The Science of Sustainability

Comments Do Matter (So Get Talking!)

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A single comment helped turn an opponent of this GM rice into a proponent.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A single comment helped turn an opponent of this GM rice into a proponent. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Back in December I wrote a blog post asking scientists to comment online more often. I had noticed that some commenters were getting away with comments that were scientifically wrong (“vaccines don’t prevent illness”) and I was worried that if these comments remained unchallenged, readers would conclude that these scientifically inaccurate statements were actually true. Or at the very least that there was some debate on the question.

A number of scientists got back to me on why they didn’t bother to comment and one of the biggest reasons I heard was that they didn’t think their comments would matter. They felt their comment would be one of many that got lost in the fury of the comments section. As one put it, “There would be too little return on his investment.”

A recent case shows that a well-timed comment can radically change someone’s viewpoint. A journalist named Mark Lynas has been a harsh critic of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) from the get go. He regularly argues against GM foods in the press and has had a huge impact on the debate about the safety of these crops.

Now, after much soul-searching and scientific investigation brought on by a reader’s comment on one of his stories in the Guardian, he is no longer opposed to GM foods. In fact, he has become pro-GMO!

It might seem hard to believe, but this is what Lynas himself is claiming. Here is the comment that caused the radical rethink:

“One does not fight the corporate misdeeds of the automotive industry, for instance, by demanding that the wheel must be banned.”

This comment was the push Lynas needed to investigate GMO's more thoroughly which resulted in a complete about face on his views.

This comment was the push Lynas needed to investigate GMO's more thoroughly which resulted in a complete about face on his views.

This was one snippet towards the end of a longish, ~530 word comment, but it got Lynas to thinking about why he was opposed to GM foods. As he thought on it, he realized it wasn’t because of any scientific evidence. No, it had more to do with a gut response against a big, evil, American corporation tinkering with the food supply. Or, in his own words:

“When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya [soybeans] I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get – here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.”

The comment on his Guardian article made him realize that this was not a reasonable foundation on which to base his opposition to GM foods. It prompted him, for the first time, to take a deeper look into the science of GMO’s. He quickly realized that his reasons for opposing GM foods were not based in any fact. His list is as follows:

“I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

I’d assumed that Terminator Technology [which was meant to make plants produce sterile, unusable seeds] was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

I’d assumed that no one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton [which grows its own pesticide to fight bollworm and other pests] was pirated into India and Roundup Ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.

I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way.

But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.”

As you can see, once he did the legwork to understand the science that had been done, he realized that his reasons for opposing GMO’s held no water. And in fact, as an environmentalist, he realized further that he should be supporting GM foods as a way to increase yield and so decrease the amount of land that needed to be cultivated. All from a single comment!

Of course a big question is why he changed his mind when he did. After all, he had undoubtedly received similar comments to his other stories over the years. The answer lies in his newest environmental concern–global warming.

Unlike the debate over GMO’s, science is on the side of the environmentalists in the global warming debate. As Lynas wrote and argued about global warming, he became frustrated at commenters who ignored the science behind global warming. This prompted him to learn how to read and understand the scientific literature which in turn prompted him into investigating the studies that had been done on GMO’s. It was then that he realized that his opposition to GMO’s was not factually based.

So the comment wasn’t the whole story behind his changed position. But it did come right when he was primed and ready to explore the science further. It was the nudge that pushed him into his new stance on GMO’s.

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Category: Biology, Blog, Environment, Health

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • No GMO

    You must be joking? Right? All your arguments can be easily abolished, so why do we have supper weeds now? Because Roundap has been over used. Also Monsanto uses dengerous viruses to genetically modify his crop. And people have right to know what they eat and I would like to see the GMO labeled .I am appalled to see such article on KQED. I won't be contributing this year!

  • http://theprogessivecontrarian.wordpress.com/ Bernie Mooney

    Dr Starr: Other reasons scientists don't weigh in are exhibited in the two (or maybe more later) comments below. If you correct someone's misconception on GMOs,using the actual science you get accused of being a Monsanto shill among other things. Anti-GMO folks won't believe any facts or evidence you present to them. They conflate the technology with corporations and since corporations are bad, the tech they use must be bad as well.

  • http://theprogessivecontrarian.wordpress.com/ Bernie Mooney

    John, the science is resolved, you only have to read it. If GMOs are so toxic, why haven't we seen an epidemic in the last 16 years or so? The science *is* settled. But each new GMO is tested. It's a case by case basis to insure their are no unintended consequences. One size does not fit all. They just don't make them and ship them out. It can take up to ten years for a new GMO to come to market

    • John Fiorentino

      First off Mr. Mooney, I assure you I HAVE "read" it. And the fact that I seem to have so much reading to do may speak for itself.

      I am neither "anti-GMO" or "anti-science"

      I am anti "bad" science.

      As far as your comment about scientists responding or not:…………

      "Dr Starr: Other reasons scientists don't weigh in are exhibited in the two (or maybe more later) comments below."

      and your references to accusations of being a "shill" sound a bit sensitive.

      Perhaps more like a baby who's lost its rattle than an adult who can defend their position.

      Defending one's position consists of more than just shouting "the issue has been resolved."

      The technical issues of the science re: GMO's are many and can't be covered in a comment here.

      In my own personal post I referred readers to an article which I believe had many merits, and raised some questions, (or better put) points to consider.

      If THOSE are the reasons you believe scientists don't "weigh in" here then I think we have a serious problem.

      Your assumption that I don't "understand" the science is misguided and fallacious.

      • http://theprogessivecontrarian.wordpress.com/ Bernie Mooney

        If you are referring to your link to Stanford, that is about clinical trials for drugs. GMOs are not drugs. Maybe you're referring to another one that I am unaware of?

        And it's not a matter of being sensitive. It's a matter of frustration. Whenever someone who knows what they're talking about corrects some misinformation, they are dismissed with claims of being a shill or a tool of Big Ag. Why would you try and engage if that's a common rebuttal to your information? The confirmation bias runs deep on this issue.

        What Lynas was saying was that he came to his decision after studying the science and suggested others do the same.

        • John Fiorentino

          I'm aware of what the Stanford article is referring to…………it was an analogy to some of the obstacles to "clinical trials" of GMO's or (Genetically Modified Foods) in humans.

          "Golden Rice" is but one example.

          I'm aware of what Lynas was saying and I have (as I said) read and continue to read the literature.

          Here is a rather recent study of the kind to which I am referring. Perhaps you can call Dr. Benbrook a "crackpot."

          Pesticide Use Rises as Herbicide-resistant Weeds Undermine Performance of Major GE Crops, New WSU Study Shows

          PULLMAN, Wash. — A study published this week by Washington State University research professor Charles Benbrook finds that the use of herbicides in the production of three genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops — cotton, soybeans and corn — has actually increased. This counterintuitive finding is based on an exhaustive analysis of publicly available data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service. Benbrook’s analysis is the first peer-reviewed, published estimate of the impacts of genetically engineered (GE) herbicide-resistant (HT) crops on pesticide use.

          In the study, which appeared in the the open-access, peer-reviewed journal “Environmental Sciences Europe,” Benbrook writes that the emergence and spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds is strongly correlated with the upward trajectory in herbicide use. Marketed as Roundup and other trade names, glyphosate is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill weeds. Approximately 95 percent of soybean and cotton acres, and over 85 percent of corn, are planted to varieties genetically modified to be herbicide resistant.

          “Resistant weeds have become a major problem for many farmers reliant on GE crops, and are now driving up the volume of herbicide needed each year by about 25 percent,” Benbrook said.

          The annual increase in the herbicides required to deal with tougher-to-control weeds on cropland planted to GE cultivars has grown from 1.5 million pounds in 1999 to about 90 million pounds in 2011.

          Herbicide-tolerant crops worked extremely well in the first few years of use, Benbrook’s analysis shows, but over-reliance may have led to shifts in weed communities and the spread of resistant weeds that force farmers to increase herbicide application rates (especially glyphosate), spray more often, and add new herbicides that work through an alternate mode of action into their spray programs.

          A detailed summary of the study’s major findings, along with important definitions of terms used in the study, are available online at http://bit.ly/esebenbrookmajor. Benbrook’s study, “Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. — the first sixteen years,” is available online at http://bit.ly/esebenbrook2012.

          http://news.cahnrs.wsu.edu/2012/10/01/pesticide-use-rises-as-herbicide-resistant-weeds-undermine-performance-of-major-ge-crops-new-wsu-study-shows/

          For those who wish to read more links to the study and helpful definitions are included in the last paragraph.

          • http://theprogessivecontrarian.wordpress.com/ Bernie Mooney

            Golden Rice contains more Vitamin A. How is that potential danger? Lots of conventional foods are fortified with vitamins. And GR is a non-profit creation,not done by any corporation. Look what happened when they did human tests in China. Greenpeace lied and claimed the parents weren't informed which is a lie. It caused such problems that people were fired. In the meantime millions of kids are still going blind in the Third World for lack of vitamin A.

            As to Benbrook, here is good analysis of his study by plant pathologist, Steve Savage: "This 404 million pound figure is Benbrook's overall estimated increase on the hundreds of millions of acres of biotech crops over the 15 year period between 1996 and 2011. That works out to something like four ounces per crop acre per year. Even if it were four times that value, it would represent 0.00002 pounds per square foot. Just for additional perspective, an organic vegetable crop might easily be treated with several copper fungicide applications at the rate of six pounds/acre each season." http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/2012/10/when-increased-pesticide-use-is-good.html

          • John Fiorentino

            Mooney:

            Your comprehension seems to be lacking. I never said Golden Rice was a "potential danger."….Nor did I indicate that "more" Vitamin A was a danger……….I was just using it as an example of a study of GM foods in humans. Neither, did I mention ANYTHING about any "corporations." Which seem to hold some fascination to you.

            I have little concern with others opinions about big corporations as it relates to this particular issue.

            As for Benbrook, there are numerous other studies I could post, but why bother?

            The Benbrook study does show that in some cases the "peripheral" effects of GM foods should be considered.

            It just isn't………."That is a GM modified Tomato. We have conducted extensive tests which demonstrate that the Tomato will cause you no harm"

            THAT is what is commonly known as LINEAR THINKING and has no place in good science.

            As to Savage, I'm not familiar with him, but after reading what he has written, it's not very persuasive.

            Personally, I don't think you can anymore hear the voice of reason over your own shouting. And that is unfortunate.

          • rocinante2

            Would you briefly summarize what you don't find persuasive about Savage's work? Thanks.

          • John Fiorentino

            A "brief" summary would be difficult. Let me just say that I found little in Savage's piece to refute the findings (and more importantly) the implications of Benbrook's study.

            Obviously Savage views Benbrook with disdain for lack of a better word and I think it shows in his "blog." article.

            Let me do this………….Simply post the major findings of Benbrook's study and have the reader review Savage's blog paying particular attention to his statistical references and make an informed decision for themselves.

            Major Findings

            Herbicide-tolerant and Bt-transgenic crops now dominant U.S. agriculture, accounting for about one in every two acres of harvested cropland, and around 95% of soybean and cotton acres, and over 85% of corn acres.

            Over the first six years of commercial use (1996-2001), HT and Bt crops reduced pesticide use by 31 million pounds, or by about 2%, compared to what it likely would have been in the absence of GE crops.

            Bt crops have reduced insecticide use by 10-12 million pounds annually over the last decade. From 1996-2011, Bt crops have reduced insecticide use on the three crops by 123 million pounds, or about 28%.

            The annual per acre reduction in insecticide use on acres planted to Bt corn and cotton has trended downward since 1996, because of the shift toward lower-dose insecticides and the expansion of Bt corn onto acres that would not likely be treated with an insecticide.

            The relatively recent emergence and spread of insect populations resistant to the Bt toxins expressed in Bt corn and cotton has started to increase insecticide use, and will continue to do so in response to recommendations from entomologists to preserve the efficacy of Bt technology by applying insecticides previously displaced by the planting of Bt crops.

            Herbicide-tolerant crops worked extremely well in the first few years of use, but over-reliance led to shifts in weed communities and the emergence of resistant weeds that have, together, forced farmers to incrementally –

            Increase herbicide application rates (especially glyphosate),
            Spray more often, and
            Add new herbicides that work through an alternate mode-of-action into their spray programs.

            Each of these responses has, and will continue to contribute to the steady rise in the volume of herbicides applied per acre of HT corn, cotton, and soybeans.

            HT crops have increased herbicide use by 527 million pounds over the 16-year period (1996-2011). The incremental increase per year has grown steadily from 1.5 million pounds in 1999, to 18 million five years later in 2003, and 79 million pounds in 2009. In 2011, about 90 million more pounds of herbicides were applied than likely in the absence of HT, or about 24% of total herbicide use on the three crops in 2011.

            Today’s major GE crops have increased overall pesticide use by 404 million pounds from 1996 through 2011 (527 million pound increase in herbicides, minus the 123 million pound decrease in insecticides). Overall pesticide use in 2011 was about 20% higher on each acre planted to a GE crop, compared to pesticide use on acres not planted to GE crops.

            There are now two-dozen weeds resistant to glyphosate, the major herbicide used on HT crops, and many of these are spreading rapidly. Millions of acres are infested with more than one glyphosate-resistant weed. The presence of resistant weeds drives up herbicide use by 25% to 50%, and increases farmer-weed control costs by at least as much.

            The biotechnology-seed-pesticide industry’s primary response to the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds is development of new HT varieties resistant to multiple herbicides, including 2,4-D and dicamba. These older phenoxy herbicides pose markedly greater human health and environmental risks per acre treated than glyphosate. Approval of corn tolerant of 2,4-D is pending, and could lead to an additional 50% increase in herbicide use per acre on 2,4-D HT corn.

            Substantial volumes of Bt toxins are produced per acre planted to Bt corn and cotton. The volumes of these toxins produced by the plants on an acre exceed in nearly all cases the volume of insecticides displaced by the planting of a Bt cultivar. For example, Bt corn targeting the corn rootworm and related soil insects expresses one to two pounds of Bt toxins per acre, while displacing about 0.19 pound of insecticide per acre. The first GE crop expressing eight traits, so-called SmartStax corn, produces 3.7 pounds of Bt toxins per acre and displaces around 0.3 pounds of insecticides.

            Reductions in pesticide-related environmental and human health risks have been among the benefits thought to be associated with the shift to glyphosate-based HT crops and Bt corn and cotton. Over the last 16 years, there has been dramatic growth in the volumes of both Bt toxins and glyphosate required to bring crops to harvest. The levels of glyphosate and Bt in the ambient environment, animal feed, and food have markedly increased, creating a myriad of new exposure pathways.

            Much new research will be required to translate emerging data on higher exposures to glyphosate and Bt toxins into estimates of human, farm and companion animal, and environmental risks.

            JF

          • rocinante2

            Thank you, sir.

          • John Fiorentino

            You are welcome!

  • Barry
    • John Fiorentino

      From the article:

      "I hope you're not going to ask me, 'What should we do?' " she said, laughing. "Because I don't know."

      I have an answer!

      Stop conducting idiotic studies!

      Those who can comprehend the meaning of an article will and those that can't won't.

      It doesn't matter if it's a comment or the actual paper.

    • Barry

      Looks like Science Friday is talking about this topic today: http://sciencefriday.com/segment/02/01/2013/preserving-science-news-in-an-online-world.html

      • Barry

        I missed it! Was it any good?

  • Not convinced

    It is a dangerous precedent that major AG-chemical corporations do control so much of the research on GMO's and there is very little outside independent research. My assumption is that many at California universities receive funding from major corporations like Bechtel, Monsanto, BP who have a great deal of say on the context and results of any given research. Harm to the environment is difficult to isolate until irrevocable harm takes place, because our environment is a complex interconnected web. You or anyone else cannot always know the harm that could happen until it is a crisis.