Anti-GMO sociologists mute attacks on biotech, urge greater sensitivity to cultural impacts

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The public debate over the safety and challenges of GMOs shows no sign of cooling despite signs that scientists have reached a general consensus. Last week, in a Pew survey of more than two thousand of the nation’s top scientists—members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—88% said they believed there were no serious health or safety issues posed by the consumption of genetically modified foods.

But the public perception has been different—distrust of the science establishment and anxiety about unknown health and environmental consequences. Some of those concerns were on display earlier this week in another in the ongoing series of public webinars presented by the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council, which is reviewing the GMO issue, with plans to release an updated policy statement in 2016. While most of the prior public sessions have featured scientists, this testimony came from three social scientists—all of whom have expressed reservations about the the use or potential misuse of the technology.

The webinar can be viewed in its entirety here.

It may be a sign that the tenor of the debate is slowly changing that the most convincing argument against genetically modified crops was also the least science-based. While still critical of the application of the technology, they all seemed resigned to the inevitability of the advancement of genetically modified crops and are urging ways that they could be deployed to better benefit society.

Abby Kinchy, a sociologist focusing on food and biotechnology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and author of Seeds, Science, and Struggle: The Global Politics of Transgenic Crops, focused on gene flow or what she called “transgenic pollution”, using Mexico as her example. Almost two years ago, activists challenged scientists’ right to plant experimental genetically modified varieties of the crop, claiming it would endanger the ‘purity’ of traditional maize, a staple and symbol of Mexico. A 2013 lawsuit and ruling has thwarted the plans of multinational seed companies from selling their GM maize varieties to Mexican farmers. The protests and legal wrangling have also stalled public-sector biotech researchers who are close to producing GM maize strains tolerant to drought and frost, and other varieties with a reduced need for herbicides and fertilizers.

Kinchy did not address the fact that Mexico currently imports 40 percent of its corn, which is the key reason the country has embarked on a agricultural modernization plan with the potential introduction of GM crops as the centerpiece of its efforts. Rather, she laid out concerns about the cultural importance of maize. Gene drift is a fact of farming, and occurs naturally all the time. As a result, there are no “pure” varieties of corn, conventional or organic. However the very possibility that a GM variety might mix with a non-GMO variety has stirred special concerns among environmental activists.

Although no transgenes have been found in Mexican farms, it’s almost certain that it would occur if GM crops are introduced—it’s a fact of nature. For more than a decade, sociologists and environmental policy researchers have been ringing alarm bells about the cultural impact of such mixing, suggesting it may post a challenge to “genetic diversity.”

Most of the GM research in Mexico is focused on decreasing reliance on imports of yellow corn used mostly for feed and biofuel, as well as develop such traits as drought tolerance, cold resistance and weed resistance to be used to save disappearing local varieties. GM crops would go a long way toward addressing these concerns. Kinchey sidestepped these issues, instead focusing on “contamination” concerns, and blaming the North American Free Trade Agreement and Monsanto’s dominance in the agricultural seed industry.

While economic concerns of the country at large remain the focus of Mexico’s agricultural industry and government, small farmers, distrustful of technology and foreigners, have long stood apart from the ‘green revolution’. As a consequence, since the 2013 planting ban was instituted, much critical biotech research has been scrapped or moved elsewhere. The fight to maintain the ban will be long and determined, funded by outside NGOs such as Greenpeace.

When Kinchy was asked whether there were workable solutions to the gene drift concerns, she was unable to come up with much aside from instituting buffer zones, which are used throughout the world. It’s not a fail-safe solution–gene drift has been part of agriculture since its inception, so some limited drift is inevitable. In the long run economic concerns will probably trump cultural ones and “transgenic pollution” will occur. Indigenous farmers will have little choice but to accept the fact that their traditional varieties would include some traces of GM corn, just as they now contain traces from various indigenous and non-indigenous varieties due to prior gene mixing.

Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociologist with the University of Missouri, raised concerns about what she believes is an unhealthy concentration of the seed industry in the hands of a few companies. However, her real concern was much larger: like many anti-GMO social scientists, she objects to the overall structure of capitalism, which she believes encourages oligopolies, baking in differences between the haves and have nots.

Hendrickson starts off her presentation with a misrepresentation of data. She offers a graphic showing the top three companies in seed and agricultural chemical marketshare and then states that Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont are among the top firms in both. Her graphic doesn’t actually show this, as Monsanto and Dupont aren’t listed among the top firms in agrochemicals. Checking ETC data shows Monsanto and Dupont listed as fifth and six in marketshare, with a much lower percentage than the top three.

Most of Hendrickson’s research concentrates on breaking up agribusiness trusts. She was critical of plant patents, which have been around since the 1930s when the first hybrid seeds were developed. Activists often decry patents because they require that farmers buy new seeds of the same variety every year.

No farmer is required to buy more expensive patented seeds, of course; they could always switch to off-patent seeds. But most do not because of the higher yields and revenue generated by patented seeds, offsetting the slightly higher seed expense. Hendrickson contended a farmer might  have difficulty buying non-GM seed in an area where mostly GM crops are grown, but she provided no evidence for this claim. This seems an unlikely occurrence in 2015, when a farmer can open any seed catalog and find hundreds of varieties of heirloom and off patent hybrid seed listed along with GM seed. Farmers are business people; they are likely to purchase whatever seed provides the best yields with the fewest inputs and overall costs.

Hendrickson’s discussion of her work in South Africa was more compelling, as it seems that farmers there are eager to use GM crops, but lack the training in soil fertility, storage and other practices. She suggested that more public sector involvement, market access, financial support and infrastructure upgrades could be very beneficial to South Africa, especially in the area of weed management, as available labor is in short supply.

Matthew Schnurr, an international geographer at Canada’s Dahlhousie University outlined specific concerns with the development of transgenic matooke bananas in Uganda.  He also addressed issues surrounding other transgenic staple crops linked to development grants from the Gates Foundation. Of the three presenters, Schnurr was most embracing of transgenic technology.

The bulk of his talk detailed inefficiencies he found in the way the Gates Foundation has used its funding dollars. Schurr’s team interviewed farmers in Uganda to find out what their concerns were, how comfortable they were with the technology and what was most important to them. Farmers claimed color, texture and yield of bananas, which provide 50% of the carbohydrates for Ugandans–were more important than diseases that have been the primary focus of researcher and have driven efforts to develop GM pest resistant varieties.

Schnurr laid out specific changes that may be necessary to get Ugandan farmers to adopt the GM matooke banana. He urged scientists to spend more time getting to know the sociological and economic aspects of a population before designing new crops if they want farmers to embrace them.

Amber Sherwood-K is a graduate student in the SUNY Buffalo Science and the Public program. She writes on issues surrounding genetically modified organisms and agriculture. Follow her on Twitter @AmberSherwoodK.

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  • mem_somerville

    I was listening to this with other stuff on my computer, so I wanted to go back and see if I heard Hendrickson make false claims right near the beginning. She did. Relying on ETC data (her first mistake), she has a slide that she verbally claims shows that the seeds and chemicals groups overlap by 75%–her own slide shows differently. http://screencast.com/t/tXbCuM1etS

    • Amber Sherwood K

      Good catch, mem_somerville, I noticed that and meant to check on it. I’ve updated the post to reflect the mischaracterization.

    • mem_somerville

      It’s also strange to me that these lists never include Stine:

      With more than 900 patents, Stine sells his coveted soybean and corn seed genetics to agri-giants like Monsanto and Syngenta, nabbing estimated annual sales of more than $1 billion with margins in excess of 10%.

      http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexmorrell/2014/03/26/can-this-man-feed-the-world-billionaire-harry-stines-quest-to-reinvent-agriculture-again/

      Why don’t they hate Stine the way they hate all the others? I don’t get it.

      • JoeFarmer

        First of all, most activists don’t have enough industry knowledge to even know about Stine.

        Also, Stine is an independent, family-owned company, so mentioning them kind of spoils the, “ebil corporations are taking over the food supply!1!” narrative.

        • Excuse My Ignorance

          doesn’t have to be just “evil corporations”. It could be your beautiful, lovely, nice, neighbor lady lucy, selling who knows what right under your nose and you wouldn’t know it till you magically find information on her.

          • JoeFarmer

            Ummm…yeah…no.

            I don’t think your typical neighbor is very likely to be creating a biotech crop in his/her dining room.

            That fact doesn’t make you any less clueless, though.

          • rick

            “It could be your beautiful, lovely, nice, neighbor lady lucy, selling who knows what right under your nose” Good luck to you and your cultural gestapo finding every Jew in every basement. What a scary mind you seem to have.

        • hyperzombie

          ebil corporations

          Family owned doesn’t mean anything to these people, Wal-mart, Kock industries, and Cargill are all family owned.

          • JoeFarmer

            I could be completely wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

            I do sense a strong anti-corporation reaction amongst the general anti-GMO population. Not that they’d bless a crowd-source funded open-source GMO project either, though

            The anti-plant patent sentimentality seems to run secondary to the anti-corporation stance, at least from where I sit. YMMV.

        • Excuse My Ignorance

          Dismissive

      • Excuse My Ignorance

        maybe because they have been good at hiding. The truth will come out soon. We are on our way. What more info do you have on stine?

        • rick

          “maybe because they have been good at hiding”.
          Hiding what? Being featured in an article in Forbes is hardly hiding. And developing and patenting genetics as an entrepreneurial venture is hardly a criminal activity or social offense.
          Maybe you are just not good at looking. Maybe you are so fixated on protecting your monolithic worldview that you fail to understanding the diversity of players in seed genetics.

    • Thanks for the heads up…the reporter will address this.

    • Amber Sherwood K

      Good catch, mem_somerville, I noticed that and meant to check on it. I’ve updated the post to reflect the mischaracterization.

  • montague_stjohn

    Might want to correct this sentence:

    “8 percent indicated there were so serious health or safety issues posed by the consumption of genetically modified foods”

    Should be “no serious health or safety issues”.

  • rick

    Why is it only corn varieties whose genetic endowment includes one or two traits acquired through biotech mediated means “would endanger the purity of traditional maize”? I would think any modern corn variety, with or without ge traits, would be capable of jeopardizing the genetic purity of traditional maize.

    • Eco-Sustainable

      I’m just curious and I’m not looking for debates. I’d like to know what modern varieties are capable of jeopardizing the “genetic purity” of “traditional” maize. Are mutant maize varieties with high protein content a good example? Do sweet corn varieties, or mutant maize with phenotypes like resistance to lodging and drought tolerance fall under that category?

      • Wackes Seppi

        If you believe in the story of
        « contamination » and « jeopardizing », then
        any modern variety would be a threat to « traditional »
        maize.

        Actually, any one type of
        « traditional » maize would be a danger for all other
        types.

        If you believe in the story, then the
        only difference in the threats of a « conventional »
        variety and its GM counterpart is that the « traditional »
        may acquire the GM trait, in addition to the other traits; it may
        for instance become tolerant to glyphosate. Does it make a
        difference? No. Glyphosate is not used on « traditional »
        maize, nor on the « conventional », non-GM one. It would
        make a difference, though, for Bt. But wouldn’t a « traditional »
        maize resistant to the European cornborer be an improvement for the
        campesino?

        If you believe in the story, then you
        have to admit that the threat from a « conventional »
        variety – or from the « conventional » component of a
        GM variety, i. e. Its whole genetic make-up minus the transgene
        – is far greater to « traditional » maize. Pollination
        of the second by the first leads initially to sort of a F1 hybrid
        between « traditional » and foreign (most likely gringo).

        Basic knowledge of genetics and plant
        breeding suffice to understand that the Quist and Chapela story is
        highly implausible.

      • rick

        Wackes Seppi below kinda gets at my point. THe way I see it, its not a question of the method by which a corn variety acquired a trait, it is a matter of the accumulation of traits that we have bred into corn through crossbreeding, selected mutations, random natural or induced through chemicals or radiation, that the modern elite hybrids carry traits, with or without the intervention of genetic engineering, that would hardly be recognizable in the purity of traditional maize genetics. For example, green revolution genetics long preceding genetic engineering emphasized traits that enable crops to utilize supplemental fertilizers — you don’t just enhance yield with traditional varieties by adding more fertilizer or building super soil. The plants lack the genetics to translate additional available nitrogen and other nutrients into more yield. We breed out traits that might be useful to a plant’s survival in the wild, but have little utility to humans. I would suggest that many of the traits that enable us to achieve the yields we do today perhaps come at the expense of resiliency to pests and diseases, and we provide highly artificial environments in the form of tilled soil, irrigation, fertilizer inputs, and control of competing weeds and pests to enable modern genetics to achieve the yields they do. And yes, we have bred other traits, without genetic engineering, like high lysine corn and traits you mention. I am questioning why these traits would not be considered a contamination of traditional genetics also.
        I also suggest that the statement that ge corn varieties are a threat to traditional corn arises from a premise that I do not agree with. That somehow, the use of biotech methods to instill a trait or two in a crop variety somehow transforms the variety to something other than corn — that it is some bizarre, alien artificial replacement for corn. I merely see it as another variety of corn. I also think that statement betrays a flawed mental model of how ge mediated traits get into a plant like corn. We don’t go straight from the petri dish to dinner plate. My understanding is that yes, breeders do accomplish the gene transfer in a host corn cell in laboratory controlled conditions. But that does not replace the thousands of corn varieties out there. Instead, breeders grow that host plant out, and then transfer the desired trait into the existing corn varieties via cross breeding, just as we would to transfer a desired trait from any non-ge variety. Just as we do with other traits, through several iterations of introgression, we are left with the original variety altered only by the acquisition of the desired trait from the donor plant.
        I think it is a legitimate question whether the insertion event alters plant genetics in a manner that we cannot predict or detect. Does the insertion event scramble the genetics of the plant so that it inhibits the plants metabolism in undesirable ways, that causes the food harvested from the plant to have altered nutritional composition, enhanced levels of toxins or anti-nutrients the food products have naturally (e.g. cause tomatoes which naturally contain small amounts of solanine, a substance very toxic to humans, to suddenly start expressing dangerous levels of solanine), or to produce dangerous novel proteins. A legitimate question, yes, but not an unfathomable mystery. And this risk is present in all methods of plant breeding. In my view, the evidence is mounting and becoming increasingly compelling that genetic engineering presents no greater risk than what we have already faced in that respect.

    • Eric Bjerregaard

      bias

  • Cairenn Day

    Not to dismiss the value of ‘culture’, but sitting in first world country and worrying about the culture of a developing country, while folks there lack sufficient food and other necessities seem wrong to me. Shouldn’t providing for the folks in that culture, come first.

    Blame capitalism for the ills, even though it is capitalism that has made the great advances of the modern world. Before the fall of the USSR, they were highly dependent on food imports.

  • Wackes Seppi

    Excellent piece of information. Could
    it be improved by distinguishing the authors comments from the
    speakers’ statement?

    .

    « It may be a sign that the tenor
    of the debate is slowly changing that the most convincing argument
    against genetically modified crops was also the least
    science-based »?

    Assuming this is true, it is not
    necessarily an improvement.

    .

    « Abby Kinchey, a sociologist
    focusing on food and biotechnology from Rensselaer Polytechnic
    Institute, and author of Seeds, Science, and Struggle: The Global
    Politics of Transgenic Crops, focused on gene flow or what she called
    “transgenic pollution”, using Mexico as her example » ?

    Does she have an understanding of the
    underlying issues? Sociologists and others who pontificate without
    that understanding gravely pollute the debate.

    .

    « However the very possibility
    that a GM variety might mix with a non-GMO variety has stirred
    special concerns among environmental activists »?

    Since ETC is mentioned later in the
    article, let me tell you that ETC is one of the major purveyor of
    « concerns » in Mexico, through Silvia Ribeiro, and that
    if she does not know, then ETC’s figurehead Pat Mooney knows damn
    well that the « concerns » are fabricated.

    .

    « He urged scientists to spend
    more time getting to know the sociological and economic aspects of a
    population before designing new crops if they want farmers to embrace
    them »?

    Sounds like: « Give me a job »…

  • First Officer

    Kinchey makes a lot of RPI grads ashamed. This is the school launched by the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, whom, I’m sure, didn’t languish in sociological gobbledygook whether Brooklyn and the rest of New York should be connected.

  • Loren Eaton

    If academics like this want to have a discussion about culture and capitalism as it pertains to GMO in the developing world, we can have that discussion. But I think what some of these folks are doing is back-dooring this ideological argument inside safety concerns (with a nod and a wink). This is inappropriate…especially for scientists who actually do know better, and bank on the ignorance and fear of the general public.