Does the Union of Concerned Scientists’s Doug Gurian-Sherman misrepresent GMOs?

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Does the global population really need genetically modified foods? This would seem to be a question with a simple answer: Why would society willfully set aside a useful technological tool to address global food security that threatens to only get worse; the population is growing and living standards are improving in developing countries, requiring much higher daily caloric intake. Yet, GM technology has become a contentious issue, with proponents often on the defensive.

Doug Gurian-Sherman, a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, and an ardent and outspoken skeptic of GM technology, frames the issue in an article last month in MIT Technology Review, “Are GMOs Worth the Trouble”.

You hear a lot these days about genetically modified organisms, with many people arguing that they’ll be a necessity in the not-so-distant future, as climate change stresses agriculture, and as a growing, and increasingly affluent, population consumes more food, and more inefficient animal-based foods. Others argue that we’ll need GMOs to reduce global warming emissions, harm to biodiversity from pesticides, pollution from fertilizers (such as coastal “dead zones”), and overuse of scarce resources like fresh water by industrial agriculture. You might have seen one such argument a few months ago from David Rotman, the editor of MIT Technology Review, in his feature called “Why We Will Need Genetically Modified Foods.”

Gurian-Sherman does a slash and burn on GMOs, claiming that simpler options like classic breeding are as or more effective and safer. He brushes aside claims that GM technology has or could lead to improving drought tolerance, improving nitrogen fertilizer efficiency or increasing yield. He says GMOs encourage the reliance on “unsustainable industrial monoculture farming systems.” And he claims, “there’s no real consensus on GMO crop safety.” His conclusion:  The “so-called ‘need’ for GMOs that we hear about from some circles isn’t really an adequately supported assertion … it’s important to remember that we have many better alternatives that are far from played out.”

The article is classic Gurian-Sherman, mainstream scientists familiar with his method of operation say—a mixture of half-truths and outright misrepresentations. His comment about the lack of consensus on GMO crop safety is particularly outrageous. Every major independent science organization in the world, from the World Health Organization to the European Food Safety Authority to the National Academy of Sciences to the academies of sciences of every major European, Asian, Latin and African country have endorsed the safety of GMOs, and generally concluded that genetically engineered crops are more environmentally sustainable as well. The Economist, Slate and numerous other publications have compared those who question the mainstream consensus on the safety of GMOs to climate change deniers.

Gurian-Sherman’s source for his “lack of consensus” assertion? He links to a document produced by an organization called the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility. Sounds impressive? It’s actually founded and run by associates of Gilles-Eric Seralini, whose GMO corn rat study—the centerpiece of the ‘GMOs may not be safe’ argument—was withdrawn by the publishing journal because of sloppy data and inconclusive results. ENSEER, to which Gurian-Sherman is aligned, is anything but an independent-minded organization committed to dispassionately evaluating data. Rather, it is publicly dedicated to discrediting GMOs. With only a few exceptions, its signees amount to a rogue’s gallery of anti-GMO activists and fringe scientists whose open contempt for the world’s independent science organizations is well-known and oft stated.

But let’s leave Gurian-Sherman’s obvious misrepresentation of the global consensus aside. What about his claim that traditional breeding is consistently more effective than genetic engineering? Does that claim hold?

Key Gurian-Sherman assertions have been deconstructed before, notably in this analysis by Biofortified. This time the honor goes to Mary Mangan, an independent plant scientist, who wrote a guest post on the blog Random Rationality. Titled “The Union of Concerned Trolls,” she spares nothing in her criticism:

[T]he MIT Technology Review—an otherwise great resource on science and technology—published a bizarre diatribe on GMOs: Are GMOs Worth the Trouble by Doug Gurian-Sherman. … I call it bizarre for the many non-sequiturs, misrepresentations, and statements so easily falsifiable that one wonders how it got past the editors….

Why does Mangan call Gurian-Sherman a “troll” on GMOs? It’s because, she says, he disingenuously claims to support genetic engineering but then urges people to pursue a policy path that would kill the development of the technology. In almost every article he writes, including this one, Gurian-Sherman has a version of this line: “None of this means that GMOs won’t make some contributions….” It’s invariably followed by a searing diatribe. As Mangan notes, he does it again in this article.

From reading his piece we see immediately that Doug thinks GMOs are “trouble”. How does he support this case? He begins by citing a paper about plant genetic repositories and resources by Susan McCouch and other attendees of a meeting on crop wild relatives. This work has absolutely nothing to say about disagreeing on technology, or any “trouble” of GMOs. In fact, it heavily supports investments in genomics and other allied technologies to unlock the potential of the wide variety of plants that are available to us.

Mangan then quotes from the McCouch article, showing that Gurian-Sherman twisted its meaning by making it seem as if she was critical of genetic engineering when the truth is just the opposite: “Thus, useful genetic traits are moved across the breeding barrier, expanding the genetic diversity of domesticated plants and opening up new opportunities for environmental resilience and future gains in quality and yield.”

Related article:  Activists fan concerns about CRISPR 'off target' effects in gene-edited crops and foods. Are they right?

“Moved across the breeding barrier,” Mangan writes archly. “I wonder how that might be done….” GE technology of course.

Mangan also notes that he misrepresents how “successful” conventional breeding is when compared to genetic engineering, claiming that flood tolerant rice was developed in “5 years.” That’s just false:

Plant breeders often worry that using wild species or landrace varieties is too risky, scientifically and economically. It took 20 years and 34,000 attempts to cross a domesticated rice variety with a distantly related, highly salt-tolerant wild relative from India before fertile offspring were obtained. It will now take at least 4-5 years of breeding to eliminate unwanted wild characters to generate a new high-yielding, salt-tolerant rice variety (go.nature.com/knztl5). That is too long for most plant-breeding programmes, especially in the private sector.

Many scientists project it could take 45 years or more using conventional means to generate the traits that Gurian-Sherman claims are so easily developed—while genetic engineering could cut development time to a mere fraction of that. Mangan points out that in many cases there is no breeding option to obtain the necessary traits—only GE.

Playing off of Doug Gurian-Sherman’s flip title, Mangan concludes by asking if the UCS scientist is even “worth the trouble” of dialoguing with, considering how dishonest she believes he is when discussing GMOs in public forums. “Perhaps not,” she concludes. The Union of Concerned Scientists, she writes, has become “embarrassingly irrelevant.”

Hank Campbell, editor of Science 2.0, who reviewed the spat on his site, agrees:

concern troll is … a fifth columnist who infiltrates the ranks, in the case of science pretending to be an ally while creating ethical concerns or slyly discouraging efforts by saying the research is not worthwhile.

That’s what the Union of Concerned Scientists does. They are solely interested in creating more rules, laws, barricades and legislation to science in order to advance the agenda of their donors or their political allies in the Save Our Environment Action Center. And to do so they say science they happen not to like is just not worth the cost or the effort. … Concern is only invoked about GMOs or nuclear science or anything else that just happens to coincide with the political beliefs of their donors. That’s not science, and neither is the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

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