The escalating rhetoric of the GMO debate has rippled across the biohacker world—especially as DIYers start trying their hand at bioengineering. We’ve been calling for ecologists to step up and give some perspective. They’ve universally balked. So we’re grateful for Sasha Wright. She’s an ecologist at the Jena Biodiversity Experiment in Germany where she designs computer models to predict how biodiversity responds to climate change. She teaches ecology and plant physiology at Sarah Lawrence College and just finished teaching a course on ecology and environmental release at Genspace. Sasha has a lot to say, so this is part one of a two-part series.
Over the last couple of months Scientific American and the New York Times published public pleas to halt the rhetoric surrounding genetically engineered crops and public health. For the most part, the scientific community agrees that eating GE foods is “no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques” (AAAS 2012).
These statements, however, say nothing about ecological risks.
In fact, a scouring of large scientific organizations that have made official statements about GE crops and their effects on human health (including the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Royal Society of Medicine), reveals that none of these bodies have made similar statements about their effects on the environment. That’s because the case is still out. In fact, the case should remain “out” for several more decades.
That hasn’t stopped some – both scientists and journalists – from following the lead of Pamela Ronald when she wrote:
After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops (Scientific American 2011).
This is just not true--at least when it comes to the environment.
Ecosystems are complex. Plants interact with everything from pollinators, pests, and pathogens to soil microbes, earthworms, and other plants. At least two types of ecological problems can result from the release of GE crops:
- GE crops can interbreed with wild relatives which can create weeds that are more aggressive and/or resistant to herbicides. Beyond the risk of bioengineered plants exchanging genes with neighbors, the continued use of a single herbicide creates selective pressure for weeds to stumble upon the genetic combination for resistance traits. This may already be occurring in creeping bentgrass (Watrud et al. 2004), sunflower (Snow et al. 2003), and others (Chapman & Burke 2006).
- To date, the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin expressed in GE plants has been shown to negatively affect other organisms in the food chain, including monarch butterfly larvae (Lossey et al. 1999), green lacewings (Hilbeck et al. 1998), and ladybirds (Schmidt et al. 2009).
Ecologists understand that 10, 15, or even 20 years of data about an ecosystem may be insufficient to really know how it functions (Luo et al. 2011, Reich et al. 2012). Twenty years of data may only be a fraction of the time necessary for an ecosystem to stabilize in response to a changing environment--if stability is even realistic. To add even more complexity, it may take several generations to detect how GE crops affect individual species and species interactions at the genetic level.
So yes, it may take more than 17 years to understand the implications of adding novel gene combinations to an ecosystem.
To me, the more important truth may be that we should not sell the public on certainty when science is a system where certainty is impossible, where new evidence is meant to update our understanding, and where complexity defines the system.
The public must understand that scientific “truths” don’t exist. Scientific understanding always and almost inevitably changes with new evidence. That’s the beauty of science. When the public fails to understand science as a process, the discovery of new information can erode the relationship between the public and the scientific community.
Check in next week for Part 2 where Sasha gives her prescription.
So what about the french study on rats fed an exclusive GMO diet? I would suggest that the integrity of the scientists is compromised by profit. North america is lagging on labelling and research on poorly engineered GMOS. We are expected to believe that they are all engineered to the highest standards? Or that bee colony collapse is not related to neo-nicotinoid pollution? Many countries have banned them outright, at least until data can be evaluated. GMO crops have tremendous potential for good, but when their development is dictated by profit, it directly interferes with pure science, and lobbying for public and political opinion becomes the only goal, as it increases profits and prevents legislation that protects the public from unsafe and poorly evaluated products. There can be no true science where it is corrupted by greed, ask some of the 100,000 families affected by suicides directly from monsanto's GMO cotton that was an abysmal failure. (they could retain family ownership of their farms after profits tanked only through death) IMO, the vast majority of "experts" have either been bought openly through research money, or haven't the intelligence to see that following the herd (especially when it's led by the corrupt) will lead them over a cliff of ignorance. The public accepts the "truth" that GMO's are not necessary, don't produce as advertised, and many could substantially increase cancer risks, and swap pesticide genes with intestinal flora. No wonder comments were dropped, it's kind of hard to push propaganda when people can speak out.
@dkella.. That particular study was wrong in many ways. It was not just wrong. It was dishonest.
The french rat study on GM corn was garbage.
There is plenty of research demonstrating the negative impact environmental impact of GMO crops that allow decisions to be made right now about their lack of safety.
What the author overlooks are that GMOs are not just crops, but crop "systems" which include specific herbicides and other chemicals. The most widely produced forms of GMO corn and soy are Roundup Ready crops. This means that they have been genetically engineered so that when fields of these crops are sprayed with Roundup, all the weeds die but the crop remains untouched. The author does mention the growing problem of "superweeds" that now have resistance to Roundup, numbering 37 at last count.
One major problem overlooked by the author regarding Roundup Ready GMO corn, soy, canola and sugar beets, is that the harvested plants contain increasing amounts of Roundup (glyphosate) residues, so much so that Monsanto petitioned the FDA once again this summer to raise allowable Roundup contamination levels in a large number of vegetables, fruits, and grains. The highest allowable contamination level is for livestock feed, which is primarily GMO corn, GMO soy or a mixture of both.
Over the past decade there have been a number of studies demonstrating negative health impacts of Roundup residues on digestive and reproductive systems of livestock. There are also a number of studies documenting extensive Roundup contamination in ground water and rivers, and now, in humans. There are additional studies that demonstrate severe Roundup toxicity in amphibians and birth defects in both livestock and humans.
Consumers aren't going to wait another 10-15 or 20 years for scientists to figure out whether GMO food ingredients are safe to eat or negatively impact our environment. Instead they're voting with their food dollars. Sales of food products labeled "organic" or "Non-GMO Verified" are growing at 12-13% annually. By 2017 it's estimated that 30% of all food purchased by Americans will have these labels, 40% or more if mandatory labeling comes to pass. Savvy farmers across the country have been shifting what they grow to take advantage of the premium prices for organic and non-GMO crops. Likewise, forward-thinking food manufacturers like Post Cereals and many others are already switching to non-GMO ingredients. If you're a smart consumer, you'll switch, too...
For readers looking for more information that debunks the common myths often repeated as talking points by ag-biotech PR types, look at this well-documented report:
In addition to the French study, the Lossey article referenced in the original article is not actually a peer-reviewed study. The article was denied as a scholarly article because of how poor the scientific research was. It was later published as an EDITORIAL or interest article in Nature. This distinction is incredibly important. There was a second study that concluded that proved any effects on the butterflies were negligible (Sears MK, 2001).
Secondly, when considering the statement, '"GE crops can interbreed with wild relatives which can create weeds that are more aggressive and/or resistant to herbicides." This same phenomena happens with almost every plant and insect species. It is common knowledge that A.) plants breed with relatives to pass on genetic information and keep the genetic diversity high enough to overcome environmental obstacles via selection and B.) When an herbicide is consistently applied to a plant population there is a bottle neck in the population causing a much stronger selection to those plants that are resistant.
These phenomena are NOT unique to GE plants. It happens to ALL plants. This is a relatively poor argument against several aspects of our agricultural system. Not GE plants.
People are worried about the environmental impact of GMOs. But why are they not worried about the environmental impact of specifically bred organisms or those mutated via radiation exposure? Bot of those methods introduce new, mutant genes into the agricultural population? Because these genes are new, their environmental risks are far less know that those associated with GMOs.
Those methods of selective breeding and controlled mutation are technically GMOs as well, however most people are less worried about those methods because they are usually done to increase yields or resistance to droughts, whereas the GMOs discussed in the article that people are worried about are of the type that increase resistance to herbicides and pesticides. If a weed were to get the genetics from say, a tomato that has been breed(?) to simply produce larger tomatoes, that most likely wouldn't be that big of a deal as far as environmental impact goes. However if a weed were to get the genetics of a pest-resistant crop then there is the possibility that suddenly, having much fewer natural predators, that new superweed could become a worldwide menace to farmers as its population explodes.
I'm glad y'all seem to at least have some respect left for your readers. SciAm's recent move to do away with comments just because they were getting a lot of flak for taking a controversial stance on a somewhat touchy subject can only be described as an immature move on their part. It is an insult to SciAm's readers to take away comments, they have basically said that they don't value their reader's opinions enough to allow them a place to discuss the topic at hand.
Anyways, kudos to y'all
I think the first question to ask is what is the point? Is it necessary to spend billions of dollars developing GMOs? Can we accomplish the same thing using other forms of agriculture that have been proven to work over thousands of years and are more sustainable and environmentally responsible? The only reason I can see to use GMOs is to allow companies to patent our food supply, which is a dangerous proposition. There have been a couple of studies done, both long term(30 plus years) that suggest the way to allow the world to feed itself affordably and sustainably is organic.
Ultimately people are starving because they are poor. If you want to feed the world then help them out of poverty. It is much cheaper to grow food without chemicals and when you don't have to buy seeds every spring. You simply save seeds from the previous years harvest.
HOLY. CRAP. If only those thousands of farmers using GMO crops were as smart as some idiot on the internet, they wouldn't have gotten wrapped in this scheme to pay every single year for seeds that give no benefit. Because after all they can save seeds from the previous years harvest! Which they did not know until you pointed this out. WHAT ARE THEY THINKING??
UPDATE: Part 2 in this series has now been posted here: http://www.popsci.com/blog-network/biohackers/why-gmo-debate-misses-point-part-2
Sasha Wright, thank you for this article -- both parts. I several friends who spend a lot of time vehemently defending GE/GMO, saying people against it are "anti science," but all their arguments seem to boil down to "Human have been doing this for centuries, breeding and changing plants, so people are hysterical!" They point out that there is no proof of harm to human health. Yet as you also point out, there is a disconnect in the understanding of ecology and the environment. I think the current state of our climate already shows how human-centric thinking is ultimately not in the best interest of our planet.
"GE crops can interbreed with wild relatives which can create weeds that are more aggressive and/or resistant to herbicides." This is true only if they are specifically engineered to have resistance to a specific herbicide. Golden rice is not going to confer herbicide resistance. Neither is Bt corn. These are both engineered crops.
With all due respect, equating all genetically engineered crops as equivalent is misleading. If Round-Up Ready crops or Bt corn pose an environmental risk, they need to be reviewed specifically.