Saturday, November 5, 2016

No "GMO"- Time to Take the Science Back

The term GMO has unclear roots, but it likely stems from technical language used to describe organisms featuring genes installed through recombinant DNA techniques.  Over the last decades the term has been adopted as a term of both derision and endearment. But does the term really mean anything? 

Scientists don't use it.  Well, Seralini et al (2012) (2014) used it in the figures of an attempted scholarly paper.  He had to. The purpose of the paper was to scare people, so the term was necessary. 

Let's just say, it is not used in real scientific papers. We speak with precision. So why do we tolerate its use when it is imprecise and confuses the public? 

Over the last several years I have spoken to hundreds of public, scientific and agricultural audiences and I think it is time for all of us in a science-minded community to adopt some precise language.  We should all speak from a codified vernacular to be more effective as a whole.

Here's what I propose (discuss in comments):

1. Stop using "GMO".  It is imprecise.  Everything non-clonal is genetically modified from previous forms, as is anything changed by mutation.  Instead use Genetic Engineering.  Transgenic, cisgenic, CRISPR, are all forms of genetic engineering, and it is engineering.  As my student Chris Barbey put it, "Would you rather drive across an engineered bridge, or a modified bridge?" 



Kinda nails it. 

Of course, the term "GMO" is something people recognize, so use it once in a presentation or article parenthetically, then switch to genetic engineering

Online Training in Biotech Concepts

In today's Talking Biotech Podcast guest host Dr. Paul Vincelli talks about Journey of a Gene with Dr. Don Lee from University of Nebraska. This website is an online multimedia resource to teach concepts in genetic engineering. 


Listen to the interview here, or subscribe through iTunes.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Uninvited -- Damage from Lipton's Article Continues

I've enjoyed providing good information that challenges the conclusions of  Danny Hakim's New York Times article.  I've posted real data, shown discussion of farmer sentiments, and tried to provide a sobering dose of reality to a seriously biased article. 



NPR's On Point inquired about my participation in the current discussion on Hakim's article.  They were enthusiastic, until the libelous misrepresentation of my career in science eliminated me from the discussion.   


I got an email from the producer for NPR's On Point.  He asked me if I could be a last-minute guest on the show on November 2, so I moved a standing meeting so I could accommodate his request.  We spoke for 30 minutes about the topic and the producer seemed quite happy with my answers and my command of the subject. 

Twenty minutes later he called and asked, "What is your relationship with Monsanto."

I answered correctly, "I have friends that work in the company, they never sponsored my research, and once donated to a communication program but that money was never used."

I answered every question correctly and honestly. 

He then went into asking questions about Eric Lipton's New York Times piece from last year, the piece that described me as a "lobbyist" that "trades grants for lobbying clout" on the "inner circle of industry consultants". 

He left with, "We'll follow up."

Later that afternoon I got an email that said the "Current trajectory (of your participation) is no."

Sure, maybe they just had better people agree to the interview. Could very well be. 

But at the same time I could not help but feel the enthusiasm flip 180 degrees, and it sure seemed like Lipton's libelous New York Times article was a dominant factor in that decision. 

Uninvited.  Another score for the anti-GMO movement. Their hit-job cost me another professional opportunity. 

Worse, I do think that I could have contributed to the discussion and advanced public understanding.  My experience, knowledge and ability to distill the information were removed from that conversation. 

*

In the spring of 1987 I walked into a laboratory with a mission to learn how to be a better scientist.  I wanted to learn how to use the tools of science to solve problems for people and the planet. 

Almost 30 years later I understand the science and how to communicate it.  However, activists have fabricated a false narrative that continues to eliminate my participation from an important conversation. That is exactly what USRTK wanted to do with their FOIA-based attack, and what Lipton wanted to achieve with his smear piece.  Mission accomplished. 

Anyone that thinks these attacks on scientists don't matter needs to simply look at this situation. 






Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Some Actual Yield Data

After commenting on the New York Times piece that claimed that genetically-engineered crops have failed due to no effect on yield, I decided to revisit a slideshow I prepared back in 2014.  I was on a panel in Denver, CO to discuss risk, benefit, gain, loss of genetically engineered crops with a diverse group of farmers, scientists, physicians, activists, NGO leadership and corporate representatives. 

I was tasked to be on a point-counterpoint discussion with Doug Gurian-Sherman, then with the Union of Concerned Scientists.  He wrote the notoriously cherry-picked and underpowered (yet highly influential) brochure "Failure to Yield", and indictment of the failure of genetically-engineered crops. 

My point was simple.  GE crops were not made to directly increase yields.  They control other aspects of growth so that yields are maximized.  

Yields are determined by how genetics interact with environment, and how pest pressure, weather, and dozens of other factors impact the plant. 

So what do the data say?  Here are a few examples from the talk. 

EXHIBIT A is a table by Fernandez-Cornejo et al., 2014. 



The results of this meta analysis show how the net effects of adopting GM crops over conventional, comparing yield and pesticide use.  Hakim claims yields are flat and pesticide use increases. What do the data actually say?

Interpretation:  Yield and pesticide use depends on the crop, pest pressure and other factors. However, the net benefit is generally positive. 

EXHIBIT B.


This image shows the reasons farmers adopt GE crops. Light blue is increased yields and yellow is decreased pesticide input cost.  USDA ERS/ARMS data from 2006-2010 surveys, depending on crop.

Interpretation:  Farmers seem to think their yields are good and pesticide costs lower.



EXHIBIT C.  Economic benefits of adopting conventional or Bt corn in three Spanish provinces over three growing seasons. 

What?  In the EU?  How can that be?

INTERPRETATION:  I think I did the highlights. Yields are the same across all three seasons. However, the farmer's profits are higher, even with the higher costs of the product, which are offset by decreased corn borer control costs. 


EXHIBIT D. 



These two tables show cotton (top) and sugar beet (bottom) data from various states, before and after adoption of transgenic traits.


INTERPRETATION:  Traits help yields in these locations over these years.  USDA data.


EXHIBIT E. 


The dotted line is a Roundup Ready corn variety.  The solid line is the same line with a Bt insect control trait.  Yield is shown over two seasons as a function of nitrogen input. 

INTERPRETATION:  Yield depends on many variables. In 2009, the Bt trait is invisible.  No effect on yield.  But in 2008 the Bt trait had normal yield, the non-Bt had significantly lower yield.  This is an important figure in the discussion.  While the Bt trait did not increase the yield, it made sure that the inherent genetics were allowed to produce to their full potential.  I'm not sure where I got this graph from.  Poor scholarship. I'll figure it out later. 



CONCLUSION:

YES, these are selected and biased examples and there are plenty out there that show no difference.  I just thought it was important to reinforce the idea that yields are not always the objective, and certainly there are documented cases where GE traits matter.  

I hope these resources prove helpful in your continued discussion of the New York Times article. 












Sunday, October 30, 2016

Rehashing a Tired Argument

The New York Times failed again, publishing a less-than-scientific ball of bias that states genetically engineered crops fail to produce as expected.  Investigative reporter Danny Hakim's opinions contrast sharply with the scholarly literature, as well as the direct experiences of the people that understand the benefits and limitations of the technologies-- farmers that use it. 


As it has been said, it is easy to trash a farming technology when your plow is a pencil.

The author here returns to two well-refuted, ancient criticisms. First, that genetically engineered crops fail to yield, and next, that they don't cut "pesticides".  These are old and familiar discussions for those of us that have studied this subject for twenty years. 

We could spend a lot of time reviewing the data Hakim used to reach his conclusions.  But rather than point out the flaws in his highly selective, cherry-picking analysis (which Dr. Andrew Kniss did skillfully here), it makes more sense to provide the points you need to intelligently refute his shallow claims. 

1.  No genes for yield were ever installed.  The current suite of biotech traits were not meant to improve yields, they were made to ensure yields.  In other words, they help ag producers farm with lower costs, fewer insecticides, improved weed control and virus resistance in some cases.  Same yield at lower cost means better for farmers. 

2.  What are "pesticides"?  Hakim, like many that want to tell an anti-biotech story, use the term "pesticides" to make claims that farm inputs have increased.  They look at total amount applied in weight. 

But "pesticides" is a catch-all term for herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.  If you separate that into its components, you see the advantages of the technologies. 

GE crops cut insecticide use.  This is shown elegantly with great reference in the National Academies of Sciences extensive review of genetically engineered crops (see NAS review, figs 4-4 to 4-7). The technologies irrefutably cut insecticide use and help limit fungicide applications due to insect damage.  That's really important. 

However, the amount of herbicide used has increased in total.  That's because there are more acres of crops being grown, and in some cases there is more herbicide needed per acre (more than the 750 ml per acre normally used) needed to treat resistant weeds.   Yes, when you add up the total used it is increased relative to 1996. But in 1996, Roundup was used on farms sparingly, as well as in residential and municipal situations. 

When biotech crops showed their advantages in 1996 and were adopted on many farms because of their increased productivity, of course the amount of herbicide would increase.  

Using his words and logic, it is like saying cell phone case sales have "skyrocketed" since 1996.  

Like Benbrook (an economist paid by the anti-GM industries for salary and research, who wrote highly-criticized, low-impact articles that included estimated data), Hakim lumps all forms of chemistry together to create the outcome he wants-- more pounds of pesticides being used. 

He also ignores the simple fact that not all farm chemicals are the same. You can't just compare amounts. You need to consider relative toxicity. And the stuff farmers have switched to has a much lower impact on the environment compared to what it replaced.

3.  You can't make valid general statements about yield.   When you analyze the GE-traited crop against its non-GE counterpart in side-by-side comparisons, you see trends.  Equivalent yields can be affected by location, crop, pest pressure, weather, etc.  Mainly, the trait has no effect on yield.  Sometimes it is higher.  Occasionally it is lower.  Mostly, it is exactly the same. 

I was on a panel years ago with Dough Gurian-Sherman, the guy who wrote the piece "Failure to Yield".   I spoke of specifics of yields as reported from the peer-reviewed literature. He agreed with me on just about every case.

You have to consider the specifics.  For instance. The GE trait in papaya has demonstrated incredible effects on yield for papaya farmers.  Massive increases in yield saved an industry. 

4. Farmers are shrewd business men and women.  There is a certain arrogance in proclaiming a technology is a failure, when millions of people choose it because it works.  Farmers choose these technologies, and they cost more money, as Hakim correctly points out. 

Therein lies the implication that our ag producers somehow can't do the math.  To say that they are willing to pay more for less performance undermines the tight business acumen of our farmers. The one percent that feed the rest of us know about a bottom line. If any product fails to perform, producers change gears to find alternatives. 
Great to see the ag community adding their informed viewpoints. 


To conclude:  For decades people have tried to suggest that genetic engineering technologies are dangerous or environmentally deleterious.  We certainly know the realistic risks, but none of the dire predictions have ever emerged. 

Critics then retreat to "failed" rhetoric.   It is amazingly sad that a venue like the New York Times would publish such a report.  Time will show that it was another poor-quality report that cherry-picked data and presented biased analysis that supported the hypothesis the author wanted to support, not the conclusion proven my millions of farmers that choose the technology. 














Rehashing a Tired Argument

The New York Times failed again, publishing a less-than-scientific ball of bias that states genetically engineered crops fail to produce as expected.  Investigative reporter Danny Hakim's opinions contrast sharply with the scholarly literature, as well as the direct experiences of the people that understand the benefits and limitations of the technologies-- the farmers that use it. 


As it has been said, it is easy to trash a farming technology when your plow is a pencil.

The author here returns to two well-refuted, ancient criticisms. First, that genetically engineered crops fail to yield, and next, that they don't cut "pesticides".  These are old and familiar discussions for those of us that have studied this subject for their whole careers. 

We could spend a lot of time reviewing the data Hakim used to reach his conclusions.  But rather than point out the flaws in his highly selective, cherry-picked analysis (which Dr. Andrew Kniss did skillfully here), it makes more sense to provide the points you need to intelligently refute his shallow claims. 

1.  No genes for yield were ever installed.  The current suite of biotech traits were not meant to improve yields, they were made to ensure yields.  In other words, they help ag producers farm with lower costs, fewer insecticides, improved weed control and virus resistance in some cases.  The same yield at a lower cost is better for farmers. 

2.  What are "pesticides"?  Hakim, like many that want to tell an anti-biotech story, use the term "pesticides" to make claims that farm inputs have increased.  They look at total amount applied in weight. 

But "pesticides" is a catch-all term for the combination of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.  If you separate that into its components, you see the advantages of the technologies. 

GE crops cut insecticide use.  This is shown elegantly with great reference in the National Academies of Sciences extensive review of genetically engineered crops (see NAS review, figs 4-4 to 4-7). The technologies irrefutably cut insecticide use and help limit fungicide applications due to insect damage.  That's really important. 

However, the amount of herbicide used has increased in total.  That's because there are more acres of crops being grown, and in some cases there is more herbicide needed per acre (more than the 750 ml per acre normally used) needed to treat resistant weeds.   Yes, when you add up the total used it has increased since 1996. But in 1996, Roundup was only sparingly used on farms, as well as in residential and municipal situations. 

When herbicide-resistant crops showed their advantages in 1996 and were adopted on many farms because of their increased productivity, of course the amount of herbicide would increase.  

Using his words and logic, it is like saying the number of cell phone cases have "skyrocketed" since 1996.  

It also is important to note that the number of pounds of glyphosate also reflects its increased use in farms for non-GMO uses. It is used to kill the vegetation on land left fallow and along fence lines.  It is used in tree-crop production to remove weeds from rows and under trees.   

Like Benbrook (the economist whose salary and research were 100% paid by the anti-GM industries as he wrote highly-criticized, low-impact articles that included estimated data), Hakim lumps all forms of chemistry together to create the outcome he wants-- more pounds of pesticides being used. 

He also ignores the simple fact that not all farm chemicals are the same. You can't just compare amounts. You need to consider relative toxicity. And the products farmers have switched to have much lower environmental impact relative to what they replaced.

3.  You can't make valid general statements about yield.   When you analyze the GE-traited crop against its non-GE counterpart in side-by-side comparisons, you see trends.  Equivalent yields can be affected by location, crop, pest pressure, weather, etc.  Mainly, the trait has no effect on yield.  Sometimes it is higher.  Occasionally it is lower.  Mostly, it is exactly the same. 

I was on a panel years ago with Dough Gurian-Sherman, the guy who wrote the piece "Failure to Yield".   I spoke of specifics of yields as reported from the peer-reviewed literature. He agreed with me on just about every case.

You have to consider the specifics.  For instance. The GE trait in papaya has demonstrated incredible effects on yield for papaya farmers.  Massive increases in yield saved an industry. 

4. Farmers are shrewd business men and women.  There is a certain arrogance in proclaiming a technology is a failure, when millions of professionals choose it because it works.  Farmers choose these technologies even though they cost more money, as Hakim correctly points out. 

Therein lies the implication that our ag producers somehow can't do the math.  To say that they are willing to pay more for less performance undermines the tight business acumen of our farmers. The one percent that feed the rest of us know about a bottom line. If any product fails to perform, producers change gears to find alternatives. 
Great to see the ag community adding their informed viewpoints. 


To conclude:  For decades people have tried to suggest that genetic engineering technologies are dangerous or environmentally deleterious.  We certainly know the realistic risks, but none of the dire predictions have ever emerged. 

Critics then retreat to "failed" rhetoric.   It is amazingly sad that a venue like the New York Times would publish such a report.  Time will show that it was another poor-quality report that cherry-picked data and presented biased analysis that supported the hypothesis the author wanted to support, not the conclusion proven my millions of farmers that choose the technology-- because it works.  














Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Tragic Loss of Dr. Sharon Gray

When you ask people what a postdoctoral researcher does, few people have a realistic answer.  These are professional scientists with Ph.D. degrees that seek additional training to hone their skills and build a scientific portfolio. They are overworked, underappreciated, and underpaid. They frequently have little to no voice in departmental or university decisions, ironic, because they drive the front edge of the discovery. They are frequently the engines of our laboratories.

They do it because jobs are few and can only be realistically approached with the training, exposure and career development that a good postdoctoral research experience can provide. 

This long introduction sets the stage for a tragic tale of Sharon Gray.  I never met Sharon.  But as an advisor of postdocs and a supporter of developing scientists in our field, I'm shocked by the story of her horrifying and untimely demise.

She was a young professional developing her art, and in the course of expanding her collaborations, horizons and potential, her life was tragically ended. 


Tragedy.  Sharon Gray killed by protesters in Ethiopia while she was attending a project meeting. 


Dr. Gray worked as a postdoc in Plant Biology at UC-Davis. Days ago she was killed by protesters that stoned the vehicle she was riding in during a time of civil unrest outside the city of Addis Ababa. She was heading to a project meeting that involved collaborators from The Netherlands.  Details are sketchy and really don't matter. It is simply a paralyzing tragedy for her, her family, her lab, and those she touched with her time and her science. 

She was likely still riding high from the publication of her last work, an eight-year study that showed the relationship between increasing carbon dioxide, drought, and soybean growth. The work was just published in Nature Plants.  Those are true milestones that define a postdoctoral career. 

My heart goes out to those at UC Davis, especially her husband (also a postdoc) and Dr. Siobhan Brady, her advisor, as well as the lab mates that daily shared time and space with Sharon. 

As researchers, we form tight-knit families when we constantly bump elbows, share techniques, and spend late nights and weekends unraveling important questions in biology. The years focused on common scientific quests build great bonds between researchers. These bonds are appreciated, understood, and honored by those of us that have been there. 

Across the plant science community we understand, and share in the grief of this tragic loss. 





The university posted a memorial page along with photos. A memorial fund has been established that will go to enhance opportunities for women in science.   


Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/article106319327.html#storylink=cpy