Guest Post: The Union of Concerned Trolls

On March 27th, the MIT Technology Review—an otherwise great resource on science and technology—published a bizarre diatribe on GMOs: Are GMOs Worth the Trouble by Doug Gurian-Sherman. I encourage you to read it before coming to the meat of this post. I call it bizarre for the many non-sequiturs, misrepresentations, and statements so easily falsifiable that one wonders how it got past the editors; yet it did. As I was considering writing a response to it, Mary Mangan and I exchanged a few puzzled tweets, and I decided the response would be far better received from an actual scientist such as she is, instead of from a two-bit nitwit like myself.

She graciously agreed to my proposal for a reply to the article to be posted here. You’ll find her insightful rebuttal below.


The Union of Concerned Trolls

If you have spent any time around the series of tubes in the last decade, you will have come across many personality types. One of these is the “concern troll.” A definition of this term from Wikitionary offers a glimpse at the behavior of this type of individual:

Someone who posts to an internet forum or newsgroup, claiming to share its goals while deliberately working against those goals, typically, by claiming “concern” about group plans to engage in productive activity, urging members instead to attempt some activity that would damage the group’s credibility, or alternatively to give up on group projects entirely.

In comment threads around the internet, there’s probably not much harm to come from random concern trolls. Unfortunately, though, there is a more insidious variety of concern troll that has wider influence, or a larger megaphone, and these behaviors can then really become barriers to progress. In science and science policy, this can mean undermining support and funding, and for some research areas: losing time on breakthroughs that could provide benefits in many arenas of health and environmental sustainability.

Science and science policy concern trolls in the wild

There have been many examples in recent years of concern trolling that have attempted to re-direct science efforts and funding, and to dismiss the importance of certain lines of research work. Senator Tom Coburn famously mocked the research conducted on shrimp on treadmills. The fact that this research was actually about an important food species and the effect of water quality on the shrimp didn’t seem to be important to the Senator. Sarah Palin took issue with funding for fruit fly research, you may recall. This research was actually aimed at understanding the olive fruit fly—a serious threat to olive farmers. You like olive oil? Would you like farmers to research the best tools to combat this pest and reduce losses? And who can forget Bobby Jindal’s concerns about volcano monitoring as a waste of resources.

I was reminded of all these efforts to diminish the value of the research, and redirect the resources of scientists, by a post at the MIT Technology Review. Not long ago a scientifically sound and excellent piece on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was published there: Why We Will Need Genetically Modified Foods, by David Rotman. In response, the Union of Concerned Trolls Scientists was recently given the megaphone to provide their thoughts on this topic. Doug Gurian-Sherman asks, “Are GMOs Worth the Trouble?” Using deliberate misrepresentations of the science and the field of work, Gurian-Sherman joins Coburn, Palin, and Jindal in aiming to redirect research priorities to align with ideological preferences rather than the real needs of the field.

Is Doug Gurian-Sherman a concern troll?

Now, I’m not saying he is. I’m just asking the question. You know, like Fox News does:

…Cavuto’s not saying these things. He’s just asking, like, ‘Is your mother a whore?’ What? I’m not saying she’s a whore. I’m just wondering out loud if she is a whore. All I’m saying is that reasonable people who have banged your mother for money can disagree.  ~ Jon Stewart

Let’s explore Doug’s piece and see if it fits the definition. Does he claim to share goals, while raising “concerns”, and attempt to encourage giving up on certain directions? It does appear so.

From reading his piece we see immediately that Doug thinks GMOs are “trouble”. How does he support this case? He begins by citing a paper about plant genetic repositories and resources by Susan McCouch and other attendees of a meeting on crop wild relatives. This work has absolutely nothing to say about disagreeing on technology, or any “trouble” of GMOs. In fact, it heavily supports investments in genomics and other allied technologies to unlock the potential of the wide variety of plants that are available to us. And then do what with them? Among the directions celebrated in this piece:

Thus, useful genetic traits are moved across the breeding barrier, expanding the genetic diversity of domesticated plants and opening up new opportunities for environmental resilience and future gains in quality and yield.

“Moved across the breeding barrier.” I wonder how that might be done…. Well, anyway. Let’s continue to examine Doug’s concerns.

Next he goes on to celebrate a rice variety that was developed for flood tolerance. Using the techniques of biotechnology, he notes this was developed “in about 5 years, rather than the typical 10 to 15.” He doesn’t cite any work here, so we don’t know where this typical number comes from. However, in the McCouch piece we learn:

Plant breeders often worry that using wild species or landrace varieties is too risky, scientifically and economically. It took 20 years and 34,000 attempts to cross a domesticated rice variety with a distantly related, highly salt-tolerant wild relative from India before fertile offspring were obtained. It will now take at least 4-5 years of breeding to eliminate unwanted wild characters to generate a new high-yielding, salt-tolerant rice variety (see go.nature.com/knztl5). That is too long for most plant-breeding programmes, especially in the private sector.

Other recent examples of plant breeding timelines include the development of a cherry with an altered maturation time—something that might be helpful in times of climate change. How did the breeders describe their work?

It took 45 years of sorting through the junk offspring to find the seedlings that took us where we wanted to go,” she says. “Ninety-nine percent of them didn’t have the qualities we were looking for.

The development of virus-resistant papaya is another example of a crop that needed strategies to combat a pathogen that was wreaking havoc on the fruits. Dennis Gonsalves began testing virus-resistant GMO papayas in 1992, and they were released to farmers in 1998. How long had it taken to do this with breeding?

We report the first successful production of PRSV-P resistant backcross (BC) papaya plants following intergeneric hybridisation between C. papaya and a Vasconcellea species after 50 years of reports on unsuccessful attempts.

Hmm. The evidence seems to be at odds with Doug’s claims, doesn’t it?

Breeding is important, and will remain important. There’s not a single scientist anywhere trying to withhold the techniques and strategies of breeding. Nobody is lobbying to interfere with breeding, or to keep it out of researchers’ and farmers’ hands. Nobody is burning down labs or fields to delay or destroy breeding efforts. In fact, last week I jealously watched from afar as plant scientists from around the world celebrated the career of Norman Borlaug and his huge successes in plant breeding, as they talked about their plans for the future to improve the qualities of crop species.

However, Doug’s main point seems to be that breeding is all we need (despite what breeders are actually saying). Overcoming the time and species barriers is crucial, though, as we saw in McCouch’s piece. Another respected plant breeder recently commented on access to tools of biotechnology:

De Jong enjoys dabbing pollen from plant-to-plant the old-fashioned way, but he knows that selective breeding can only do so much.…To him, genetic engineering represents a far more exact way to produce new varieties, rather than simply scrambling the potato genome’s 39,000 genes the way traditional breeding does.

There are other examples of situations where there simply is no breeding option to obtain the necessary traits. Virus-resistant cassava is being developed where there are no resistant varieties. Bananas, which suffer from numerous challenges, also lack resistant varieties and grow as clones—that is, they cannot be bred with traditional means. No source of natural resistance to the citrus greening (HLB) threatening oranges around the world has been identified, and saving them may require insertion of novel genes from other species.

Unlike Doug, breeders are not troubled by GMOs. They want—and sometimes need—to have this tool available.

Doug claims there are other “challenges” that he blames on GMOs. However, none of the things he cites are actually unique to GMOs. Monocultures, herbicides, and patents—the bogeyman trifecta—neither require GMOs nor would vanish if GMOs disappeared. It is entirely disingenuous to conflate these. He also says there are other strategies to affect water use, pests, and fertilizer needs. Fine—none of these are in conflict with GMOs in any manner—there is no trouble there. Pretending these are mutually exclusive at all is entirely bogus.

Sadly, he also raises the canard that’s becoming popular among his allies, and among climate contrarians—that “consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough” as Earth Open Source claims. This is a despicable misrepresentation of the facts, as legitimate scientific organizations support the consensus on the safety of GMOs.

Is Doug Gurian-Sherman worth the trouble?

Perhaps not. Although he manages to grab a megaphone sometimes, increasingly the scientific community and journalists are becoming aware of the rhetorical two-steps and destructive strategies employed by organizations that are hostile to GMOs, while pretending that they cling to science. Becoming the designated science support mechanism for GGFC, a group that is stalking public scientists and proponents of GMO technology, which is steered by one member who claims vaccines are “cannibalism” and “subverting evolution“, puts them in very unfortunate company and may make the UCS embarrassingly irrelevant anyway without further assistance.

He is actively trying to influence the support for the options of tools be available for researchers, however. And we have to be wary of that. Folks who misrepresent science, and attempt to undermine the public support, are not helping us to solve challenges we face.

~ Mary Mangan, PhD in Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology

  President and co-founder of OpenHelix LLC

10 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Union of Concerned Trolls”

  1. Mary – very well said. “Concern” is nice, but action is better. To me, a scientist who actually contributes to improving the food supply has a more legitimate voice than someone paid to simply be concerned

    1. It just astonishes me that UCS–a group who should fully understand that scientists should have the access to the tools and strategies they need–would behave like this. I mean, I can understand the Vatican wanting to keep scientists from using stem cells, even if I disagree with them. But this baffles me. (Mary signing in with my twitter handle)

  2. “Is Doug Gurian-Sherman worth the trouble?” Love it! Nice post, Mary. I dislike how Gurian-Sherman separates breeding from GM technology. They are both breeding, just different techniques.
    His claim that conventional breeding takes an average of 10-15 years is correct, from the original cross to final product. There are techniques that can speed this up, such as single seed descent (used extensively in soybeans) or doubled haploid breeding, but they represent tradeoffs in field observations that are very useful in determining performance and stability of performance of the end product.
    This also assumes that you make the RIGHT CROSS, and that you make the RIGHT selection decisions EVERY YEAR of the process. Many breeding efforts are the result of a lot of dead ends, and incremental gains that serve as a starting point for continued breeding. So 10-15 years is a good average time from start to finish, as long as you are right every step of the way. It also requires that nature cooperates and doesn’t throw you a new problem along the way, such as a new insect pest, or a disease that overcomes previously resistant genes (you mean resistance develops in conventional breeding, too?).
    And while diversity protected in seed banks is an important resource and tool, there is no guarantee that the gene or genes to solve a problem will be found there, at least not in the same species you are working to improve. Why would some people who preach biodiversity all the time want us to ignore diversity just because it lies across species or genus lines, when all DNA is just a series of 4 nucleotides?

    1. Hey Ben–glad you enjoyed it.

      And thanks for the input on the crossing times. But right–how often is it going to go right every time? And for what species is that? There are plenty that offer challenges above and beyond “typical”, and without any context for that it’s hard to say what the time frame would be.

      As the breeders were noting in that paper, there are a number of steps beforehand to, so that you can even find the traits you want to move. The current tools are underpowered for that, so they were asking for more efforts there too. I totally support that as well. But that will take time.

      The obsessions with “species” lines confuses me all the time too. I’ve seen the 4 letters of genes. They really don’t carry a species barrier with them.

      1. Yes Mary, that 10-15 year timeline only applies to annual crops. Perennials take much longer.
        And searching for anything useful in gene banks is a very tedious process. I’ve screened several hundreds over the years, and the number of lines I’ve found useful without knowing anything prior, other than where they came from, about the background, I could probably count on one hand.

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