It can be difficult to know who to believe about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The scientific peer review system is no guarantee of truth, nor are the news media, nor are blogs like this one. Jonathan Latham of the US-based Bioscience Resource Project (BRP) says there’s far too much hype and fakery about GMOs.
BRP calls itself ‘Good with science,’ aiming to ‘create a strong scientific foundation for healthy, just and ecologically sound food and agricultural systems.’ It doesn’t claim to be without bias. I like that attitude. Here are Dr Latham’s examples of ‘GMO fakethroughs.’
A GM rice (Oryza sativa) resistant to bacterial leaf blight (Xanthomonas oryzae pv. oryzae) was hyped in news reports such as this one in the New York Times, but never made it to commercial production. Here’s the science announcing that GM in the mid-1990s. Nearly 20 years later, here’s a review describing how plants resist this pathogen but showcasing no commercial GM success.
The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) tells us about biotech (GM) rice including the blight-resistant lines. ‘Field testing of some transgenic lines were conducted in China and the Philippines but no commercialized lines has [sic] been out so far.’
Thinking of another staple food, Dr Latham tells us how a high-protein cassava (manioc, tapioca, Manihot esculenta) was reported in New Scientist as a GM breakthrough to improve children’s nutrition. In fact there’s no evidence of the biofortified cassava being GM. The peer-reviewed science was retracted. Its authors apologised.
Another staple food is the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). Dr Latham tells us how Monsanto (‘A sustainable agriculture company’) developed a virus-resistant sweet potato. That GM crop was hyped as a crop to feed Africa in news reports such as this one in the New York Times but oops, it yielded less than selectively bred varieties. Here’s the debunk.
Dr Latham isn’t impressed by what he calls hype about ‘edible vaccines’. He reminds us that, back in 2000, GRAIN poured cold water on the edible-vaccine idea in this article, ‘Eat up your vaccines’. By now, Mr Latham points out, ‘[No edible vaccine] has gone beyond the status of a small initial trial in people or animals.’
Never say never. But if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the proof of the edible vaccine hasn’t yet reached our spoons and chopsticks.
And then there’s Golden Rice. Dr Latham retells the history of this series of crops (GR1 and GR2), calling Golden Rice ‘the emperor of GMOs’. He points out that, when human volunteers got nutritional benefit from Golden Rice, they needed to eat plenty of butter or oil with it. And it didn’t keep well above deep-frozen temperatures. ‘It perhaps doesn’t need saying that -70C storage capability and comparably fatty diets are not characteristics of those likely to be deficient in vitamin A. Thus, between its technical flaws and its requirement for very large quantities of financial resources and political will (for plant breeding, distribution, etc.), it is highly probable that golden rice will never progress beyond a nice media story.’
I hesitate to blog about Golden Rice. I’ve mentioned it several times already (my ‘Golden Rice’ tag) and it’s one of those stories on which most people have already made up their minds. In fact, that often seems true of GM stories in general.
Which brings me to the next section of Dr Latham’s article. He reminds us that news outlets tell the reader what the reader wants. He says that journalism about GMOs nearly always fails to ask questions like, ‘Is the technology ready? Are the regulators competent? Why is it considered appropriate for industry to fund and conduct its own safety studies? What are the views of dissenting scientists?… [W]hen the reader is expected to believe that the agribusiness industry is operating a humanitarian enterprise, is it appropriate to leave out (or deny) the same industry’s historical record of intimidating farmers or manufacturing dangerous agricultural products and then denying and evading responsibility?…
‘The presumption seems to be that biotech seed developers can introduce at will almost any trait they choose… [but] all existing commercialised GMO crops are based on a very small number of conceptually simple modifications of conventionally-bred crops. These insect resistance and herbicide resistance traits are single genes and do not require complex understanding of, or deliberate interference with, existing biochemical pathways. In contrast, the new ‘humanitarian’ traits are (in often numerous ways) adventures into much less well understood areas of biology.’
Progress will always involve risks. But ordinary people must be allowed to know what risks are being taken.
Dr Latham goes into more detail about scientific misreporting about GM in the final section of his article. I quote him again. ‘Agribusiness is an industry whose financial success springs ultimately from building a technological treadmill and establishing monopoly control of agriculture. However, its products are invariably dispensable to agriculture and it struggles to develop new ones. Therefore, fakethroughs’ great value is to confirm, in the eyes of the world, the industry’s claim to be ethical, innovative, and essential to a sustainable future.’