Esteemed Journal Nature Dedicates Issue To GMOs, Defends Technology

By Christie Wilcox | May 1, 2013 1:00 pm

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I have a big bone to pick with the organic movement, particularly with their constant attack on genetic engineering. I applauded when Prop 37 failed in California, and have put out post after post explaining why GMOs aren’t the root of all evil. That’s not to say I’m pro Monsanto, or think every GMO is science’s gift to humanity. But the universal fear and demonization of all genetic technology is, simply put, damaging and unfounded.

Turn that frown upside-down — the newest Nature issue defends GMOs. Cover image provided by Nature.

Now, the top-tier scientific journal Nature has weighed in. In their “GM Crops: Promise & Reality” issue this week, several articles explore “the messy middle ground.” With titles like “Tarnished Promise” and “A Hard Look At GM Crops,” you might think they attack genetic engineering, but in fact, the entire issue does the opposite, standing in support of crop genetic engineering technologies and pleading to rethink the knee-jerk reaction against them. Even the “Hard Look” concludes, “Tidy stories, in favour of or against GM crops, will always miss the bigger picture, which is nuanced, equivocal and undeniably messy. Transgenic crops will not solve all the agricultural challenges facing the developing or developed world… But vilification is not appropriate either. The truth is somewhere in the middle.”

Which is exactly what I’ve been saying all along. 

“Over the past 50 years, improved crop varieties have contributed almost 1% each year to the gains made in worldwide agricultural productivity,” explains Christopher Whitty, chief scientific adviser at the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and colleagues in their comment piece “Africa and Asia need a rational debate on GM crops”. “To begin with an emotional debate about GM techniques is to look down the wrong end of the telescope.”

Whitty and his colleagues aren’t Monsanto shills; they’re scientists that have carefully weighed the evidence. And they’re among the majority of scientists that support GM technologies, even though they say GMOs aren’t an agricultural panacea. “Genetic engineering is not essential, or even useful, for all crop improvements,” they write. But, they come down hard on blanket bans against genetically engineered crops. “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.” To support their case, they specifically cite three examples of GMOs — vitamin A-boosted golden rice, poo-borer-resistant cowpea, and water-efficient maize — that they consider “potential life savers.”

They also make special note of the western world’s privileged status when it comes to debating GMOs, and argue that developing countries shouldn’t simply follow the leader when it comes to genetic technology policies. “It makes little sense for decisions on GM crops to be overly influenced by European perspectives… where the benefits of better crop yields are slight, the risks (although largely theoretical, and in some cases, arguably irrational) may dominate in a risk–benefit analysis.”

Meanwhile, in a different comment piece, Fusuo Zhang and colleagues describe how “driven by an urgent need to both produce more food and lessen the environmental impact of agriculture — and with more money to address the problem than most — Chinese scientists are working out how to push crop yields close to their biophysical limits.” And, of course, GMOs are playing an important role in these efforts to improve efficiency and sustainability.

“The development of new crop varieties and hybrids is one of several areas of fundamental research,” the authors write, “with transgenic technology becoming an increasingly important element in recent years.” The use Bt cotton as an example (the first GM crop approved for commercial use in China), citing that, with it, farmers have increased yields by nearly 6% and reduced the use of insecticides by around 80% in the past 8 years. In spite of the Chinese public’s wariness about genetic engineering, the government poured almost $4 billion US into a 12-year GM research and development initiative. “In the face of climate change, pushing yields to the limit while sparing resources and reducing environmental consequences is a crucial goal for all,” they conclude.

And the next generation of GM crops are on their way, explains Daniel Cressey in his news feature “A New Breed.” “New tools offer unparalleled precision in editing genes,” he explains. “Some of these crops will tackle new problems, from apples that stave off discolouration to ‘Golden Rice’ and bright-orange bananas fortified with nutrients to improve the diets of people in the poorest countries.”

The main goal of GM researchers now: use what you’ve already got. “The real power of these techniques lies in the ability to confer new traits by modifying native plant genes,” Cressey explains. He writes about researchers that are using modifications to a plant’s actual genes, not the insertion of genes from other species, to combat common problems. Cressey notes that using the plants own genetic material “could conceivably reduce the public disquiet over GM foods.” “US regulators have already suggested that organisms modified with the newer techniques such that they contain no DNA from other species will be treated differently from conventional GM organisms,” he explains.

One of the many applications of transporters cited in Schroeder et al.’s perspective: barley engineered for enhanced zinc content. Around two billion people suffer from iron and zinc deficiencies worldwide. Image courtesy of The John Innes Centre

Nature further has an entire perspective article dedicated to one way in which scientists may be able to achieve the lofty goal of improving without adding: alterations in membrane transporters. “Transport proteins embedded within membranes are key targets for improving the efficiency with which plants take up and use water and nutrients,” explain the international team of 11 scientists led by Julian Schroeder, UC San Diego biology professor. The new wave of genome sequencing, they say, has led to incredible leaps in understanding of the natural genetic diversity of plant membrane transporters, which can be exploited through conventional breeding or genetic engineering.”Just as our cell phones will need more advanced technology to carry more information, plants need better or new transporters to make them work harder on existing agricultural land,” said Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre in the U.K. and a corresponding co-author of the paper, in a press release. “We can make plants better at finding and carrying their own chemical elements.” By tinkering with these genes, scientists can improve nutrient content and increase drought, flood, or salinity tolerance. “We expect that research into fundamental mechanisms of plant membrane transport processes will continue to produce surprises and breakthroughs that will provide new avenues towards a more sustainable and productive agriculture in the face of impending challenges,” write the authors.

That’s not to say that using native plant genes should be the only way to engineer better crops. There is plenty of good being done with cross-species gene transfer, too. Cressey discusses how non-agribusiness researchers are focusing on locally used plants instead of big money makers, hoping to improve crops for developing countries. Nutritional enhancement is a common goal, including crops like golden rice and fortified bananas. These researchers are trying to solve real global issues, whether or not Monsanto and other large agricultural companies are backing them.

Even the harshest article in this new Nature issue defends GM crops. In “A Hard Look At GM Crops,” Natasha Gilbert examines the myths and truths of the GM debate. Is Bt cotton leading to suicides in India? Nope. “The claim, based on an increase in total suicide rates across the country in the late 1990s, has become an oft-repeated story of corporate exploitation since Monsanto began selling GM seed in India in 2002,” Gilbert explains, but the fact is “there has been essentially no change in the suicide rate for farmers since the introduction of Bt cotton.” Are GM crops causing superweeds? Well, yes, but that’s not the whole story. “Twenty-four glyphosate-resistant weed species have been identified since Roundup-tolerant crops were introduced in 1996,” Gilbert explains, “But herbicide resistance is a problem for farmers regardless of whether they plant GM crops. Some 64 weed species are resistant to the herbicide atrazine, for example, and no crops have been genetically modified to withstand it.”

The end result of Gilbert’s “Hard Look” is a hard look at the arguments against GMOs, not the GMOs themselves. As she explains, “These controversial case studies show how blame shifts, myths are spread and cultural insensitivities can inflame debate.”

The point being made over and over by these pieces is that GM crops are a part of the future of agriculture, and they should be. As fellow Discover blogger Keith Kloor has pointed out many times before, “Unfortunately, the public GMO discourse is dominated by phony, pseudoscientific claims advanced by ideologically motivated activists and their enablers in the media.” Kloor comes down hard on the media’s willingness to portray GMOs as dangerous in spite of a complete lack of any scientific evidence whatsoever. “In truth,” he writes, “the uncontrollable spread of disinformation about GMOs is what’s really contaminating the environment.”

I completely agree. As I’ve said before , the future of agriculture needs to use all tools available to tackle the growing problems of malnutrition, population growth, and ecological impact. If we universally apply the same methods globally, we are destined to fail both in terms of efficiency and sustainability. It is only through the breakdown of arbitrary and variable distinction between methodologies like “organic” and “conventional,” scientific rigor in our approach to studying technologies and methods, and integration of a variety of practices that we will achieve our ultimate goal of a bright future both agriculturally and ecologically.

I’m glad to see such a prominent journal focus on this hot-button issue, especially with such staunch defense of technology. Genetic engineering isn’t the enemy of sustainable agriculture, even if Monsanto or other agri-businesses are. The technology itself is unbiased, and can be used to revolutionize food production globally. To blanket attack technologies with the potential to help billions while lessening our impact on the rest of the Earth is counter-productive to everything the environmental movement stands for. It’s time we stop villainizing GMOs, and start using science and technology to secure a healthy, sustainable future.

The Nature special issue:

Schroeder J., Delhaize E., Frommer W.B., Guerinot M.L., Harrison M.J., Herrera-Estrella L., Horie T., Kochian L.V., Munns R., Nishizawa N.K., Tsay Y.-I. & Sanders, D. (2013). Using membrane transporters to improve crops for sustainable food production, Nature, 497 60-66. DOI:

  • Frank Csorba

    I have nothing against GMO, but I will continue my fight against it if they don’t label it. People have a right to know. Any corporation that puts up a fight and tries to obfuscate the origin of their product does not have my support. Honesty above all else, and if your company doesn’t … you might as well stop your corporate whimpering!

    • Tom

      What, exactly, should food labels tell you? Should you be informed what fertilizers and pesticides were used to grow the wheat in your cracker? Should you be informed how much CO2 and methane was produced by the dairy cow that your cheese slice came from? Should you be informed what fertilizers and pesticides went into growing the feed for that dairy cow? And maybe you should know the precise genetic makeup of each individual bacterium that went into the cheese culture. I hope you have a big label; that’s a lot of ACGT’s.
      Requiring labeling for only genetically modified organisms, and all genetically modified organisms, without any regard to what was modified, what the risks might be, and how much testing has been done to ensure safety, is transparent fear mongering by the anti-GMO crowd.

      • Bob Phelps

        We have a tame cat regulatory gatekeeper FSANZ in Australia, rather
        than allowing agribusiness to self regulate. Food Standard 1.5 requires novel
        foods – foods made using new technologies and processes, without an established
        history of safe use in the food supply – to be labeled. This includes foods
        made using genetic manipulation techniques; irradiated foods; nanotech foods,
        soon we hope; and other novel foods such as indigenous bush tucker. A national
        labeling review recommended that 30 years of use should pass before the
        labeling requirement is lifted. However, our governments rejected that
        recommendation, so will review and probably revoke irradiated food labeling
        next year. Worse, at the behest of the US government and BIO, 6 governments,
        including Australia, have an: “intention to promote synchronization of
        authorizations by regulatory authorities – in particular for food, feed and
        processing purposes.” We oppose subsidized and
        unlabeled US food and feed foisted on us in the guise of so-called ‘free’

        • Tom

          Do those standards include new fertilizers and pesticides? How about new hybrids created by conventional means? (Apolgies if this is posted twice.)

      • Curt

        Yes. There should be disclosure. I think some of your examples go overboard. Food labeling is very important, everyone should have the right to know what is going on with the food they eat.
        I agree with this article that there are good uses for GMO. It is not ALL bad, just like it is not ALL good. Black and white does not cut it with this topic.

      • Sarah

        I’m in agreement with Tom-
        should we explain that the cinnamon you consume might have 399 insect parts per 50 grams?
        There’s so much that the public doesn’t understand about what is in their food- to target GMOs with no basis is unfair. Show us some solid scientific evidence that GMOs are bad and I’d change my mind. I just haven’t seen it yet.
        I’m of the mind we should all grow our own food and then we can complain about what those who grow our food and sustain our life are doing wrong.

    • Kirk Holden

      Notice: This product contains wild grasses that were modified by early humans into grain.

      • Tom

        While you weren’t looking, we genetically modified your dog.

    • Robert Wager

      So when might we expect “made with ionizing radiation mutagenesis” labels on the organic foods?

  • Elisa1238

    So DfID’s Whitty isn’t a Monsanto shill? Maybe not, but the DfID is well in bed with the GM industry:

    The UK’s shameful role in matters GM is to force onto poor countries what the British and European people will not accept in their own countries.

    And by the way, it is poor journalism to allow Whitty to get away with implying (but not exactly stating) that GM has improved yields. It hasn’t–though conventional breeding has. See the UCS report, Failure to Yield.

  • 63BusGirl

    “Genetic engineering isn’t the enemy of sustainable agriculture, even if Monsanto or other agri-businesses are.”
    What is your basis for this statement? Agri-business and the university system are the main groups coming out with GMO crops. How is agri-business then the enemy of sustainable agriculture?
    Are they not actually the producers of sustainable agriculture?

    • Leslie Bianchi

      “even if” does not say they are nor does it say they are not.

      Businesses have profit over other benefits as their driver. I don’t there is a point positive or negative being said about those businesses. The point being made is:

      “The technology itself is unbiased, and can be used to revolutionize food production globally. To blanket attack technologies with the potential to help billions while lessening our impact on the rest of the Earth is counter-productive to everything the environmental movement stands for. It’s time we stop villainizing GMOs, and start using science and technology to secure a healthy, sustainable future.”

  • Island-Mike Robinson

    What is your point here? That we should produce even more food? We produce plenty of food but we don’t distribute it very well. More food means more people. It is a law of nature that populations rise to meet their food supply. Are more people on this planet a good idea? Clearly not as we tax the eco-system with our wants and “needs”. Agribusiness (the GMO designers) concentrates power and production in the hands of faceless multinational corporations who have a mandate to maximize profit. It takes power and control from local communities and producers. It uses huge amounts of petrochemicals and fossil fuels. And the jury is out on the health consequences. And what does organic farming have to do with some people’s problem with GMOs? Organic farming is a holistic process concerned with so much more than just food. It factors in the physical and social environment, whereas agribusiness does not. Your rant is pretty narrow and it reads like you rare trying to justify your own prejudices.

    • Tom

      The point is that genetically modified organisms should be judged and regulated on their merits. For example, a crop modified to produce higher yield might be used to reduce the land needed for farming, to reduce the application of pesticides and fertilizers, or to reduce the energy expended in growing, harvesting, and bringing the crop to market. You’re confusing the tool with the people using the tool.

      You’ll note that Christie didn’t say “organic farming”; she referred to the “organic movement”. The organic movement has swept up a bunch of issues into one bundle, that not everyone within the movement is in agreement on, but one of the more universal and problematic things is a naturalistic fallacy – that is, the assumption that man-made products are, by definition, worse for the environment/health/family farms than naturally occuring products. That includes pesticides and fertilizers (which Christie has addressed), and it also includes GMOs.

      Can a farmer be concerned with the physical and social environment, and grow rice enriched with vitamin A in what they believe to be a responsible manner, without using any pesticides or fertilizers, and using all electric farm vehicles powered by solar energy? Sure; in fact, their concern for the social environment might have prompted them to grow that particular crop. Will the bulk of the “organic movement” support this farmer? Nope.

      By the way, your characterization of “organic farming” as being distinct from agribusiness is incorrect. There are lots of large agribusiness companies with organic products. For example, ADM, Dow, and Syngenta are in the organic farming business.

    • Benjamin Edge

      ” It is a law of nature that populations rise to meet their food supply.”

      If that were true, the US would be the most populous country on earth. What has been shown is that as countries raise their standard of living, their birth rates go down. Don’t you think that the problems with food distribution could be minimized if more poor countries could become self-sufficient in food production? As long as food is being provided as aid on a government level, corruption will always be the beneficiary.

  • Psyclic

    It’s easy to storm the GMO castle with torches and pitchforks, but what the hell is in there? The first issue is NOT the GMO product, but the mechanism for delivery: 1. The developer of the the modification is held free from any liability. That should start the concerns pumping. 2. By patenting a food-stuff, the company can now claim ownership. So what, it’s only one of many variations, right? What if it becomes the dominant variant, hybridizing or overwhelming other variants? Now the company owns the ENTIRE crop. 3. One of the goals is to improve yields, and this is accomplished by resistance to predators (bugs) and weeds. To resist bugs, the plant must now provide a toxin against the bug, with long-term human effects not established. To resist weeds, plants are modified to become resistant to higher than usual levels of herbicides. The problem with that is that the weeds ALSO become increasingly resistant to the herbicide, requiring even greater amounts of herbicides, again with little long-term understanding of downstream ecological effects. 4. Arrogance. By just tweaking this gene, I can fix the (fill in the blank) is typically myopic as the biochemist working for the food-lab is not well versed in the synergistic ecological processes which have evolved over thousands of generations, and how his little “tweak” may cause large perturbations far from the original target. 5. Building a “better” crop usually leads to monocultures. Subsistence on a monoculture is like building your house in the landslide zone. When a new predator/disease is introduced, a catastrophic population decline is possible.
    After acknowledging these issues, you are left with the actual efficacy of the newly designed product. But who will evaluate that? Typically it is the same company organization that developed it, because they own it and have patent restrictions. So your single source of information will be strongly biased.
    As a result, many new and valuable genetic mods are unable to be separated from the incompletely (or incorrrectly) thought out other genetic mods.

    • Curt

      I agree. I have been more concerned with the potential ownership of seeds and unintended consequences in the environment. Like many other issues, emotions are fueling the debate. But, I think people need to be skeptical of the potential consequences like Monsanto owning a whole crop because it overruns other varieties, or that they can sue a farmer for unintended growing due to seeds falling on their land, or that farmers cannot keep seeds and reuse them. That to me goes against the whole concept of developing these technologies for the good of our society.

      • Sarah

        The seed ownership idea is the only real case on the opposition to GMOs. However, even without GMO crops, you would still have hybrid seeds. So do you suggest we get rid of hybrids as well- as they don’t reproduce true to seed necessitating that growers buy new seed for each crop? Same idea here.
        The reason companies like Monsanto own and charge for seed is because of the cost of the research and development that went into those seeds. We wouldn’t have these technologies unless those companies took a risk with R and D and hoped for a return on investment. There are patent time limits. Once the seeds come off patent they will be made more affordable by competing seed companies.
        Again- I am of the mind that we should grow our own food before we slam what those helping to sustain the population growth, and our food security, are doing. We will still have heirloom seeds available to us as well as seed for seed trade amongst individual growers.
        I encourage all to grow at least a portion of what they consume.

  • Jay Lindberg

    There are plenty of excellent reasons GMOs should be labeled and the label should include the company the GMO seed belongs to. I want to know if the company is a bad actor in the global economy, like Monsanto. If the company is scum, the chances their products are crap, increase exponentially. As far as fertilizers and pesticides, I believe organic foods already answer those questions.

    OUR CANCER RATES HAVE INCREASED 10 FOLD OVER THE LAST 100 YEARS AND LOTS OF OTHER ILLNESSES NEED EXPLANATIONS AS WELL. Something in our environment is screwing up our health. How can you be absolutely sure that GMO foods have nothing to do with it.


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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.


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