paying attention to

  • Never Ending Food

    The definition of
    ‘food security,’ which is used by the World Health Organization, is “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” GMOs fail on all accounts. The current push
    in agriculture towards the monocropping of only a handful of high-carbohydrate low-nutrient foods, has left many countries facing chronic hungry seasons, malnutrition, and food shortages. Genetically engineered crops do not alleviate these problems…they exacerbate them. By moving further and further away from natural diversity, seasonal cropping systems, and the use of open-pollinated and locally-available resources, we find that GMOs do not lead to ‘sufficient’ food security.

    Proponents of GMOs often point to the fact that they are designed to use less chemicals, when in fact, just the opposite is true. Last year, Forbes

    magazine ran an article which stated that: “Food & Water Watch found
    that the total volume of glyphosate applied to the three biggest GE crops–corn, cotton, and soybeans–increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012.” Overall pesticide use decreased only in the
    first few years GE crops were used (42 percent between 1998 and 2001) and has since then risen by 26 percent from 2001 to 2010.” When seen in the light
    of this increase of chemicals (many of which are being increasing linked to a corresponding rise in cancers, allergies, autism, and the deaths of bees, birds, and other keystone species) we find that GMOs do not lead to ‘safe’ food security.

    The human body needs approximately 50 different nutrients for healthy growth, development, and to maintain an active life. When we focus primarily on a handful of low-nutrient agricultural ‘commodities’, we quickly find that nutrition becomes compromised. Many nations now, as we find here in Malawi, Africa have seen many consecutive years of surplus maize yields without a corresponding drop in our malnutrition rates. Genetically engineering maize to become ‘more productive’ would not help our situation…we are already producing TOO MUCH carbohydrate. As a result, the government and donors are now sinking millions of US dollars into supplementation, fortification, and medicinal nutrition programs, without addressing the root-cause of these deficiencies. As agriculture has pushed diets away from nutrition, we find pro-GMO advocates trying to put nutrients like vitamin A into foods where they don’t naturally belong. There is no need for this if we simply devise

    agricultural systems which are naturally diverse and which provide year-round access to ALL the nutrients we need. GMOs continue to push us further
    away from systems which offer balanced diets, and therefore do not lead to ‘nutritious’ food security.


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Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an 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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