Q&A – The Lowdown on GMOs with a Scientist

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Last year, as those who’ve read the first edition of my book will know, I was anti-GMO. Why? Well, I thought I had the evidence on my ‘side’. But I can now honestly say it was because I had no idea what I was talking about. (Need further proof I’m an idiot?) My knowledge of the subject was inadequate; much of that knowledge I got from biased sources; and I’m sure there was some social conformity bias somewhere in there. (I’m sure there were many more biases; but honestly, listing my own biases is depressing. I’d rather much do it to others. That’s where the fun is at!) I’ve just released a 2nd edition of my book, Random Rationality, and that stance has been rectified.

In the meantime, I’ve delved into some of the literature and involved myself in a debate with friends on the nature of GMO on the safety issue. In doing that, I also reached out to Dr. Kevin Folta last week (his profile and academic history here, and check out his highly informative blog here) to confirm what I had learned, and find out why GMO’s are so misunderstood. Dr. Folta is a plant geneticist who works at the University of Florida. He’s a scientist who specializes in plant molecular biology and he was kind enough to share his thoughts with me on his area of expertise. Our exchange is below, you’ll find it brief, but extremely informative. I’ve bolded some of his statements, those that I consider important.

The Lowdown on GMOs with a Scientist

Fourat (Me) – What is the main thing (or is it general) about GMO’s that the public routinely confuse, or get wrong, when discussing and debating their impact?

Kevin Folta –  There are so many misconceptions. The first is a fundamental one, that being that there is a debate at all.  There is no debate among scientists in the discipline of plant molecular biology and crop science. Sure you can find someone here and there that disagrees, but there is no active debate in the literature driven by data. There are no hard reproducible data that indicate that transgenics are dangerous or more potentially dangerous than traditionally bred plant products.

If I had to nail down the most annoying misconceptions they would include that all scientists are just dupes of big multinational ag companies. Anyone that presents the consensus of scientific interpretation of the literature is immediately discounted as some corporate pawn. There’s nothing further from the truth. Most of us are hanging on by a thread in the days of dwinding federal, state and local support for research. The attacks on the credibility of good scientists hurts our chances to stay in academic labs and consider the cushy salaries and job security with the big ag corporate monstrosities we chose not to work for when we took jobs working for the public good. That’s pretty sad.

There is this allegation that we hide data or don’t publish work that is inconsistent with corporate desires. They need to get one thing straight. We’re not in the public sector because we are excited about listening to some corporate mandates. No thanks.  We’re here for scientific freedom and to discover the exceptions to the rules and define new paradigms.

If my lab had a slight hint that GMOs were dangerous, I’d do my best to repeat that study, get a collaborator to repeat it independently, and then publish the data on the covers of Science, Nature and every news outlet that would take it. It would rock the world. Showing that 70-some percent of our food was poisonous? That would be a HUGE story — we’re talking Nobel Prize and free Amy’s Organic Pot Pies for life! Finding the rule breakers is what we’re in it for, but to break rules takes massive, rigorous data. So far, we don’t even have a good thread of evidence to start with.

The other huge misconception is that you can “prove something is safe”. Nothing can be proven safe. We can only test a hypothesis and show no evidence of harm. You can’t test all variables — nobody could. We can ask if there is a plausible mechanism for harm. If there is, we can test it. If there isn’t, we can do broad survey studies. A scientist can search for evidence of harm — a scientist can never prove something is safe.

2 –  In what ways might GMO’s be most beneficial to our biosphere, and why might organic’s not be as good as to get us there?

Kevin Folta – There is no doubt that transgenic plants can be designed to limit pest damage with lower pesticide applications. That is well documented by the National Academies of Science, the best unbiased brains in our nation. Most data is for cotton and maize, and show substantial reductions (like 60%). Transgenic potatoes were amazingly successful in Romania until they joined the EU and had to go back to insecticide-intensive agriculture.  Even glyphosate resistance traits, for all of their drawbacks in creating new resistant weeds, replace toxic alternatives.

Conventional farming takes fuel, labor, fungicides, pesticides, nematicides and many other inputs. Water and fertilizer are in there too.  There are genes out there in the literature that address most of these issues. Scientists in academic labs discover these genes and define their function in lab-based GMOs that never are used outside the lab. The regulatory hoops are too difficult and expensive. Only the big companies can play in that space. Even little companies like Okanagan Specialty Fruits have to deal with the nonsense from those that hate the technology. Opposition to the science keeps the big guys in business, because nobody else can compete.

Who loses? The farmer, the consumer, the environment, the academic scientist and most of all the people around the world that don’t get enough food and nutrition. Who gains? Big ag.

3 – What do you consider the most important aspect of differentiating the good from the bad when it comes to considering science? i.e., what is the first thing you look for after reading a study

Kevin Folta – In the short-term I consider the system studied.  Was it an animal system or cells in a dish? Most of the anti-GMO work is done on cells, especially cell lines that sound scary (like ovary, testis or fetal cells) but have little relevance to the complexities of animal systems. If done in animals, was the experiment properly controlled? Do the researchers SHOW the controls (like they conveniently omitted from Seralini’s 2012 rat-cancer work in Figure 3). Many studies that look good compare a GMO to an unrelated plant type. It is just not a valid comparison. Plants produce toxins and allergens, so you need to test the same exact plant without the added gene. If they do the rest of this properly then they need to run sufficient numbers and use good, common statistics. If they do all of this the work is publishable after peer review and should go into a decent journal, not some low-impact journal that publishes incomplete work or work that oversteps the data.

A lot of junk escapes peer review. Reviewers and editors are overstressed and overburdened these days. We do the work as service for the field. Occasionally a paper slips by in a lower-impact journal. You’ll find most of the anti-GMO papers there.

Another important attribute of good work is demonstrating a mechanism. For instance, just don’t tell me that you found some evidence of GMO harming cells. Tell me how. How does it happen? If the phenomenon is real the mechanism should be dissected out in a year’s time.  Omics tools are incredibly sensitive and we can detect small differences in gene expression and metabolic profiles. If GMO harm was real, the authors would define that mechanism, then collect their Nobel Prize and Amy’s Pot Pies.

The ultimate test is reproducibility. You’ll see that the best “evidence” for harm from GMOs comes from obscure journals, aging references that were published and heavily refuted by the scientific community (Puztasi, Seralini, etc), and work that was never repeated by outside labs. These are flash-in-the-pan works that never are expanded beyond the seminal study. The best sign of real science, good science, in an edgy area is that it grows. You see more scientists pile on, more research, more funding and bigger ideas. Models expand, mechanisms grow.

That just does not happen in the anti-GMO literature. The same authors publish a paper and then it goes on the anti-GMO websites and gains attention — while it dies in the scientific literature with no follow-up.

4 – Is there any split in the scientific community as to the safety of GMOs? If so, where does the split lay?

Kevin Folta – There are splits in the scientific community like there are splits for climate change and evolution. You have scientists like NIH Director Francis Collins that support creationist leanings. You have a small set of meteorologists and atmosphere scientists that claim that climate change is not real. There’s always room for a dissenting opinion out there, but they usually don’t have good evidence, just belief.

The same is true in biology and plant science.  There are a few out there that let philosophy rule over evidence, but they are not at the edge of research. In the circles I work with there is consensus about the safety and efficacy of the technology. Even those that study organic and other low-input production systems support biotech as a way to do their jobs even better. That’s a strange relationship many don’t expect. You’ll not see anti-GMO writing from too many tenure-track scientists at leading universities.

There is confusion on this. The Union of Concerned Scientists is frequently used as evidence that scientists are against this technology. When you read who they are and what they do, they are activists. They don’t do research or publish in the area of biotech. There are also others that claim to be experts or exploit some tenuous university affiliation to gain credibility. They should be looked at as deceitful, but they are accepted and believed with great credibility. People like Mercola, Smith and others sure sound like they know what they are talking about but they are not experts. Even Benbrook, a guy with a great career and a wonderful CV, goes off the deep end on the topic.

Readers need to apply all of the filters we discussed here today.  What the data really say, who did the work, and if it was reproduced independently are the most important criteria in separating reality from fiction in the GMO topic.

If you stand for scientific integrity, and going where the facts take you, then please share this Q&A so it may reach a wider audience. Almost every factoid from the Anti-GMO crowd has been thoroughly refuted, debunked, and repudiated by the scientific community. Millions of lives depend on the future of our food production, that means they depend on scientific experimentation and information untainted by ideology. The science is settled, and has been for some time. And as Dr. Folta above, and others, have elucidated, the intense opposition to the GMO technology has only intensified Monsanto’s grip upon the market. Facebook it, tweet it, re-blog it, or Google Plus it. Give my blog credit, don’t give it credit; I don’t really care. Good science matters more than pageviews (though pageviews are still nice), and more scientists like Dr. Folta should have their voices heard instead of the fear-based, fake-facts groups out there shouting from the rooftops who don’t know the first thing about genomics, evolution, or reality. (If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy my last one on science in general, read it here.)

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[UPDATE: Part 2 and 3 in this series; Lowdown on GMOs with a Family Farmer and Lowdown on GMOs with a Biotech Firm can be found here and here.]