13 May 2012

What environmental groups don't understand about biotech

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.
- Charles Darwin
On May 27, the "Take the Flour Back" environmentalist group plans to take "mass action" in efforts to remove more than $1 million worth of research in biotechnology. Their purpose, according to their website, is one of "mass decontamination" of what they see is a threat to farmers, the food supply, health of consumers, and biodiversity. What this protest group doesn't understand is that it's exactly this kind of research that they, as environmentalists, should be placing on a pedestal.

In an interview with Karl Haro von Mogel, Rothamsted's biologist Dr. Gia Aradottir explains the details of the experiments the protest group wants to uproot at Rothamsted Research Station in Harpenden, England: The research is on a variety of wheat that is genetically engineered to emit aphid alarm pheromone (E)-β-farnesene (EBF); in other words, the scientists are testing plants that can produce their own non-toxic aphid repellent, using pheromones. An aphid-resistant wheat variety could lead to less use of pesticides overall, less pesticide runoff, less effects on beneficial plants and insects in the surrounding environment, less possibility of pesticide resistance.

This is precisely the kind of research that could help lead to the "marriage" of organic agriculture (the kind that is pesticide-free) and genetic engineering called for by plant geneticists such as Pamela Ronald (see her most recent blog post "Thinking Beyond Organic"). It's also the kind of research that former AAAS president Nina Fedoroff has  said (see my prior post here) will help prevent an eventual Malthusian crisis in combination with severe loss of biodiversity.

Contrary to the beliefs of the "Take the Flour Back" group, the research could mean a better crop for farmers, more dependable wheat production for the food supply, and an ultimately greater protection of biodiversity. EBF and similar pheromones are also already emitted by several other plant species, so there should be no indication of it being a potential health hazard.

However, despite pleas of reason from Rothamsted for the group to not destroy years of expensive research, the anti-GM group insists that the aphid-resistant wheat is still a danger. They point to findings from another environmental group, Friends of Earth International, that GM crops have led to increased amounts of herbicides and pesticides, not less. They also harp on the idea that the synthesized gene bears more resemblance to one found in a "cow" versus a "plant" -- an obvious scare tactic -- and they question Rothamsted's assertion that their publicly funded results won't be sold off to a agrochemical companies.

Without a doubt, in the last few weeks, biotechnology-proponents have been following this story (along with the Kashi "controversy") with disbelief. The distrust the general public has toward genetically engineered foods has reached new levels. That is unfortunate, because biotechnology is the most promising technology we have for protecting the environment in our ever-changing, ever-more-populated, world. With real threats of arable land and water scarcity, loss of biodiversity, disease-resistance, and global warming all looming over us, environmentalists should welcome biotechnology as one of our most important technologies for countering the forces of change.

Perhaps what these protesters and the general public need is a serious understanding of the history of agriculture and why biotechnology is critical for the future. For instance, genetic manipulation has gone on for thousands of years in plant breeding. And, in the last 50 years or so, mutations have been induced through technologies such as thermal neutron radiation. New methods of genetic modification and gene transfer should be considered simply as extensions of previous technologies.

Rothamsted has the right idea, calling for an open discussion, in hopes of educating the public about the potential benefits of biotechnology. Let's hope it's enough to save their research from destruction! Learn more at Sense about Science.

Update Oct 3, 2012: Good news - The GM wheat trial has been successfully harvested! That's despite  the protest group and significant damage following a break-in. I received the following message today via email because I signed the "don't destroy research" petition at Sense about Science:
Dear Petition Signatories 
The GM wheat trial crop at Rothamsted Research has been harvested. It is far too early to talk about results yet, but the team at Rothamsted wanted to let you know about the harvest and to pass on their thanks. The protest group who said they were going to destroy the crop earlier in the summer did not have enough support to carry out their threat; this was because of you. 
Professor John Pickett said: "The team and I were overwhelmed by all the messages of support we received from the petition signatories. You all have a significant role to play in ensuring this important, independent scientific study continues to progress so we can better understand whether this technology could help us deliver more environmentally sustainable food production in the future. We are only half way through our experiment and to ensure we get robust scientific results we need to continue the experiment next year and then get the data thoroughly analysed and independently peer reviewed for all to see. After all the great work done by Sense about Science this year, we hope next year's phase will pass without the threat to damage it." 
Síle Lane, Sense About Science said: "We were thrilled by the support for the researchers. We are still reading through the comments 6060 people left on the petition. This is ongoing research so it's good for the scientists to know there's so much support for them from so many people. The questions you sent us have been a great way to clarify the research and Frances Downey is going to continue this. If you have further questions get in touch with her at fdowney@senseaboutscience.org.” 
We have gathered some of the comments of support for the researchers from petition signatories, politicians and high profile supporters here (PDF)http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/Dont_destroy_research/Dont_destroy_research_public_support_June_2012.pdf 
The questions researchers worked hard to answer are herehttp://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/plant-science-qa.html 
There’s a time line of the summer's events, including Rothamsted's offer to debate with Take the Flour Back before the protest, here:http://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/Content.php?Section=AphidWheat&Page=Protest 
Protestor Hector Christie was ordered to pay £3,850 in compensation to Rothamsted Research in August after breaking onto the site and causing property damage. He failed to disrupt the experiment: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-19373852   
If you would like to get general news from Sense About Science you can sign up for our newsletter here http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/support-us.html and keep up to date with the fantastic work of the researchers at Rothamsted on their websitehttp://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/
Thank you again for your support. 


Curious Chemeng said...

They point to findings from another environmental group, Friends of Earth International, that GM crops have led to increased amounts of herbicides and pesticides, not less.

There's a chance they're thinking of "Roundup Ready" crops, which were designed to survive high doses of herbicides which killed the plants around them, and other similar things. No doubt use of herbicides increased on those crops; that was the point of the modification.

I often get the feeling that when it comes to GM foods, most people only remember the scary stories. (And scary stories are the most memorable ones.)

David Despain said...


Maybe I didn't make myself clear - I would agree that they're talking about Roundup Ready crops. And, I don't doubt that there are data to suggest that they've led to increased use of herbicides and pesticides.

In short, the reason I think that these environmental groups should put this kind of research "on a pedestal" is principally because it's publicly funded (not privately funded) research that would lead to less use (not more) of pesticide.

It's the "marriage" of organic and GMO, as several scientists including Pamela Ronald and Nina Fedoroff have promoted. It's a better way for GMO.


organix said...

Yes, It's Monsanto's Round-up Ready GMO that is causing the entire GM biotech to suffer - even those doing beneficial research as this one seems to be.

Curious Chemeng said...

It does sound like fantastic research (from the microscopic amount of it I understand).

I mostly find it unfortunate that "GM foods" has become equivalent to "Roundup Ready", sterile crops, and other horror stories in the mind of the public. Frankenfoods, and so on.

While I certainly don't know enough about genetics and biology to say what kind of effects the changes will have, and because of that lack of knowledge I'm cautious when something sounds positive, I do think that GM has its place in the world and in research. (Did you see the news about the "enviropig"? GM pig that has a more efficient digestive system so its manure is less polluting. Such a neat idea.)