Reporter Jeremy Berlin and pro-GMO scientist Pam Ronald used the example of a non-GM rice variety to argue that GM is necessary to feed the world. Claire Robinson reports
On 4 May National Geographic published an article by Jeremy Berlin that featured pro-GMO scientist Pam Ronald talking about submergence-tolerant (flood-tolerant) rice. Ronald and her team have developed a variety of such rice called Sub1.
The article eulogized both Ronald and GM, using Ronald’s marriage to an organic farmer to suggest that only a combination of GM and organic farming will feed the world: “Only by combining elements of each, she contends, will we have a chance of feeding the world’s swelling population (expected to reach 9.2 billion by 2050) while also protecting the planet’s natural resources and countenancing the effects of climate change.”
The article was enthusiastically subtitled, “Pamela Ronald isolates genes in rice that feeds millions. Her integrative approach to agriculture could be an even bigger game-changer.”
The reader would have come away with the message that while organic farming has worthwhile contributions to make, it can only succeed in feeding the world if GM is also used.
One big problem with this message is that the example promoted in the article, of submergence-tolerant rice, is not GM but the product of conventional breeding.
Ronald used molecular biology to isolate the gene of interest, and this facilitated the development of genetic probes that are used in marker assisted breeding. Marker assisted breeding is an uncontroversial technique that is widely supported by organic associations and most opponents of GM crops. It is not in itself GM, though it can be used to develop a GM or a non-GM crop. The resulting flood-tolerant rice variety was not GM but conventionally bred.
So far from providing a reason why GM is needed to feed the world, the example of flood-tolerant rice would be better read as showing it is not needed at all.
While Berlin’s article does not explicitly say that Ronald’s rice is non-GM, the context is entirely about GM, and the technical terms used are not defined for the general public. So most reasonable people would come away with the message that this was a GM success.
This is not the first time that non-GM submergence-tolerant rice has been falsely claimed to be a GM success. The UK government’s former chief scientist, Sir David King, made the same claim when attempting to come up with reasons why GM was needed (see GMO Myths and Truths, “Conventionally bred crop without GM tweak – GM used as lab tool”).
The responsibility for Berlin’s spectacular error in using a non-GM example to promote GM technology lies ultimately with Ronald, as the expert source – and apparently the only source – for the story. Ronald is well aware of the non-GM status of submergence-tolerant rice. She should have made that fact clear on this occasion and on the many previous occasions where the rice has been similarly used in the media to promote GM. But judging by the resulting article, she did not do so. Could it be that she prefers to avoid clarifying the facts where they may interfere with her chosen pro-GMO narrative?
National Geographic should publish a clarification on the same page as the original article. If Ronald is in fact perpetuating the incorrect claim that widely-grown submergence-tolerant rice is genetically engineered, she should also accurately present this story, and stop misleading journalists and the public.
Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist with the Center for Food Safety, wrote to Berlin to point out the errors or misleading aspects in his article. Thus far he has had no response. Therefore we are publishing his letter below, with his permission. The letter has been edited slightly by Dr Gurian-Sherman to improve its clarity.
Dear Mr Berlin,
As a scientist with a PhD in the same field as Dr Ronald (plant pathology), the subject of your recent story in National Geographic, I read your article with interest. While it makes several good points, there are also several crucial points that are probably misleading. Most importantly, a main premise of the article is that genetic engineering (GE) is, and will be, important for producing enough food sustainably, and has made important contributions to poor farmers in developing countries. To make your point, the example of submergence-tolerant rice was highlighted. To show that GE is beneficial, real-world examples like this are essential. Abstract assertions of its importance, absent practical examples, are not very convincing. So the example of submergence-tolerant rice is crucial to the thesis of your article. Yet in fact, submergence-tolerant rice is not genetically engineered. Submergence-tolerant rice was developed through breeding.
You do not explicitly say that this rice was developed by using GE. But most readers would be forgiven for not knowing that. The whole article is about GE, not breeding, so there is no context to tell the reader that you are not talking about GE when you discuss submergence-tolerant rice. And you used terms that are specific to GE when discussing it. Writing about isolating the gene in a lab, and inserting it into rice—your entire third paragraph—use terms specific to GE, not breeding. The next several paragraphs are also about GE. So what other conclusion can one draw, but that the submergence gene that is helping millions was genetically engineered (and I am pretty sure her disease resistant GE rice, also mentioned in passing, is not being commercially grown)?
Much later in the article you say that submergence-tolerant rice was developed through marker assisted breeding, without explaining what that is. I know from experience that many people would not understand that you are not still talking about GE, because over the years Dr. Ronald’s example has been used by her many times in this confusing way, and many people have come to me (as a scientist) asking whether this is GE or not. No one (from critics of GE to regulatory agencies) consider marker-assisted breeding to be GE. And few have a problem with using molecular biology to try to understand genes, as Ronald did. It is the process of inserting genes, especially from other species, into the genomes of crop plants that troubles many. And, by the way, markers used for marker assisted breeding can and often are developed without isolating genes that code for particular traits (not to take away from the value added to our understanding achieved by doing research on the gene).
So if you thought that the submergence tolerance gene that farmers are growing in South Asia is genetically engineered, you are incorrect. If, on the other hand, you understood that submergence-tolerant rice is not GE, and was developed by breeding, what is the point of using it as support for the value of GE?
In fact, what this example shows is that GE was not needed to develop submergence-tolerant rice. And since this is your primary practical example, it really argues that breeding, not GE has great practical value. In other words, it makes no sense to use this example, as you did, to show how useful GE is.
But as I noted, I think it is likely that many, if not the substantial majority of your readers, would not understand that breeding rather than GE created the sub-tolerant rice.
More broadly, I have been dismayed that National Geographic has focused its discussion on the narrow issue of whether GE food is safe to eat (by the way, most scientists of all stripes admit that some GE foods could be harmful to eat. And we actually have an example, though not commercialized, that demonstrates that GE food can be harmful). The focus on this issue detracts from substantial concerns that many scientists have regarding GE, such as environmental impacts, social impacts, concentration of the seed industry, whether the technology may contribute meaningfully to sustainable food production or the opposite, and so on. To your credit, you touch on several of these issues. But so briefly that one would hardly notice.
The purpose of this article, as well as the cover of a recent NG issue that asks if GE is evil (undoubtedly there are some who believe this, but really, most of the debate is around material issues), seems to be that science is on the side of GE, and it is only misinformed activists that think there are legitimate science-related concerns about the technology. As a scientist, who works with dozens of academic scientists from many relevant disciplines, I know this is not the case.
Besides the misleading aspects of the article, National Geographic does its readers a disservice by focusing on “straw men” concerning GE when there are crucially important issues that should be discussed in order to make sure that where GE is developed, it is used in the best interests of society.
In case you are interested in some other, mainly science-based concerns about GE, here are a few blogs, with links to relevant science literature (there are many others that I and others have written):
Doug Gurian-Sherman, Ph.D.
Director of Sustainable Agriculture and Senior Scientist
Center for Food Safety