How activists, sloppy reporters turned genetic firewall story into hysteria-gram on GMO dangers

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It’s one of the most familiar and long standing anti-GMO memes in cyberspace and a staple of radical environmental activist websites: hyped claims that genetic engineering risks releasing “wild” and “foreign” Godzilla-like havoc-wreaking genes or GE organisms into the environment.

“The Dangers of GMOs,” runs a typical headline, this in Natural News summarizing the myriad risks supposedly posed by GE. “[F]oreign genes can cross with and contaminate these other species, resulting in a hybridization of the genetically modified crop plant with a non-GMO plant,” the blog suggests. “This could radically alter entire ecosystems if the hybrid plants thrived.”

“The term ‘genetic pollution’ is often used to describe the process of gene transfer, but unlike chemical pollution which can be contained or will disperse with time, genes self-replicate, and are impossible to control once released into the environment,” wrote GMEducation.org, a popular site short on science but heavy on ideology.

Talk of “gene pollution” and “ecological disasters” are the familiar currency and scare memes of activist web sites. But such near hysterical claims often migrate into the mainstream media when new innovations are being debated.

We’ve seen two prominent examples of this over the past two months, first over the story that GM mosquitoes that could help control mosquito borne diseases in Florida might be released and another linked to the breakthrough research on what is known as “gene barriers”.

Killer mosquitoes on the loose

Last December, the British firm Oxitec joined with the state of Florida to propose the release of genetically modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys in a trial effort to help control outbreaks of dengue fever and chikungunya. The GM mosquitoes are a dramatic innovation; it has no impact on beneficial predators; the released mosquitoes and their offspring will die, ensuring that they do not stay in the environment; and it only targets the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that can spread disease because the Oxitec males only produce offspring with their own species.

Then activists hit the hysteria button. “Are you aware that genetically modified mosquitoes are being set for release worldwide,” was the opening line of a screed in Natural Society, activist Anthony Guciaridi’s immensely popular junk science site. “The only hope is a very vocal grassroots effort to tell the Governor of Florida that these mosquitoes will ruin tourism and possibly turn the natural ecosystem there on its head.”

Not surprisingly, such nonsense from psuedo-environmentalists echoed on hundreds of websites, but the hysterical tone leaked into the mainstream media. As Christie Wilcox reported on Discover:

The Washington Post actually called them “genetically modified killer mosquitoes” in their headline, warning that they “may attack Florida Keys”. George Dvorsky for io9 cautions that “Millions Of Mutated Mosquitoes Could Be Unleashed In Florida—On Purpose”.

… the reason the mainstream media is going nuts over this story isn’t some debate about the importance of mosquito control— it’s because of the whole GM issue. George Dvorsky explains for io9 that “some people are worried that genetically modified DNA might get into humans after being bitten”, and goes on to imply that there needs to be careful study of the “health impacts of GMO mosquitoes” before he believes the FDA should sign off on the plan*. I would say I’m surprised to see a science writer display such clear lack of understanding of biological science….

Listen, I don’t care if even the most popular science page aroundI F*cking Love Science, told you that “Oxitec can’t guarantee…that the DNA doesn’t pose a threat to humans.” The facts are simple: the mosquitoes’ new DNA is harmless.

Genetic firewalls

That disgraceful reporting by reputable news outlets has been called and raised in the botched reporting and misleading commentary surrounding the breakthrough research by Harvard Medial School geneticist George Church and Yale University molecular cell biologist Farren Isaacs, who are on the verge of developing a way to prevent the so-called “leakage” of novel genes created through genetic engineering.

The Church–Isaacs research is elegant. They have pioneered what one terms a “genetic firewall”–a strain of bacteria that cannot survive without a specific man-made chemical, achieving bio-containment (albeit in a laboratory setting). They created a self-destruct button for GM bacteria in case they escape a laboratory. Bacteria, which can reproduce via mutagensis or horizontal gene transfer, could travel outside a lab via an employees’ clothing or get into the air, where they could reproduce with other bacteria. Right now, facilities simply use physical barriers—producing their products in enclosed vessels—to keep bacteria contained.

It’s targeted to be used in a range of settings, mostly synthesizing chemicals and biofuels, and manufacturing drugs. None of these uses has been targeted my anti-GMO activists, who have concentrated their ire on GM crops. But that didn’t stop the most irresponsible of them–and the mainstream media echo chamber–from making the connection-that-isn’t-there, and igniting a new scare.

According to Monte Morin of the Los Angeles Times, “Synthetic amino acids may one day allow scientists to create “genetic firewalls” that prevent GMO crops or animals from escaping into the wild and causing environmental damage, according to Harvard and Yale researchers.”Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 1.28.18 PM

Bizarrely, CBS illustrated its report with a picture a supermarket food display while UPI featured an ear of corn–misleadingly suggesting that the research is about agricultural products.

Scientists-develop-strategy-to-contain-GMOs-to-the-lab“Some GMOs do have the potential to disrupt the natural order of things–cause havoc in rivers and other ecosystems,” wrote UPI’s Brooks Hays–an exaggeration boring on fabrication. Hundreds more stories linked this research to GMO farming and foods.

Well, not really. There is little applicability of this breakthrough to crop research. But even if the strained link was real, more importantly there is no evidence that gene flow could lead to the kind of “environmental damage” that Morin highlights in the opening line of his story. There is no evidence that agricultural cross hybridization resulting from genetic engineering poses any unique challenges to our very adaptable ecosystem; after all, cross pollination occurs naturally: our ecosystem adapts. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, the potential for GM plants to cross-pollination with wild plants is no greater than the possibility that conventional crops will do the same thing. Additionally, researchers maintain that crops intended for cultivation are not likely to survive very long in the wild, rendering the scare fears moot.

Nonetheless, the new research fits right into the decades-long activist narrative on the potential for GMO crops to “contaminate” wild plants and threaten the world’s ecological “balance”. Sheldon Krimsky, Tufts professor and chair of the Council for Responsible Genetics, an anti-GMO NGO, has been warning about coming genetic Armageddon for more than a decade to the derision of mainstream scientists.

“It’s the worst nightmare of activists opposed to genetically modified crops,” noted Climate Desk, a leftist blog site that picked up on how the narrative was being shaped–and then echoed it.

An errant GMO seed blows out of a wheat or corn field and breeds with a species in the wild or on a neighboring farm. The modified gene proliferates and spreads through the population, and pretty soon the line between engineered crops and their “natural” counterparts begins to disappear, with unpredictable consequences for ecosystems.

Crop scientists who reviewed Church and Isaac’s work are not at all convinced that a containment tool for GMO crop innovation is necessary. Yet Church and Isaac’s work on genetically modified bacteria used in pharmaceuticals and dairy products like yogurt and cheese was being framed as a solution to the ecological “dangers” allegedly posed by GMO crop traits escaping into the wild.

It appears journalists were either playing on consumers concerns about GMOs or so versed in the “contamination” narrative that it was simply the easiest reference point to access.

But even if the “kill switches” were needed in crops (and there’s not agreement on this), actually developing a containment technology for commercial crops is way in the future. Linking application of the Church and Isaac’s research to GMO crops is far-fetched. That’s probably why Climate Desk turned to what reads like guesswork to sustain its narrative:

The implication is that when an organism’s genes are modified for a specific function—to increase corn yield, for example—those same genes could also be outfitted with this custom re-coding to make them dependent a steady supply of a synthetic amino acid that can’t be procured in the wild. In the case of crops, that could be supplied through custom fertilizer—a concept that is similar to how existing GMO crops are engineered to work in tandem with certain herbicides. If one of these seeds found its way into the wild, it wouldn’t survive without the synthetic amino acid. Of course, that could open up an entirely new avenue for Monsanto and its peers to monopolize the equipment farmers need to eke out a competitive edge.

These comments appear with no attribution to a crop scientist or any genetic expert–because they are pure speculation. It’s presented as a hypothetical scenario. It’s sloppy journalism that exposes the viewpoint of the reporter.

A few reporters did get the story right and actually talked to crop biotechnologists, rather than just speculate. Quoted in the Washington Post, Steve Benner, a synthetic biologist and former professor at the University of Florida, “considers GMOs inherently unfit to compete against natural organisms. Life has evolved to fill every environmental niche. Organisms are optimized for their environment: If they could prosper better via mutation, they would have done so.”

BBC talked to Huw Jones of Rothamsted Research, a UK-based agricultural research station, who flat out states that there is no need for an application of this research in crop genetics. Jones distinguished the difference between early-stage research on the unintended contamination of microbes in industrial facilities from genetically modified crops.

“I can see no need for this in crop plants that are anyway risk-assessed and approved for field cultivation, and use in food and feed,” he said.

Glenn Monastersky, the associate center director Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, interviewed by CBS, isn’t convinced that this would ideologically change anything for those holding an anti-GMO stance:

Opponents to the use of genetic engineering of food crops and animals — for any purpose — generally oppose the creation and existence of GMOs. The current studies certainly would reduce the chances of environmental spread and genetic contamination of the ecosystem, but probably wouldn’t significantly reduce the opposition to GMOs.

While it is possible that a similar methodology could be used to confer a similar genetic kill switch to plants, the goal would be harder to accomplish because plants are much more genetically complex than bacteria. They have 10 times more genes that make proteins than bacteria do, said Church.

Aside from that, there are a variety of practices to minimize cross-pollination of GMO and organic crops. Cross-pollination occurs naturally when plants spread male sexual cells to female sexual cells with a whisper of a breeze or with the help of bees. But they only “mate” genetically similar plants and only during certain seasons—in the case of corn, it’s only about one-week a year.

There are also strategies ranging from buffer zones to strategically planting seeds earlier or later than a neighbor to avoid both crops flowering at the same time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can also restrict GMOs, as it did in the case of GM cotton, due to the potential for gene flow in a given circumstance.

The reality is: cross-pollination isn’t unique to GMOs. Organic, conventional and wild plants cross-pollinate, and farmers use measures to protect the traits in their crops, whether they’re using organic, GMO or conventional seed.

Church, for one, understood that his co-discovery might be misrepresented by the media, and especially by anti-GMO activists, who he loathes. When asked by Guardian reporter Adam Rutherford whether this research was motivated in part to mollify campaigners, he was blunt in response: “That is certainly one of our goals and if they don’t like this, we’ll ask what they would prefer, and keep going. We want to get this right.”

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  • Great article. But only an organic seed crop can, in theory, become contaminated by GMOs. Organic crops being grown for food – whether for animals or humans – cannot become contaminated by GMOs.

    This explains why there has not been a single successful lawsuit launched by an organic farmer for alleged GMO contamination anywhere in the world.

    • shill_for_science

      Mischa, can you explain for us wanna-knows how that works, that organic crops can’t become contaminated by GMOs? I’d love an example or two that I can explain to my anti-science, anti-gmo colleagues. Thanks!

      • GMOs can only “contaminate” an organic crop if the genes from the GMO crop mix with the genes from the organic crop in the form of cross-pollinated offspring. Since food crops do not have offspring, they cannot be contaminated in this manner. And this is reflected in America’s standards for organic production.

        • Samuel Leuenberger

          I’m not sure your meaning of “contamination” is the same used by anti-GMO activists. They would retort that the foreign gene is in their crop and therefore the crop is “contaminated”
          Note that the word contamination in itself is stupid, we should use the proper agricultural words: gene flow or cross-pollinisation.

          • Organic activists are using the same meaning of “contamination” as segregationists used when they claimed integration with black people threatened their way of life. It’s cultural; no science.