An article by the editor of Nature journal about a containment system for GMOs misleads the public, writes Claire Robinson
Adam Rutherford, an editor of the journal Nature and a BBC science pundit, has written an article called “Why GM is the natural solution for future farming”, published in The Guardian. The article hypes two recent research papers hailing the development of GM bacteria reliant on synthetic amino acids for survival. The idea is that when the amino acid is withdrawn, the GM bacteria would die, offering a genetic containment system or “genetic firewall”. The take-home message from Rutherford's article is ‘safe GMOs for all’. (Systems of containment for GM bacteria, despite the hype, are not new.)
Another article in the journal Science breathlessly claims, “The strategy, described in two papers in this week’s issue of Nature, might ultimately be used to control genetically engineered plants or other organisms released into the wild to create products or clean up pollution.”
But how accurate is this picture? Is the “firewall” system really the solution to the problem of GMOs spreading in the environment?
It seems unlikely. Apart from the vast expense involved in making large amounts of synthetic amino acids, thoughtfully detailed in a table by one team of researchers, and the safety issues of applying them to food crops, it’s far from clear that the technology could ever be applied to GM crops – or indeed in any open system. The hypothetical scenario with crops is that the synthetic amino acid would have to be applied to the plants to keep them alive and then withdrawn when the plants were no longer needed. But how it would then be “withdrawn” from a complex open ecosystem, and how to deal with issues like allowing the plants to pollinate (when you need the genes to “escape”), is anyone’s guess. And while genetically engineering bacteria to express desired traits is relatively simple, engineering plant genomes is far more difficult.
But Rutherford, in his article about the “genetic firewall” technology, refers repeatedly to GM crops. He titles his article, clearly referring to food production: “Why GM is the natural solution for future farming: A new failsafe promises to prevent leakage of GMOs – but will it appease the sceptics?“ Sceptics of GMOs are generally opposed to GM crops – there is far less opposition to the use of GM in contained systems such as medicine and non-food industrial processes. So any “sceptic” of GM crops is unlikely to be appeased by a technology that doesn’t appear to be applicable to crops at any time in the foreseeable future.
So why does Rutherford constantly refer to food farming and GM crops in an article focusing on a containment technology most suited to non-crop uses?
There seem to be two possible answers:
- Rutherford doesn’t understand the topic. In which case, what’s he doing writing about it in The Guardian?
- To pull the wool over our eyes by associating genetic firewall containment with GM crops in the same article, thus imprinting the idea of safe GM crops in the public mind.
Interpretation number 2) is backed by Rutherford’s other misleading claims in the article. The first is about the so-called “systematic review of multiple studies”, which he calls the “gold standard of scientific evidence” of GMO harmlessness. Though the link to his source is broken, Rutherford appears to be referring to the Nicolia review of 1700 studies, which relies on misrepresenting or omitting important research studies to reach its conclusion that GMOs do not present any “significant hazards”.
If the Nicolia review is the “gold standard” of scientific evidence on GMOs, then the pro-GMO lobby is in deep trouble. Sooner or later, someone is going to read this review and a sample of the source studies and find out they’ve been had. It’s not realistic to expect peer reviewers or journal editors to have the time to do this. And they wouldn’t expect it was needed: scientific publication is largely based on an “honour” system that means authors don’t intentionally misrepresent their source data.
That principle appears to have long gone from scientific publishing in the field of GMO. Frequently, attempting to trace a statement to the source reveals that it’s based on nothing or is a misrepresentation of the original data. I’d love to see Rutherford do some proper homework on the Nicolia review and then justify his claim that it represents any kind of gold standard in science.
Rutherford also claims that breeding “is effectively genetic modification” – an astonishingly unscientific claim that has been refuted by numerous scientists and by the wording of international laws and agreements.
Finally, it’s incomprehensible that Rutherford calls this technology a “failsafe”. Only long and widespread use and rigorous testing can enable it to be called that.
It seems that the main purpose of the “genetic firewall” technology hype is to protect the GMO lobby from their opponents, by falsely implying it will solve the pressing problem of contamination from GM crops. But there is no solution to that problem, which is just one of the many reasons why GM is not the natural solution to future farming.