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Professor John Vandermeer challenges Lynas on GMOs

Professor John Vandermeer challenges environmentalist Mark Lynas on GMOs
Food First, January 8 2013
 http://www.foodfirst.org/en/GMO+uproar+in+EU  

Neoliberal environmentalist Mark Lynas recently gave a talk at the Oxford Farming Association in which he apologized for once militating against GMOs. Now, after having discovered "science", has decided we need GMOs to feed the world. (

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Anyone against GMOs, he claims, is anti-science because "the debate is over" and the "scientific consensus" has won... This is an all to familiar argument from the industry, and leads us to suspect that Lynas may have been recruited by EuropaBio's "Pro-GM Ambassador Programme." EuropaBio is the very rich and vocal lobby association of GM companies in Brussels, that prepared an international outreach programme in 2011 to give a new impulse to GM crops in Europe  http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/oct/20/europabio-gm-ambassado

Lynas's rant is bringing a response from actual scientists. Dr. John Vandermeer from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan comments on Mark Lynas' promising scientific conversion.

Guest blog by Professor John Vandermeer, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

DISCOVERING SCIENCE

The “conversion” of Mark Lynas has taken the world by storm, a bad guy suddenly sees the light and dresses in white. So complete was his conversion that evangelists around the world would be wise to seek the secrets of his messengers. And his conversion happened at an opportune time for the industrial agricultural system, under fire all over the world from people trying to push for a more sustainable system. But the political fallout, as unfortunately negative as it is, is something that will subside. There is something else that we should all applaud.

I teach science (biology) at the University of Michigan and, as a science teacher, I cannot help but be pleased when someone says “I discovered science.” That is great. And Mark’s discovery seems to have been as innocently childlike as when I discovered science in my junior year in high school. So, contrary to what some of his critics have said, I applaud his conversion and urge him to continue his education. The problem, of course, is that a new discovery like this can lead to all sorts of impressions that, upon further study, turn out to be misleading, sometimes false. The problem is that at this elementary level, all science teachers oversimplify things, using approximate metaphors and simplified diagrams to try and get their students to understand some rather complex ideas.

What you subsequently learn in graduate school is the compendium of complications. Mark Lynas has now discovered science and it is now up to all of us to encourage him to continue his education. Some of the things I suspect he will find will not sit well with his current handlers, but we can only hope that his boyish enthusiasm for science as an ideology, will carry over to a more serious study of science’s complications. We can only hope that he is not just one of those publicity-seeking conversionistas, well-versed in the politically compelling “I once was against X, but now I love it (oh by the way, it makes more sense for my bottom line to be for it)”. He has discovered high school biology. Now it’s time to go to college.

The things he might discover are, for example, the endocrine system. It’s a pretty important fact of our lives and science has shown that it can be “disrupted” by a wide variety of molecules. Sometimes those molecules occur naturally, but frequently they are part of the cocktail of chemicals usually applied in the modern industrial system. He will discover that a bunch of scientific studies have linked Glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup) to endocrine disruption and he will come to realize that endocrine disruption can sometimes have negative consequences, things like birth defects and cancer, and I can’t wait to see his response to the well-know effects on penises. And in his ecology class he might discover how breakdown products of large molecules can persist in the environment for tens or even hundreds of years.

And in his physiology course he will discover that small doses of things can have pretty big consequences. So, for example, roundup is a commercial product whose active ingredient is glyphosate, but that contains other chemicals to enhance its performance. In particular one chemical is added to act as a surfactant, making sure that the liquid that contains the roundup sticks to the plant it is attacking, Even if glyphosate was completely benign in the environment (which it is not, but for sake of argument assume it is) it turns out that the surfactant kills. He can check out the work done at the University of Pittsburg on how roundup kills amphibians – not that he should necessarily care about amphibians, but from his training in history I’m sure he understands the notion of the miner’s canary.

As he delves further into molecular biology he will discover things like epistasis, polygenetic inheritance, linkage, promotors, transposable elements, and a host of other sometimes enigmatic complications that we now understand to be at the center of any organism’s genome (and might learn the meaning of those 10 dollar words that he seems to use but not understand, like mutagenesis and gene flow). And he will see that doing just one thing (e.g., inserting a piece of DNA into a big genome) is probably not possible in the first place. As the geneticist Richard Lewontin has said, the genome is like an ecosystem. And we all know what can happen when you, for example, try and introduce a single species into an ecosystem. What usually happens is nothing, which of course can lead to complacency. But occasionally the introduction is catastrophic. Some google search topics that will enlighten are, brown snake, mongoose, cane toads, Kudzu, Nile perch (there are many others). If genomes are like ecosystems, there is nothing at all that suggests equivalent disruptions could not occur, and the few scientists who remain unaware of this complication need to refresh their graduate education with a course in complex systems.

These are all things that Mark might learn as he pursues his more advanced study of science. But I really can’t wait until he discovers evolution. When a group of scientists relied upon a particular species of plant (technically, Mark, it’s called Arabidopsis) to explore the possibility of the evolution of resistance, they concluded that the evolution of resistance to their roundup-ready crops would take so long as to not matter. Understanding what went wrong here will be a great lesson for Mark, since we now know (and we pretty much understand why, although it’s complicated) that more than 20 species of plants have already evolved resistance to Roundup. And those Bt crops that supposedly reduce pesticide use, well, they have indeed had an effect on the environment, but not a positive one. Scattered around the world are farmers who are forced to use other insecticides since many of the major corn pests have evolved resistance to the Bt toxin, and that very toxin used in an artisanal way by poor farmers (even organic ones) is now not available.

When he gets into the quantitative aspects of his education some truly amazing numbers will jump out at him. As so many people have noted in the past, when judging a new technology the fundamental question to be asked is “what problem is this technology meant to solve?” Mark seems to have naively accepted the GMO argument that we need to increase production to feed the world . With a bit of “scientific” examination of evidence (by the way, evidence is a concept that all scientists rely on, Mark) he will discover that according to many reports the record on GMOs thus far is not exactly hopeful. According to an extensive review by the Union of Concerned Scientists, there is scant evidence that production increases with the use of GMOs. Obviously profits increase enormously, that is, profits for the companies that supply the seed and other inputs that go along with their technological package (which, if we are to truly honest, that is the whole point), but production or productivity is pretty much the same as for non GMO varieties. It’s actually not surprising since companies like Monsanto never cared about production in the first place, that was just PR to get innocents to accept their argument that the world “needs” GMOs. What Monsanto actually wanted was 1) control of the supply of seed and 2) sales of their major product, Roundup. At that they have been immensely successful, at least in the United States.

So, in the end I applaud Mark Lynas’s discovery of science. Indeed, I encourage anyone who has not yet “discovered” it to do so. It is a truly amazing way of looking at the world that has been with us since Galileo urged the powerful to look at the data. You may recall from that example that the church reacted sort of like Monsanto, plug your ears and make noises when faced with the data, and attack the messengers who bring it to you.

John Vandermeer
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
University of Michigan