GMO Rice Gone Wild
By Joel Preston Smith
Aimee Sutherland, a zoology student at Michigan State University, is currently working on a 15-minute documentary she hopes will “demythify” genetically modified organisms. GMOs have star power, but usually play the villain in the media, so Sutherland wants to polish their tainted image by providing viewers with “the facts.”
In Sutherland’s script, published online through the university’s agriculture school, Americans who worry about the safety of GMOs are represented by actors who quote culinary science fiction, freak out over lab-engineered “headless bags of chicken,” and sully the good corporate name of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Space-Age food and the biotech industry with slanderous statements intended to stoke nightmares and gastric revulsion.
It’s “just” a student project, but it presents a fair portrait of the biotech industry’s characterization of those who won’t just shut up and chew—the heretics, the hayseeds, the Luddites, the primitivists who obstruct “progress.”
It’s hard to get buy-in from someone you’ve just portrayed as an idiot, but that’s the least of biotech’s problems in glamming up GMOs. Biotech’s biggest dilemma, in portraying GMOs as safe, lies at the foundation of science itself, which says this: you cannot say that anything is certain—that any biological experiment will always yield the same results, unless you know and can control all the variables, and the variables don’t vary in subsequent efforts to verify the results, and your methods are flawless, and you’ve banished human error, which means the method by which you’ve accounted for human error is itself free of such error, and that you are working therefore within a closed loop of immutable perfection—meaning that if you claim to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your results are incontrovertibly valid, you are probably working in an ashram, not a laboratory.
GMO publicists such as www.examiner.com are therefore leaning toward religion, and away from science, when they rapturously say, “Scientists can prove the safety of GM foods, but fear will prevent many people from believing the facts about these scientific achievements.” Even Time magazine can’t resist openly proselytizing for biotech, threatening an economic apocalypse if biotech isn’t given free reign, when it argues (in a March 9, 2010 news article echoing Cold War rhetoric on behalf of the nuclear-weapons industry) that “denying farmers money-saving technologies means European agriculture loses ground against rivals.”
Biotech’s second public-relations problem, centers on the contradictory and sometimes specious results of GMO risk assessments. It’s hard to convince the public that your science is sound (and that you are trustworthy) if you’ve stacked the odds in your favor.
Case in point: Michelle Marvier, Ph.D., is a scientist who studies (among other things) the structure of experiments, with a heavy emphasis on analyzing GMO trials. Marvier, a professor in Santa Clara University’s Environmental Studies Institute in Santa Clara, Calif., argues that the vast majority of GMO risk-assessment experiments use sample sizes too small to draw statistically valid conclusions about levels of risk. She says she’s examined trials that use as few as two samples, and “such studies rarely have more than seven.”
Worse, Marvier says she’s found—by performing data checks on individual studies—that some published studies “failed to report” all the information necessary to evaluate the accuracy of the studies. She’s generally recognized as the nation’s leading advocate for meta-analysis—a technique for combining data from multiple studies, searching for trends or errors that might not be apparent in isolated sets of data.
Marvier recently told GMO Compass, an on-line guide to GMO research and risk assessments funded by the European Union, “Many of the studies that have been conducted to look at risk for non-target organisms are ‘weak.’ What I mean is this--in the lab, the number of animals exposed to the treatments is typically small and in the field, relatively few plots or fields are used.”
She adds that such studies often operate under the assumption that “transgenes [genes transferred into a target organism via biotechnology] can be kept on a leash, and that’s just not likely. Eventually, if they’re stable, they’re going to out-cross.”
In other words, while the published results address the “safety” of the subjects in the study itself, they don’t necessarily extrapolate the potential risks to the environment as a whole. It’s a little like lighting a match, noting that you didn’t get burned, but forgetting to mention that you dropped the match in dry tinder in fire season, then walked away.
Gail Langelloto, Ph.D., studies such ecological relationships. A geneticist with Oregon State University’s Department of Horticulture, Langelloto says she recently examined the effects of transgene flow from GMO rice (carrying the Bt gene for pest resistance) to wild rice. In lab studies conducted in the Philippines, Langelloto’s team reported no ill effects (after the transgene flowed from GMO to wild rice) on six species of spider, a leafhopper, and various control plants in the study.
But the study, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, did note that transgene flow resulted in a 100 percent mortality of Cnaphalocrocis medinalis, the leaf-folder moth—a common pest on cultivated rice. If the study escaped the notice of the media, it might have been because the 100 percent mortality rate among leaf folders was reported (at the Dec. 16, 2009 meeting of the American Entomological Society), as“biomass may be impacted.” [Footnote: Langelloto’s study has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, nor has it been replicated by other researchers.]
From biotech’s perspective, a 100 percent mortality among pest moths (with transgenic plants conferring resistance to their wild counterparts, in which every rice plant, the world over, is magically transformed into a loaded weapon) might seem less than tragic. The problem (and there is an epistemological problem with automatically defining an impact as a problem) arises most dramatically at an ecological level.
“One of the ways you try to prevent transgene flow,” Langelloto explains, “is you don’t grow the crop around its relatives, but wild rice is everywhere. Because it’s wind pollinated, you can’t have a geographic separation [of transgenic and wild rice].”
China approved transgenic rice for commercial production last November, meaning (according to Langelloto) that if the world’s largest consumer of rice moves forward with large-scale plantings, transgene flow is not just likely, it’s inevitable. Whether that means leaf-folder moths have just been handed a genetic pink slip—that they will suffer extinction as Bt rice supplants wild rice around the world—is a matter of speculation. Does it mean other species, other food webs, will have their biomass impacted?
With the entire planet playing the role of a Petri dish, it’s hard to control the variables. “It would have been nice to see what’s going to happen in a controlled experiment first,” Langelloto observes. “It looks like we’re going to get to see the results on a very large scale, in a natural experiment.”
Peggy Lemaux, Ph.D., is a geneticist who chairs the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Biotechnology Workgroup. She argues that there are “risks all along the way, even with organic agriculture.” It is possible, for example, to hybridize a trait, using conventional means of breeding, with devastating consequences. It is not a problem exclusively linked to biotech.
Lemaux believes that GMOs currently approved for human consumption “aren’t any safer or riskier than other [conventionally produced] food we eat.” The risks, she posits, are minimal for human consumers. “For the products out there now,” Lemaux says, “there are no documented risks that are greater than those that are on the conventional side.”
She echoes Langelloto, however, when addressing ecological impacts. “On the environmental side, there are greater risks. We’ve seen that with the massive use of Roundup [an herbicide whose use has been accelerated by Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready gene, which allows transgenic crops to withstand heavy doses of the company’s herbicide] that there is increased resistance [by weedy species doused with the chemical].”
That’s biotech’s third (but not last) problem: studies of the impacts of transgenic species cannot (due to the enormous complexity of ecosystems) adequately address the environmental consequences of GMO crops, or transgene flow. It’s a double-blind experiment, conducted on a planetary scale, and the variables are too numerous to comprehend, much less investigate.
If a subset of Americans were unwittingly enrolled in a clinical trial for an experimental drug, it’s not likely that—if they questioned the risks involved, and how they came to be drafted in the study—they would be portrayed by the medical community as hayseeds, fools and paranoiacs. Yet this is how doubtful consumers are often cast by biotech.
Indeed, there’s a certain tone of religiosity in the biotech industry’s rhetoric--either convert, they say, or be left behind in the genetically engineered rapture. There are promises of feeding the planet, of the conquest of disease, of creating new, more efficient forms of energy; the industry consistently argues that it is a lack of faith (and funding) that impedes progress. From the GMO industry’s ads, one gets the impression that while it might have taken Jesus two fish to feed the multitude, Monsanto could have done it with a breath mint.
Such “miracles” are possible. Whether they are “miracles,” or profitable plagues in the making … is a matter of how we define “miracle.” And how one defines “plague.” Biotech can (theoretically) shape a “better” world, but again, there are ethical questions inherent in the issue of whether an engineered world is “better” than a “natural” world. Having the potential to feed the planet (if one accepts biotech’s assertions) does not therefore mean that hunger will be eradicated.
It doesn’t seem foolish to think about these things--to ask questions, to exercise caution, but the biotech industry seems, in its rhetoric, to wish the plague of critics would just fall mute.
“To say that risks have been fully tested and settled is silly,” argues Charles Benbrook, chief scientist for The Organic Center, in Boulder, Colo. “Anyone who says that is not speaking as a scientist; they’re speaking as an advocate. It’s a sign of how divided and unhealthy the debate is.”
Those who argue against acceptance of GMOs would—like their counterparts in biotech—be wise to speak honestly about the limitations of their knowledge, to abandon hysterical fear-mongering, and make some reasonable attempt to present the scientific merits of their objections.
When asked about the validity of GMO risk studies published in scientific journals, the editors of Scientific American said they were unavailable for comment.
Joel Preston Smith is a Portland-based photo journalist and investigative reporter.