“The Failure of Science”: New paper makes a damning case against genetically modified food crops

istock_000006420954soybean“Doom and gloomers.” That’s what my father used to call people who talked about global warming not as a chance to work on their tans, but as something that ought to be keeping humankind up at night. He’d toss the newspaper aside, or change the subject at dinner. He still does, in fact. Fortunately much of America — or at least the people we elected to run it — has accepted that climate change is not only a real and present threat, but that it’s imperative we revisit some of the assumptions that got us into this mess.

Alas, public debate about the safety of growing and eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) remains stalled at where climate change was circa 1993, back when Al Gore published “Earth in the Balance” to a deafening silence. Americans tend to dismiss serious discussions about the risks of GMOs with a “doom and gloomers” shrug. They’re here, they’re queer, get over it.

This is a mistake. It’s one that Europeans, the Japanese, and plenty of other industrialized and developing nations have avoided. As with climate change, the longer American citizens refuse to learn about this issue, the hotter the water we frogs are sitting in gets. Writes technology reporter Denise Caruso in her excellent book, “Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet“: As long as scientists can justifiably “declare that we, the innumerate public, lack the mental capacity to understand what they, the experts, do…there can be no common ground for understanding between those who create risk and we who must bear it.” And if the current economic meltdown, caused by financial instruments too complex for any mere mortals other than hedge fund managers to understand, has taught us anything, it’s that an ignorant public is begging to get shafted.

A paper just published May 25 in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Society of Agriculture and Food gives people the tools with which to grasp the science behind transgenic food crops, what questions we should be asking, and a potential path out of this mess. In it Don Lotter, a UC-Davis trained scientist, makes a persuasive case that the transgenic seed industry is built on fundamentally flawed science, and that companies like Monsanto have used their vast market power to reshape university research, manipulate public opinion, and coerce regulatory agencies into reckless acceptance of risky technologies. And that scientists have looked the other way while they did so.

“The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science” paper ought to be required reading for any American citizen who didn’t sign the consent form about the risks of the “largest diet experiment in history,” as he calls it. That includes you, me, your kids, every member of Congress, and every researcher who still believes in independent science.

Whistleblow your house down

Lotter has a Ph.D. in agroecology from the University of California, Davis, and a master of professional studies in international agricultural and rural development from Cornell University. At various times he has taught environmental science, soil science, plant science, entomology, and vegetable crop production for Santa Monica College, Imperial Valley College, and UC Davis. He is not tenure track and said in a phone interview last night that this paper certainly “wasn’t going to help my chances of getting a job” (for reasons that will become clear in a bit). He was recently a visiting scholar in the department of plant pathology at Colegio Postgraduados in Chapingo, Mexico. His research on organic agriculture has been published in the Journal of Alternative Agriculture and the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture.

“The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science”is published in two parts that take up 37 of the Journal of Society of Agriculture and Food’s 68 pages. Part one, “The Development of a Flawed Enterprise” (PDF) covers some territory familiar to those who’ve read recent books on GMOs such as “Intervention” or environmental journalist Claire Hope Cummings’ “Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds.” In it, Lotter does an excellent job of briskly walking readers through the growth of the transgenic crops industry and pointing out the critical junctures at which regulatory agencies grabbed the nearest handy rubber stamp. He also explains, in clear, jargon-free language, the science by which transgenic crops are created, and the specific red flags identified by the handful of existing independent studies. In summary, the three most serious concerns about biotech food, feed, and fiber crops are:

  • The novel proteins created by accident in transgenic foods and their occasional documented effects on human health (allergies, toxicity), which we can’t monitor properly due to the lack of labeling of GMO foods.
  • The horizontal transfer of transgenes to other organisms, such as the bacteria in mammals’ stomachs, which we were assured couldn’t happen. (Might this be behind the rise in Crohn’s disease? We’ll never know, because as Lotter documents, GMO foods have barely been tested in their food state on mammals, and not over any long-term.)
  • Ecological side effects, such as the development of herbicide-resistant weeds and growing pest resistance to the plant-impregnated insecticide Bacillus thurengiensis, along with Bt crops’ negative effects on soil organisms such as earthworms and on aquatic ecosystems.

This sounds like a dry helping of doom and gloom, but it doesn’t read that way. Lotter salts the paper with statements such as “This is a story of how a grand scientific vision, plant transgenics, a science that its developers believed would vastly improve the world food supply while at the same time generating huge profits, blinded many of those scientist-developers to the increasingly serious flaws in the basic model, mechanics, and end-products of the enterprise.” And later: “This early industry pressure and science community compliance for a premature green light for transgenic crops is now coming back to bite the industry and the science community, and bite them very seriously.”

You don’t tend to see such verbal swashbuckling in peer-reviewed journals, and in fact the International Journal of Society  of Agriculture & Food published Lotter’s paper as a “work in progress.” Such submissions, it carefully disclaims on its website, “are non-refereed and unedited and are aimed at presenting results from work not yet ready for publication while stimulating discussion and debate on current topics of interest to agri-food researchers.” And yet, as the PDF of the article indicates, and Lotter confirmed, his paper was reviewed for a solid year before it was accepted for publication.

One can only presume that the IJSAF reviewers reluctant to sign off formally on publishing “The Genetic Engineering of Food and the Failure of Science” were caught up in the very web of industry and peer pressure that Lotter indicts in part two, titled “Academic Capitalism and the Loss of Scientific Integrity” (PDF).

This is where it gets really interesting, from a sociological standpoint: Lotter discusses the large-scale morphing of university science programs in the past 25 years from a model that focused on conducting non-proprietary science for the “public good” — Robert Merton’s CUDoS model (communalism, universality, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism) — to one of “academic capitalism,” in which research professors freely partnered with industry to further the “knowledge economy.” This transition has had many ripple effects: university dependence on private industry funding means that proprietary technologies have overtaken collaborative science. Power follows the money: expert scientific bodies on transgenics now tend to be staffed by pro-industry scientists with personal financial interests in the outcome of transgenics. And of course, as it always does, power corrupts: industry-sponsored and industry-conducted research has been found to have “deficient scientific protocols, bias, and possible fraud,” writes Lotter.

Meanwhile, the discriminatory treatment and outright harassment of university researchers and government scientists who have dared to question the party line on biotech sends a clear signal to young faculty. The message, writes Lotter, is “Don’t challenge the transgenics paradigm if you want tenure.”

Lotter did his postdoc work on organic crop systems at the Rodale Institute, but when it comes to the future of agriculture, he claims not to be reflexively “pro-organic.” He writes in the paper that he “does not believe that future food production should be limited to organic methods as defined by current certification protocols.” Instead, he proposes that agro-ecological engineering — including high-tech monitoring of pests, soil and plant nutrient status, weed and other research-based parameters — serve as the foundation for crop systems, “on top of which can be put chemical and biotechnological modalities” such as moderate, carefully timed amounts of synthetic nitrogen and the selective use of herbicides.

Nor is the paper wholeheartedly anti-transgenic. Lotter argues that if we weed out the problem areas of “food, feed, and fiber crop transgenics,” then transgenic bacterial and pharmaceutical crops (in which a single compound is isolated could continue to be developed). I have some concerns with his assertion that creating new bacteria is inherently safer than manipulating higher plants and animals, as well as with his belief that pharmaceuticals grown in food crops can ever be bio-contained indoors and their waste agricultural products disposed of safely. But as Lotter goes so far as to admit  in the paper, his goal is  to reassure biotech scientists that his “calls for the rolling back of food transgenics therefore should not be seen as a threat to the entire industry” — that the years they have invested in the field are still valuable.

Why? “Because we need them,” he told me. “We have to divide and conquer, to get at least a few scientists to question what’s happened here.” The only way the United States is going to be able to roll back transgenic food, feed (for meat animals), and fiber crops is through policy changes, and there won’t be any policy changes as long as scientists are afraid to break ranks and say that the Emperor Monsanto et al. has no clothes.

Elsewhere in the world, plenty of scientists are willing to go on record opposing current GMOs. Much of the best research into their potential side effects on human and ecological health has been conducted in Europe. And in April 2008, as Lotter writes, 400 agricultural scientists and experts in 57 nations signed developed a United Nations-sponsored document known as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, and 57 nations approved it. The IAASTD’s final report criticized the “Green Revolution” style of capital-intensive, high-environmental impact, technology- and yield-centered approach of agriculture and recommended that developing nations base their future food production around local and regionally derived sustainable and agro-ecological strategies. Not GMOs.

As we followed here with interest, Monsanto and Syngenta — the two biotechnology-industry representatives in the IAASTD discussions, who were initially enthusiastic about convening a food production strategy agreement for developing countries — took their balls and went home in January 2008, when it was clear that nobody at the IASSTD was interested in playing their game anymore. (Update: Please see Jack Heinemann’s comment below, for a discussion of the two companies’ roles.) The United States, Canada, and Australia did not sign the agreement.

America’s ag philosophy as mullet: GMO business in the front, organic party in the back

Today, we have a Secretary of Agriculture who continues the longstanding tradition of pushing U.S. biotech interests abroad, but who’s broken with all precedent to plant an organic garden at his department’s Washington, DC headquarters, just like his boss’s wife did at the White House. GMO food is a huge trade issue, and it’s been a long time since the USDA was the People’s Department, as Lincoln called it, instead of the Multinational Corporations’ Department. (Monsanto owns some 90% of transgenic traits in use around the world. As of 2006, soy, corn, canola, and cotton accounted for nearly 100% of the world’s 80 million hectares of transgenic crops, nearly all of which used to be grown in the U.S., Canada, Argentina, and Brazil, but China is now hard at work.) And recent rumors suggest that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will soon be soon coming out with the administration’s international development objectives, and that those objectives will be include alleviating world hunger — through, you guessed it, transgenic technology.

Legislation codifying this philosophy will likely follow, unless by some miracle American consumers wake up and start protesting — or U.S. scientists start admitting that not only have GMO food crops never been adequately tested before being unleashed on unsuspecting consumers and the environment, but they don’t even do what Monsanto loves to claim they do: increase yields. (Read the summary of the report “Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops,” by plant pathology and molecular biology Ph.D Doug Gurian-Sherman, posted by Ethicurean’s Elanor in April.) The biggest achievement to date of RoundupReady and BT tolerant crops, alleged Denise Caruso in “Intervention,” has been less labor for farmers.

And yet the trope that only biotech can feed the world persists. Lotter has an interesting section in part two of the paper about how well the biotech industry has controlled the “information environment” for transgenic crops. Media reporting has overwhelmingly depended on pro-transgenics university scientists, he claims, and both the media and the public have been easily manipulated by industry’s “not-so-subtle targeting of [our] predisposition to guilt. The message that ‘biotechnology is needed to feed a hungry world’ has come to the forefront as a strategy in the promotion of transgenics.”

One need look no further than Monsanto’s current ad campaign to see this strategy in action. However, I would argue that something beyond than media bias and an apathetic public are behind the rise of transgenic crops in America, Canada, and Australia. Americans possess a deeply rooted, patriotic confidence in our country’s technology efforts in general — we put a man on the moon, we developed the personal computers that revolutionized civilization,  etc. — a sort of “technological utopianism,” as Lotter calls it in a slightly different context. Ever since the debacle of mad-cow disease in the early 1990s, European scientific development, by contrast, has tended to operate according to the precautionary principle essentially expressed as “better safe than sorry.” More Americans seem to believe that the government is steadfastly looking out for us, at least on a health and safety level, than do citizens of other countries, with longer histories and concomitantly longer memories.

We are paying a high price currently for our naivete about a highly complex industry and our blind trust that somewhere, government regulatory agencies were keeping a watchful eye over things. It’s well past time for American citizens and policymakers to get over our dislike of “doom and gloom” topics and educate ourselves about the imperfect science behind the creation and propagation of the vast majority of the commodity foods in this country — and grasp how little we know about what this technology could be doing to our bodies, farm animals, and the microorganisms in our soil and water.  Then, and only then, can those that have unleashed these risks on humankind and their human lab rats have an informed public discussion about how we are going to put Pandora back in the box, instead of continuing to push GMOs on the rest of the world.

Photo: Soybean field in Indiana from iStockphoto.

Updated June 4 at 5:30 pm to reflect corrections left in comments section, and June 5 to update journal links, after its website structure apparently changed.

29 Responsesto ““The Failure of Science”: New paper makes a damning case against genetically modified food crops”

  1. Sasha Cuerda says:

    Hello Bonnie, Thanks for posting this summary and the links to the papers. I’ve taken a quick glance at both articles and I just wanted to offer a few comments and a few additional reading suggestions. 

     First, I agree with calls for a massive change in the way that research on transgenic organisms is conducted and regulated, particularly when it comes to food and fiber crops. The current model is not working well. At the same time there is a lot about the way that Lotter frames his argument and how you reproduce it that I feel is  problematic. Let me explain.

    First is the call for a return to a type of science ruled by Mertonian principles. This sounds great. Science as objective. Science as responsive to `society’, particularly a democratic one, etc. However, this is a pipe dream. Not because we’ve gone so far that we can’t go back, but because Merton was putting for an abstract set of principles that never really were very accurate in the first place. 

    Second, Lotter claims that many countries have modeled their regulatory approach to GMOs and transgenics after the US. Which countries? Shelia Jasanoff has an excellent book, Designs on Nature, which details how the emergence of GMOs in the 1980s and 1990s was dealt with in the US, Germany and the UK. While she concedes that effort have been made to harmonize regulatory frameworks each of the three countries framed the issues around GMOs very differently with science being evaluated in very different ways. In fact the precautionary principle in European science policy pre-dates mad-cow, but only barely (it was an event which settled some debates over various options).

    I find it interesting that on the one hand Lotter, and by proxy you, declare that the science apparatus is broken with corruption and other ills plaguing the emerging sphere of academic capitalism, yet you tout Lotter’s academic credentials. I’m not necessarily contesting either of these two claims. Yes, academic science is highly conditioned by funding streams, publication protocols, and a whole lot of other “social” factors that seemingly have no place in Merton’s framework. Yet, as you seem to suggest Lotter is `qualified’ to speak on these issues because he went through the same hoops to get credentialed (although unfortunately this has not led to the tenure track for him). 

    This reminds me a lot of the debate that circulated following the McWilliams op-ed a few months back. Science was questioned for its ties to Big Pork but this time McWilliams was critiqued for being a PhD but in the wrong discipline, history. Comments were made that as a historian how was he `qualified’ to talk about science. In both cases we have claims being made about what constitutes appropriate expertise in judging science. Is the problem with GMOs that the science is bad or that the science has been tied into a system of funding and IP law that almost necessarily leads to outcomes that `we’ don’t like. It could be both, but it could also be that the issue is not with the science per se, but with the culture that surounds the evaluation of science. I would argue that as long as we make arguments where we take certain types of academic endeavors to task (genetic science here, history in the McWilliams case) while propping up other types of science we aren’t going to make a lot of progress in terms of devising cultural and political framework to adequately deal with a world that now offers the possibility to intervene in life at previously unknown levels. I’m not sure what adequate is in this case, but it is just as important as anything else.

    I should confess that I myself am a graduate student (in social geography) at a university that has had as much to do with big ag as any in this country (we have a library lecture hall called the Monsanto Lecture Hall, woohoo!). But I think that this gives me a slightly different perspective on these debates. On the one hand I feel that academic training is incredibly limited and thus we are 100% justified in saying that certain people are more or less qualified to speak on particular topics. But I’m also wary of approaches which prop up certain types of expertise over others depending on the circumstances. In other words, the letters PhD don’t mean that you are somehow expert in all things. Nor do they mean that your expertise in a particular area means you are somehow the person to be most qualified to make a decision. Appeals to Mertonian ideals actually reinforce a model of science and policy that is highly technocratic and thus authoritarian in many ways. We need to recognize that ultimately knowledge is a collective endeavor constituted by people acting in ways that are contingent, situated and uncertain. That we’ve reached a point where science is being uniquely harnessed to serve particular interests is less a failure of science or a breakdown in scientific norms than it is a failure of the collective project of generating knowledge which falls on the shoulders of policy makers, business people, media, and everyone else that constitutes our society. And this includes activists who offer highly specific representations of the problem and the solution in order to advance their own agendas and to shift the framing of the debate. So to conclude I agree with you that we need to take some responsibility to learn about what is going on, but we can’t appeal to nostalgia about life pre-GMO to get that to happen. Pandora’s box is open and we need to rethink the problem of governing in a world with transgenic potentialities.

  2. Bonnie P. says:

    Hi Sasha:

    Thanks for the thoughtful, length comment. Your blog http://www.meateconomy.com looks interesting, as do the additional reading recommendations you’ve left there for me, and I hope you’ll considering tackling part 2 of Lotter’s paper in more detail in a later post.

    I confess I was an English major, with a M.A. in creative writing, and although I am a hardcore technogeek, my science credentials are slim to none. So I wasn’t familiar with Mertonian principles before reading Lotter’s gloss on them. They sounded good to me, as a set of guiding principles, kind of like the Golden Rule. You say, however, that “Merton was putting for an abstract set of principles that never really were very accurate in the first place.” Was it the execution of the principles that was flawed, or the principles themselves?

    I will order Jasanoff’s “Designs on Nature” and read it. I would definitely like to know more about Europe’s model.

    Re: touring Lotter’s academic credentials — I’m busted here, totally. On the one hand, I don’t think his PhD in agroecology matters one bit, but on the other, I was pandering to conventional wisdom that only scientists are qualified to talk about science. And since Lotter’s background is in what many will consider to be a “soft” science, and his CV not all that bulletproof, a reflexive defensiveness compelled me to list the credentials he does have, to lend his analysis greater legitimacy.  Which is exactly the opposite of the point I am arguing — anyone who takes the time to familiarize themselves with the basic technology behind GMOs should have the credibility to talk about it. Because such decisions about policy affect ALL of us. Blind deference to experts goes a long way to explaining how we got into this mess in the first place.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your statement that “I would argue that as long as we make arguments where we take certain types of academic endeavors to task (genetic science here, history in the McWilliams case) while propping up other types of science we aren’t going to make a lot of progress in terms of devising cultural and political framework to adequately deal with a world that now offers the possibility to intervene in life at previously unknown levels.” But I don’t think I, or Lotter for that matter, is trying to “appeal to nostalgia about life pre-GMO” as the way of dealing with that world. I can’t speak for him — he does that quite well for himself in his piece — but I would argue that sure, Pandora’s box may be open, but don’t we have a social and moral responsibility to devote some serious money to independent, long-term research that will study our Pandoras, and help us figure out exactly what we’re dealing with?

    I would like to see Congress call for collaborative risk assessments by a blue-chip interdisciplinary panel of say, microbiologists, ecologists, ethicists, toxicologists, and others who could suggest studies that might finally shed some light on how these novel organisms are changing our soil and aquatic ecosystems, not to mention affecting public health. Because the message I take away from everything I have read so far  — which admittedly is not that much,  a few books, papers, and a lot of articles — is that we just don’t know. We have no idea, really.

    Perhaps I’m delusional, but I don’t feel as if I have an agenda as an activist or reporter, exactly. As an *eater* and *citizen,* I am sick of being told “trust us, they’re safe,” when that’s clearly a meaningless statement sold the public to advance a private corporate agenda and to allow scientists the irresistible temptation to mess with the foundations of life, just because we can.

  3. Sasha Cuerda says:

    Hi Bonnie,

    Glad my meandering thoughts were somewhat useful! There is actually an entire academic literature that has attempted to rethink a lot of fundamental concepts of both social and political theory in light of new insights about how science and technology are changing our world. If you google science and technology studies (or STS) you’ll turn up quite a list. Bruno Latour is one of the big names in this field and while some of his stuff is pretty ridiculous (from an academic-ese perspective) he’s written some wonderfully lucid op-eds and the like about science policy and research. A book of his which I forgot to mention is called The Politics of Nature: How to bring the sciences into democracy. Within academic circles STS has been taken up by a lot of social science folks (mostly geographers and sociologists) who study agriculture and food. The GM issue in particular has served as an exemplar of what Latour calls hybrids, things that are neither purely “social” nor purely “natural.” One of the aims of this literature is to break down and try to move beyond the traditional academic disciplines and the way they study problems which you allude to. So problems of “nature” are typically dealt with by “hard” scientists, while problems of “culture” or “society” are dealt with by various soft sciences. STS basically ask, what if things aren’t really just social or just natural? What if they are always all mixed up? What then? If that is the case then yes, a science which claims exclusive rights to adjudicate over certain evaluations about the world  is highly problematic. When biologists or chemists are given deference to establish policies over something like evaluating the toxicity of a compound when we know that all sorts of interactive effects occur out in the `real’ world which make calculating minimally acceptable exposure levels bunk, well then we have a problem. In a lot of ways this is very much at the heart of what your post is getting at. How do we decide what counts as risk and what is ok. But to complicate matters even further we have to realize that no matter how many so-called experts from different disciplines we put in the room we might not be able to come to any sort of agreement as to how novel organisms are affecting us. We certainly are going to have a very difficult time establishing any sort of testing which is adequately predictive largely because of what we know already. Genes move very quickly within ecosystems both among and between species. All sorts of synergistic effects occur which can rarely be predicted when establishing protocols. Not only that, but from a philosophical angle, most of these different disciplines have established their own norms about what questions to ask of the world, how to ask them, and how to evaluate evidence based on a model of the world that tends to divide things into either social or natural camps and thus they are not really well prepared to even think about the sorts of issues that GMOs pose. They can be ernest in their efforts and they can be brilliant but any success they will have will probably have more to do with their ability to work as a policy making body, not as scientists per se. This raises the question of what we really gain by the blue chip committee idea in the first place?

    I hope I don’t come across as pessimistic because I’m not. If anything, the vigorousness of grass roots activism surrounding food and agriculture is incredibly exciting for me. I think that as long as people continue to say “Stop, explain that to me so I really understand” we’re making progress. But, and here is where I feel a bit more anxious about some food politics, when we replace skepticism with dogmatism we start having some problems. So saying that science was all hunky-dory 30 or 40 or 50 or X years ago is just fanciful and political, rather than true. Similarly, I have reservations about the way the term local is deployed particularly since it is often deployed without a lot of reflexive thinking. Other terms which give me pause include sustainable and natural. I see and hear a lot of arguments about food go like this:

    Well, it was better back before Monsanto owned all the seeds and pumped the world full of round-up. 
    It was better when the milk man came around once a week with a couple of glass jugs.
    It was better when there weren’t fortified cereals in neon green and pink.

    Was it? And if so, was it because of the things themselves (milk in glass jugs) or was it because of the structure of the system? Or both? Or neither? What about the fact that 80 years ago the structure of the labor force was such that people had more time to cook, or that transportation infrastructure was such that people were either very isolated or very close together. If we transpose those things into our current arrangements how can we be sure that they will give us what we want? Or to turn it back to the issue of science and GMOs, is the issue the science, the GMOs or perhaps that so much of what is going on is being controlled by a VERY SMALL number of companies (and thus by proxy, people). 

    There are GMOs that are probably completely fine if not preferable. Mosquitos that don’t transmit malaria would be fan-f$@ing-tastic. I’m sure there are others. The issue, which a number of folks on Ethicurian speak to regularly and clearly, is who controls what the hell is going on here. Like you said, you made an argument about expertise and qualifications because that is how most people are used to deciding who is right. That’s at the root of the problem. We need to really start breaking down these myths about what constitutes knowledge and expertise. Every time we reproduce the tropes which got us here in the first place, as you say, we just open the door to `my-expert-is-more-qualified-than-yours’ debate / exchange. The issue is, do we want monsanto to own the rights to every living thing or not? If not, it has nothing to do with the science. It has to do with figuring out how to intervene in the politics of intellectual property rights, etc. Remember that the debate that never happened at Doha was about IP. That’s pretty amazing.

    Anyway, I could go on. I think we’re largely in agreement here. And I think these are important issues. I guess I’m just hoping to be enough of a contrarian to help us all sharpen our arguments, analytical lens, and strategies.

  4. A says:

    This is an interesting article, and a depressing one.  I live in Europe, where there is already a lot of skepticism over GM food, but I observe that our leaders are also unlikely to protect us.  Recently there was a WTO ruling in favour of the US, Canada and Australia over Europe’s ban on GM crops.  If I recall correctly, the US further wanted to ensure that its exports were not labeled as GM, preventing consumers from voting against GM with their wallets.  This is an example of how even relatively strong countries are being bullied through agreements which seem to have been written with big businesses in mind; what chance do developing countries have to expand their agriculture in a sustainable way when the EU may give in to this pressure?  The problem begins with science in countries such as the US, but it extends to politics and stretches over the entire world.  I feel relatively informed but helpless.

  5. Don Lotter says:

    Bonnie and Sasha – Thank you for your dialogue on my paper.  Below are some thoughts. 

    The first thing that comes to my mind is Sasha’s statement that “Lotter’s background is in what many will consider to be a ‘soft’ science”.  A Ph.D. in the University of California Davis Graduate Group in Ecology is not soft.  I decided to have a little fun with this and scavenged for the evidence.  The UCD GGE is the commonly rated the top ecology program in the US (PDF); and is very rigorous, its specialty being quantitative ecology.

    Agriculture was the other half of my Ph.D., and again, Davis was at that time (and I think still is) ranked at the top.

    I had to have the same preparatory courses as other biological science grad students (considered hard science) – bio sci, calculus, physical and organic chemistry, computer programming (Fortran), genetics, plant physiology etc.

    My Ph.D. is in food production and food crop transgenics is food production. It doesn’t take a geneticist to write the kind of paper like the one we are discussing here.

    One of the reasons I don’t yet have a university/college tenure-track position is that biotechnology/molecular biology have been cornering so much of the funding, and agroecology-related positions are few and highly competitive.  Biotech/MolBio not only get huge private investment, but also “the lion’s share” of public monies for agricultural research, as I cite in my paper.  Yet, agroecological research, with its relatively miniscule funding, keeps out-performing the heavily funded biotech approach (citations in my paper, end of Part 2 – especially look at the System of Rice Intensification).

    Research on non-proprietary solutions (non-patentable), like agroecological methods, as well as health and medical modalities, should garner 100% of public monies so that they can compete on a level playing field with the proprietary (industry) solutions.  As it is now, they get a small share of public monies.

    Davis is one of the world centers of food crop transgenics, and a number of my former colleagues and friends work in that industry, some for the substantial Davis (city) branch of Monsanto.  My paper is going to change my social interactions with many Davis people, since transgenics is such a hot-button issue, and so many careers depend on it.

    Re: countries modelling their GMO policies on the US: I’m not saying that these countries duplicate the US policies – but they have definitely modelled their policies after the US.  Canada, Australia, a number of developing countries – Argentina, Brazil, South Africa being the largest, plus many of the smaller economies.  The US set the pattern back in the 1980s and ’90s, and many have followed.

    Cheers, and again, thanks for the input.
    Don Lotter

  6. Bonnie P. says:

    Hi Don, glad to see you jump in. Just to clarify, Sasha did not call agroecology a “soft science,” I did, and it was based on perceptions (perhaps faulty ones) gleaned from a couple of emails I received in response to the post. I appreciate you setting the record straight on that topic.

    Do you have any thoughts about Sasha’s other points regarding 1) the misleading dead end of nostlagia for Mertonian science and 2) how we might move forward in the debate about transgenics? You close Part 2 of the paper with the suggestion of “rolling back” transgenic food, feed, and fiber crops, but leave it there. How do you propose we do that?

  7. Sasha Cuerda says:

    Hi Don,

    Thanks for clarifying and expanding. And yes to echo your point, I don’t really consider ecology to be a soft science, and in fact I think the soft/hard science is largely a politically-expedient one that gets deployed in various science war and post-science war style debates. As a friend of mine puts it, you always have to qualify before you quantify thus even the supposedly hard (i.e. quantifiable science) require establishing and negotiating the norms of inquiry. My comment was more directed at the tactics of referring to particular credentials in order to establish expertise and my apprehensions about the ultimate efficacy of such a tactic. 

    I’m absolutely aligned with you in terms of your critique that science within public university has been put to the service of industry in ways that are reprehensible but like I commented in response to Bonnie’s post, I don’t think that science has ever been so pure as to escape it being connected to power. There is a fantastic book by Shapin and Schaffer called Leviathan and the Air-Pump about the debates between Boyle and Hobbes which discusses, amongst other things, how the model of enlightenment science played a key role in contesting monarchical politics following the English Civil War. I think that models of how science is produced, evaluated and deployed always reflect and help constitute political possibilities.

    As I see these issues (and of course, this is my view from within a social science discipline), trying to argue for restructuring the  funding allocations is a political debate and not just a debate about the adequacy of scientific knowledge. For that matter, debates about risk (that Bonnie brought up) are similarly political. When I say political I am referring to a debate about the meaning of evidence and the decision about what categories to include in evaluations about the world. Perhaps I’m getting a bit too post-structural here, but unless we subscribe to an essentialist view of the world we have to recognize that we see the world through categories that are negotiated “socially.” I don’t mean that the natural world doesn’t matter but rather that all sorts of things (people, microbes, genes, animals, etc.) come together to interact in ways that become stabilized for a period of time until something comes along and changes the arrangement. So until Mad Cow, prions were not part of the collection of things that were considered when constituting policy about how to regulate animal feed, etc. Similarly, and here is where I’m absolutely in agreement with you, we really don’t know what stuff is out there in the world of transgenic organisms which is going to push the way that prions pushed back. We have a model of conducting science, funding science, and implementing policy on the basis of scientific “facts” which actively attempts to deny that there are any things out there in the world of transgenic organisms which can harm us. In other words we have an ontological framework which doesn’t even acknowledge that such things might exist so obviously we are going to have some serious difficulties conducting science that helps us figure out what might happen. But until we recognize that science is never pure, always messy, and always experimental (and that it only appears neat and tidy after the fact) we aren’t going to be able to shift our ontological frame far enough to account for the possibility of transgenic organisms having REALLY harmful effects. Well, I guess I should modify this. Many of us active in food and agriculture politics and research recognize the possibility, but many within “conventional” science do not have an ontology which allows for such possibilities. 

    In terms of rolling back there is another interesting parallel argument. Donald MacKenzie has a great book called Inventing Accuracy which details public debates about regulating nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s.  One of the things that he discusses is how one of the key  issues in policy debates was the accuracy of ICBMs. Since we weren’t conducting actual tests of ICBMs in live situations (only in War Games type simulations) we didn’t really have solid evidence that all these weapons would actual work and that was kind of important in terms of setting the course for policy. MacKenzie makes a point in the argument about how a lot of the knowledge about how things like ICBMs would work was drawn from the space programs of the 1950s and 60s. Interestingly he points that until these debates about ICMBs became heated a lot of the knowledge from these space programs was basically locked up in the minds of those who directly involved. It wasn’t institutionalized. He makes the point that if these people had died we might have basically collectively “forgotten” how to put a man on the moon. He then goes on to say that it is conceivable that one day we might similarly “forget” how to make nuclear weapons. So in some ways, yes we might be able to put together a combination of institutional arrangements and policy frameworks which might make it impossible to do things like deploy transgenic organisms. Just a thought.

    Anyway, again I find myself rambling on (instead of making edits on a paper I’m trying to get out the door…how’s that for irony). I think that this a very important debate and thanks Bonnie and Don for replying and responding. Like I said before. I think that “politically” we are all on the same page but debating the logic of our arguments is critical if we are going to put together successful strategies so bring it on!



  8. Hi Bonnie and Don

    Excellent article. (Don, I’m just sitting down now to read your papers.) I just wanted to offer a correction on two statements. First, the IAASTD report sponsored by the World Bank and multiple UN agencies was prepared after 5 years of research by 400 researchers worldwide, these 400 didn’t just sign on to the final product, which also had an estimated 900 peer-reviewers. The 57 nations you speak of APPROVED the report, making it overwhelming accepted by the governments of the world.

    Second, Monsanto was never part of the IAASTD and therefore it never walked from the process (RE: “…Monsanto and Syngenta — the two biotechnology-industry representatives in the IAASTD discussions, who were initially enthusiastic about convening a food production strategy agreement for developing countries — took their balls and went home…”). Syngenta did walk at the last minute. But the other Agbiotech giant Bayer was a part from the beginning and did NOT walk at the end. This is explained (by me actually) in “Off the rails or on the mark?” published by Nature Biotechnology v26 p.499-500, and in my new book on the IAASTD called “Hope not Hype. The future of agriculture guided by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development” published by TWN (free preview chapters available here).

    Again, thanks Bonnie for drawing these articles to my attention and Don for writing them.

  9. Don Lotter says:

    Re: Mertonian science:   What we need to do to put university science back on track is to make sure that research on non-proprietary solutions to society’s problems is funded.  It’s not rocket science. When the American people realize that they will benefit from this use of their tax dollars, they will support it.   A dollar value can be put on that type of research when it has potential to replace a proprietary solution.  There are many examples of plant-based compounds – non-patentable – being just as or more effective than pharmaceuticals in treating health problems – yet the research isn’t there for doctors to base their treatment on it.  We need to fix this.  We need research funding which has as one of its primary objectives to compete with proprietary modalities, and which can state that the treatment is equally or more efficaceous as the proprietary one and can save X amount of dollars.  We need enough money, and perhaps more importantly, social reinforcement (awards, professional advancement), to draw a significant number of our best scientists to do this type of research.

    Jack, thanks for the clarifications.  Your papers have been invaluable, especially on the horizontal transfer of transgenes issue.

    This is all I have time for now.

  10. Hi Jack: Thanks for stopping by, it’s an honor to have someone of your stature reading this blog. Your comments in the Caruso book were very insightful. I’ve amended the section of the post having to do with the IAASTD. My knowledge came from this Nature editorial, which I take it was erroneous.

    Sasha: I can tell you’re in graduate school because you use the word ontology so naturally. :-) Thank you for your latest thoughtful comment; I really like the nuclear weapon analogy, and I’ve requested that book from the library. (All your recs will bankrupt me otherwise.)

    This statement also really resonated for me: “Until we recognize that science is never pure, always messy, and always experimental (and that it only appears neat and tidy after the fact) we aren’t going to be able to shift our ontological frame far enough to account for the possibility of transgenic organisms having REALLY harmful effects.” That’s it in a nutshell for me. It feels like those with a financial stake in GMOs (whether scientists, Monsanto, farmers, or manufacturers) are so afraid that consumers will reject GMOs that they want to shut down not only all research, but also all debate on the topic. I’m with Don that more research into alternatives is key, and I’m also with you that simply opening the door into science as a “never pure” so that we can start just trying to find out what we really might have to worry about, if anything, is a great start.

  11. Ess says:

    Here’s a pretty good recent article on the dangers of GE/GMO Sugar Beets.

    If we can’t even imagine, let alone give consideration to all the possible necessities of containing them after release then how can we even begin to cover all the possibilities of the effects they can cause when we play God? We can’t because our world is full of our unforeseen consequences we couldn’t even begin to ponder since we can’t consider those things we don’t even think about till they’ve surfaced and it’s too late.

    We are fools and even more so believing we are not.

  12. The papers have been removed from the Journal’s website. I can guess why. But perhaps Don Lotter might make them available?

  13. Hi Susan: They’re still there. The Journal apparently thought now would be a great time to redo its website and link structure. I have updated the post’s links appropriately, so just try them again. Thanks for letting me know!

  14. Sasha Cuerda says:

    Hey Bonnie, yes I plead guilty to being a graduate student in the worst sense of the word! But then again, it’s a good reason to sit around and read fascinating books all day long. And academic libraries are great for avoiding those pesky problems of too many expensive books!. 

  15. Don Lotter says:

    Bonnie – Thanks to your blog my paper is being discussed on the Huffington Post.  A spin doctor posted comments about it using terms like “so-called ‘paper’” “poorly written” “speculative” and “fallacies”.  You can read my reply, URL below, scroll down.


  16. Arnold User says:

    We need more people pushing sensible solutions. Not organic-only, not tech-only, but a more rational approach.

    Lotter makes a good point in saying that we shouldn’t throw away what we have learned, but to incorporate it in a best-practice sort of way.

    For example; I’m from The Netherlands, organic potato farmers here made a jump in yield by using GPS controlled planting and harvesting. At the same time, conventional farmers in Brabant reduced pesticide usage and it’s run-off significantly by using smart GPS-controlled spraying systems.

    But now for the trick question: (at least over here) it took 40 years to create a type of Organic potato that is more-or-less resistant to potato-rot (English sp? – potato-rot can cause birth defects in humans and pesticides are often used to control it), but this strain is not as good as regular potatoes.
    Now the University of Wageningen found the mutation that causes the potato-rot resistance, would it be smart to use GMO techniques to insert this (originally natural/organic!)  mutation in other potato breeds?

    This is a difficult one, because regular seed selection also created plant species that were highly allergenic to humans (there’s a good celery example to be found).

    I don’t know. But a more rational approach IS needed!

  17. Hi Arnold I agree that we should not reject gene technology for crop customisation and I think that your potato example is a good one. The use of genetic knowledge for crop customisation and organic agriculture are not mutually exclusive. As Don nicely points out, what took 40 years by conventional breeding and phenotype selection can be accelerated using Marker Assisted Selection (MAS). This involves using our knowledge of DNA sequences to tag the genes of interest. In the case of your potato, the gene has become known. Thus, using this technique the gene, even a combination of genes, can be rapidly moved into new cultivars. Such movements don’t create the risks that releasing the genes from their normal physiological controls and re-inserting them may cause. And this is the source of the GE-specific variability. But even here we have to be mindful of the context in which these non-GE technologies are being developed. Even leading research labs in MAS are starting to worry that the ability to patent DNA sequences will capture by private hands much of the benefit of MAS for crop customisation, and take away what otherwise could be a highly democratising technology. In the case of the BRCA patents, such a scenario already has played out. So we have to be mindful not just of the technology, but the socio-legal context in which the technology is used. Agroecological biotechnologies are largely free of restrictive intellectual property instruments, GE and MAS are not.

  18. Don Lotter says:

    Jack – Thanks for explaining Marker Assisted Selection (MAS).  You bring up an interesting point about MAS and intellectual property.  Do you discuss this in your book “Hope Not Hype”?

    Arnold’s potato rot is late blight (Phytophthera infestans), which decimated Irish potatoes in the 1840s and led to famine.  My understanding is that every time they find a potato with resistance to LB, LB soon overcomes the resistance and becomes virulent.

  19. Hi Don

    Yep, I do discuss this in detail in Chapter 8: Growing more food on less (intellectual) property.

  20. Bill Reeves says:

    The third paragraph implies that the EU and Japan rejected biotech crops.  This is not the case.  The EU imports biotech soy and Japan imports biotech corn and soy.  The EU also allows cultivation of biotech crops, particularly in Spain but Japan does not.  I will grant that the agencies responsible for food, feed and cultivation approvals in the EU and Japan require significant amounts of safety data before granting an approval. 
    As for countries following the US model, that’s not entirely correct.  The USDA is guided by the Plant Pest Act and the agency’s task is to assess whether a plant modified through biotechnology poses a plant pest risk.  If the plant is deemed to not be a plant pest, it is deregulated and may be cultivated in the US.  The FDA has recently begun harmonizing its data requirements with those of the Codex Alimentarius Comission, a body that is responsible for harmonizing food safety regualtions around the world.  EPA also has jurisdiction over plants that have been modified to control insect pests (plant-incorporated protectants as they are called – e.g., Bt corn).  Take a look at USDA’s web site to see examples of what types of data the agency reviews http://www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/not_reg.html or FDA’s web site for examples of the data that agency reviews http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/fcn/fcnNavigation.cfm?rpt=bioListing

    Finally, while I agree people don’t need to be an expert to evaluate science for themselves, one has to be careful about the “cult of the amature” where anyone, regardless of their lack of desire to understand the details is able to read a few blog posts about the hazards of methyl-ethyl-whatever, draw spurious conclusions and seek to convince the world that the end is near.  Everybody has an angle, there’s a buck to be made pushing agendas from both the right and the left, read the details, ask questions, be skeptical and make up your own mind.  The problem isn’t that science can be manipulated, it’s that people fall back on preconceived notions when the data become too difficult to understand in 10 minutes.

  21. Anna says:

    Bonnie, this article is amazing and I love the comments.  Food for thought. (Had to throw in that pun.)  I am researching an article about GM soy in building products.  Everyone is hyping these products because less petro oil is being used.  Although no one is eating these products, isn’t there the same environmental problems associated with growing the GM soy?  Is the argument pick your poison apply here?

  22. Carey Michelle says:

    This is off topic, but I have had the hardest time trying to leave a comment here.  (Yes, I am new to the site :)

    I came across this article on GMFreeireland.org today, and I was wondering if anyone else caught this.  Here is an excerpt:

    From The Sunday Times

    November 22, 2009

    Liam Clarke: Anti-GM brigade will turn feast into famine

    Liam Clarke

    Does this mean that the lying company has reneged on its promise not to commercialize crops that utilize this horrendous Terminator technology?
    In some ways, though, Monsanto can’t win. When it leaves out the terminator gene, as it frequently does, the accusation is that its product will cross-pollinate with other crops, producing so-called Frankenstein foods.

  23. Syd says:

    Interesting Carey. Part of the issue with Terminator technology is if it spreads so it’s possible the only plants left on the earth will be those distributed by Monsanto, which will then have absolute control over pretty much everything. With corn and soy already the Monster is in the industrial animal business and ethanol fuel too. Now Monsanto is dominating the courts to force the use of it’s seeds by keeping farmers from planting non-gmo. Monsanto knows it doesn’t have to win; it only has to bankrupt you.

    I have no sympathy for The Devil in St. Louis.

  24. See the book “No Blade Grass” by John Christopher… from 1980.

  25. On sterilisation technology in general (wherein terminator is one example), you could see my report to the UN FAO and/or the Biosafety Assessment Tool. Both sources discuss the use of sterilisation (or genetic use restriction technology, GURTs) for intellectual property rights enforcement and possible containment.

  26. Carey Michelle says:

    Thanks!  I will.
    Happy Thanksgiving!

  27. Dawn says:

    I am absolutely pro sustainable agriculture, but unfortunately see that those active in the movement have aligned themselves with junk science.  Sun spots and methane gas from the crust of the Earth are much more influential in our climate.  The Cap & Trade legislation coming down the line will result in the starvation death of hundreds of thousands, good news to the de-populationists, like Rockefeller.  The climate has been cycling for millenia and volcano activity (like sunspots, not under our control) has probably made for some of the most sudden adverse changes in the past..  We need to act on Monsanto’s nefarious activities and promote sustainable agriculture, but let go of the illusion that CO2 is a pollutant.  Now that we are finding extraordinary use for the fruits of the rain forest, these trees are making a comeback–eliminating the need to clear these forests to raise beef cattle for income.  If we really think man can effect “cooling”, we had better be careful, because the Earth has not been warming for about a decade and cooling decreases the farmable land mass.  I wish there were a group that would consolidate its efforts against the GMO problem and ignore the manipulative efforts of depopulationists with respect to “global warming’.   Just teach good stewardship of land and energy, supplement current sources with wind and solar (rather than the extreme total conversions being proposed), and concentrate on the REAL pollutants of air and water that cause accumulation of toxins in the body and respiratory illnesses.

  28. Don Lotter says:

    Dawn, you really need to read my paper, which is the basis of this discussion.  It was published in a respected peer reviewed international journal (junk science is not peer reviewed) and documents that the “junk science” has really been on the genetic engineering side.  Please tell us which part of it is junk science.

  29. “Part of the issue with Terminator technology is if it spreads so it’s possible the only plants left on the earth will be those distributed by Monsanto, which will then have absolute control over pretty much everything.”

    It seems that a lot of people misunderstand Genetic Use Restriction Technology, aka Terminators. The popular notion that sterile plants can spread around the world goes against the fact that they are sterile. I can’t say I blame very many people for believing this, because many anti-GE activists, particularly Vandana Shiva, have popularized this pseudo-biological notion as well as the idea that GURTs are currently in use. Neither are true.

    I wrote a post about this at Biofortified in case anyone wants to learn more about it: