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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Scientists Behaving Badly


Its been a bad week for science, particularly for the science related to food production.  The notoriously flawed "Seralini Study" about tumors in rats fed GMOs is being republished in another journal after having been retracted.  Another paper has come out making a rather questionable link between autism and proximity to pesticide applications on farms.  Another paper about bees and neonicitinoid insecticides is supposedly going to be published sometime soon, but its authors are already out doing press interviews about it.  The three topics: cancer, autism, and pollinators are all important and all complex.  They represent the sort of challenges that clearly need the application of good science.  The problem is that the scientific process, which has been serving humanity well for a few centuries, is breaking down in the "information age."  That is ironic because the exchange of information is a critical part of the that process.

Science: It Takes A Conversation


Science isn't a neat and predictable thing. It progresses via conversation. The one about bees starts with someone asking the question, "why are honeybees declining in some areas?"  The next step is that people come up with hypotheses - possible explanations.  One scientists may say, "I think it could be because of viruses that are being spread very widely because most of the North American hives are brought together in California every spring to pollinate almonds. It's a perfect recipe for the spread of diseases."  Someone else says, "yes, but there is also that varroa mite that infests hives, weakening them and helping to spread those viruses. Some of the things beekeepers use against the mites could be part of this story as well."  Someone else says, "the neonicitinoid insecticides are widely used and can have some sub-lethal effects on bee behavior - they may play a role."  Someone else says, "bees may be compromised by being shipped around and by being fed something like high fructose corn syrup rather than the food supply they would normally eat.  Maybe that weakens their immunity or ability to metabolize toxins."

The next step is that people come up with ways to test the hypotheses - in science if you can't test your idea, its just speculation.  That test might be a lab experiment.  It might be some sort of observations in a field.  It might be looking at relationships between sets of data collected for other purposes.  So the conversation typically now moves to "publication" meaning that a scientist formally describes how they attempted to test their hypothesis and shows the data.  Traditionally this step involves something like "peer review" which means that a few scientists with appropriate expertise look at what is being said to see if it makes enough sense to justify space in the journal in question  (this really comes from a day when there was a significant cost associated with printing something and distributing it physically throughout the science community).  Peer review is not a perfect process, and actually needs to err somewhat on the "leaky side."  Science needs to be open to surprising or even "heretical" ideas at the publishing phase.  But that is only good as long as the conversation continues.

In the next phase of the conversational science process, the community responds to the publication.  Someone may say, "well, that's interesting, but did you consider that your data could also fit this other explanation? (a new hypothesis)."  Someone else may say, "I don't think you can reach those conclusions from that data set - there is too much variation."  The whole idea of exchanging scientific information is to spur new ideas and to solicit constructive critique.  I won't pretend that is always a congenial discussion, but it has to happen for science to muddle its way towards greater and greater certainty.

The next part of the conversation is critical.  Someone will say, "I'm going to see if I can repeat your results," or "I have a different hypothesis to explain what you saw and I'm going to do an experiment to test it."  This sort of conversation can clearly go on and on, and until it does you can't really consider the "science" to be settled on any particular conclusion. Were the results repeatable? Are there other key factors?

This part of the scientific process - the extended conversation - is alive and well in many fields, but there are some scientists who have effectively hijacked the system by aggressively moving their findings into the mainstream public conversation long before the science conversation has reached a consensus. The paper on bees this week is a particularly egregious example. In this case they have not reached the point where other scientists can read their paper, and yet they have tapped an often credulous press to let them talk about their work as if it is a solid conclusion.  The scientific conversation about bees is extraordinarily complex, but in the internet age, the author's assertions will become a permanent part of the "record" and will be used to support various agendas no matter what their data actually does or does not show.

In the case of the Seralini study, it was originally announced with a sophisticated PR effort tied to sales of a book.  And even though the subsequent part of the "science conversation" was almost unprecedented in terms of being a peer-based "smack down," the "GMOs cause cancer" conclusion has become a "scientific certainty" to a subset of society.  The new autism/pesticide paper is just at the stage where scientists are asking the good questions about whether it actually shows what the authors say it shows. But once again it was released in an intentional press play before that discussion had even started.  Because of the "end arounds" of the conversation, the society that we scientists are supposed to serve is being pushed towards exactly the sort of fear that science had once diminished.

I'm not saying that science needs to be kept as a private discussion until all the answers are in.  With topics this complex we don't know how long that could take.  But when scientists intentionally and prematurely leverage the power of the press and social media, we have a problem.  In science, uncertainty is something quite comfortable.  That is what provides the challenges - our "job security."  And on the occasions where something previously uncertain can be convincingly explained - that's when we get the rare opportunities for kudos and respect among our peers.  Who wouldn't want to be part of answering and maybe even solving challenges like cancer or autism or pollinator issues? Society is not well served when scientists imply that a question is "answered," when it's really just in the lively conversation stage. If this week is any indicator, the application of "science" isn't looking like a very healthy process.

There is a great resource on the complexity of the bee issue written from a beekeeper's perspective http://scientificbeekeeping.com/

Bee image from Wikimedia Commons

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Five Tasty Reasons To Reconsider GMO Crops

Feeding the world may not seem like an urgent need from the perspective of a rich society with an obesity epidemic. Technologies that make life easier and less risky for farmers may not seem compelling in a society with very few people have anything to do with crop production. Developing rice to prevent blindness and death in poor countries generates vehement opposition from some elements of our wealthy society. There are, however, some threats to the future of our lifestyles that might motivate consumers to take a second look at the debate around GMO crops.

What if premium coffee, gourmet chocolate, fine California wine, bananas, or not-from-concentrate orange juice become costly or scarce? Would that matter to you?


The fact is, there are significant threats to the future production of those luxury crops.  I'll describe those threats below. Yet, because of the influence of the anti-GMO movement, we are far less prepared to deal with these threats than we could have been.

How Brand Protectionism Works


Let me explain the link between the anti-GMO campaign and the tenuous future of these crops.  Genetically engineered crops were first approved and commercialized in the mid-1990s, and went on to become the largest and most rapid technology deployment in the history of agriculture.  In the beginning of this era, there was quite a bit of interest in potential applications to coffee, bananas, grapes etc. There were projects like a coffee engineered to never make caffeine so it didn't have to have its flavor compromised for de-caf. There were ideas like bananas that would last longer at an ideal stage of ripeness. There were active and drawing-board projects to deal with some of the major pest issues of each of these crops.

However, by the end of the 90s, the anti-GMO campaigns scared enough consumers with baseless concerns about food safety issues to trigger a phenomenon called "brand protectionism." For items like wine, coffee, bananas, chocolate and orange juice, there are processing and distribution companies that bring the final product to the market. Those companies have valuable consumer brands, and the last thing they want is controversy that could compromise their brand reputation or sales.  Driven by those concerns, virtually all the investment in biotechnology had dried up for those crops by 2000.  The prime example of a commercial biotech crop that faced this brand issue, was potatoes. The improved biotech version of potatoes disappeared to protect a very valuable brand. McDonalds knew that the insect resistant and virus resistant potatoes commercialized in the late 90s were extremely popular with growers.  They also knew that there were no safety issues. However, they didn't want the threat of protests outside their stores.  They effectively ended biotech potatoes with a few phone calls to their major suppliers.

Biotech investment in "specialty crops" did not stop because of any safety or environmental issues. GMO crops were the first method of genetic modification to ever be proactively regulated in any way by the USDA, the EPA and the FDA. This this framework was in place 10 years before the first commercial acre was ever planted. Over and over again the relevant authorities found each new crop/trait to be perfectly safe. In spite of this, serious investment in biotechnology solutions for these and other luxury crops dried up because the anti-GMO campaigners managed to convince enough consumers to be afraid or suspicious to make brand managers nervous. It gives me no pleasure to acknowledge that victory, but it is reality.

I am not suggesting that genetic engineering would have been an easy solution to these and other evolving threats, but we can only speculate what might have been possible with 15 years of steady investment.  There has been a limited amount of investment in biotech for these crops from farmer organizations, and some from public entities, but the big consumer-marketing players with the greatest ability and need to support this research have largely remained on the sidelines. Some have invested in basic genome sequencing which is good, but they have not crossed the brand-endangering line of pursuing "GMO" options - even as a back-up strategy. None of these influential companies has been willing to step up and explain these risks to the public and explain why they should reconsider the potential benefits of biotechnology for these popular foods and beverages. The anti-GMO activists fully recognize this dynamic and take pre-emptive action when new technologies arise.

Why Are There Such Major Threats to Our Favorite Crops?


Pests are nothing new, and they have often disrupted agriculture in the past.  However there are two unique aspects of our times that exacerbate such risks:
  1. With ever-increasing global travel and commerce, new exotic pathogens, weeds, and insect pests are spread around the world at a faster rate than ever before.  These create severe problems which threaten entire crops
  2. As climate changes, pests are often able to thrive in new places or at different times of year than in the past, creating much more difficult control issues.
This enhanced potential for existential pest threats is particularly problematic for many of our favorite luxury food and beverage crops. What we really appreciate about those crops has to do with complex quality factors.  They are also perennial crops.  You can't just breed a new pest resistant variety of these crops because it is so hard to maintain the quality, and because each generation of seed takes years to produce.  Conventional genetic solutions would take decades at best, and the new pest challenges don't give us that luxury. Here are some of the key threats to things we enjoy:

California Wine Grapes


The bacteria-like pathogen Xylella fastidiosa is native to the US and lethal to the premium wine grapes that were brought here by Europeans (Vitis vinifera).  However, it wasn't an unmanageable issue in California because the insect vector, the Bluegreen Sharpshooter, mainly stayed in riparian areas and only occasionally spread the pathogen into vineyards.
The Glassy Winged Sharpshooter with is now spreading Xylella
 Then, in 1989, a new vector, the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter, arrived in California.  It thrives on citrus and frequently visits grapes.  For now that vector has been restricted to Southern California and is being managed there with insecticides and quarantines on moving plants that might spread it. But if and when the sharpshooters invade the key North Coast wine districts, things could get ugly for wine lovers.  There is also the risk that the vector and Xylella could get transported to places like South America, or Australia.  Xylella recently made it to Europe.  There are native American grapes that are resistant to this pest, but they don't make premium wine.  There may be a genetic engineering solution, but for a perennial crop one would ideally want multiple approaches to manage resistance.  Even if we had a solution today it would take a long time to replant or re-graft our vineyards. We should really be having a very public discussion about this solution now, but we are not.

Specialty Coffee From The Americas

Coffee leaf infected with rust

The Coffee Rust pathogen wiped out production in Java and other areas that had supplied England in the 1800s.  They had to switch to tea. Later, the coffee industry escaped the disease by moving to places like the highlands of Central and South America.  The rust pathogen caught up around 1985, but only recently has the climate changed such that the disease has become a major problem in those regions.  Traditional breeding for resistance is possible by crossing the desirable Arabica types with the hardier Robusta types, but that requires chromosome doubling of Robusta - a step which can cause all sorts of genetic damage.  Then to back-cross to restore the full quality of the Arabica would take a very long time, probably not something that can preserve the livelihoods of the small-holder coffee farming families that have been the backbone of the industry in the Americas. Realistically, we in the rich world will probably be able to get our morning dose from some other geography, but because genetic engineering has been "off the table" for coffee since the mid 1990s, lots of poor families are being hurt and coffee prices are rising.

Florida Orange Juice


The Florida juice industry has largely moved to the not-from-concentrate, premium orange juice segment because of competition for frozen juice coming from Brazil.  Now, the whole Florida industry is in serious decline because of a new bacterial disease spread by a new, exotic insect vector.  There is an excellent description of this situation in the New York Times by Amy Harmon.  Growers have funded some research that may have found a "GMO" solution, but whether they will get to use it is up to brand-sensitive juice marketing companies. Far better funded research would have been appropriate in a rational world. When I was growing up there was a ubiquitous add for orange juice that said, "a day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine."  I don't know if that is really true, but at least when it comes to the not-from-concentrate kind, we might get to find out.

Bananas


The 1930s hit song, "Yes, We Have No Bananas" was actually about "Panama Disease" (Fusarium oxysporum) which wiped out the previous banana of commerce (the Gros Michel variety).  Fortuitously, a new banana called the Cavendish was found in Vietnam. It was resistant to the disease and also suitable for shipping (most bananas are not).  Now there is a new strain of the same pathogen called Fusarium Tropical Race 4, which is destroying the Cavendish in Asia and recently in Australia and Mozambique.  It is probably only a matter of time before someone inadvertently transports this soil-borne pathogen to the Americas.  There has been a little work on a solution, but nothing close to what would be needed to protect the future supply of this popular fruit or the jobs of a great many people involved in growing and shipping it.  Maybe its time for someone to do a cover of "Yes, we have no bananas."

Chocolate

Cacao, the crop from which we get chocolate, has many pests, but two in particular have been spreading throughout Central and South America leading to dramatic declines in production. The diseases are called Witch's Broom and Frosty Pod, and according to leading researchers, Frosty Pod alone "presents a substantial threat to cacao cultivation worldwide." Major confectionary companies have funded genome sequencing, but on their websites they imply or state outright that they won't be pursing genetic engineering solutions (Nestle, Mars, Hershey's).  Once again, the people at the most risk here are small-scale farmers, particularly those in Africa, should these pathogens make it there from the Americas.

Why GMO?


Modern genetic engineering approaches could be very logical ways to protect these particular crops.  The genetics that drive quality are complex, so we have good reason to stick with the best varieties we know.  Genetic engineering is a way to bring in some useful gene without disrupting the genetic base for quality.  Sometimes that might involve moving a gene from a wilder or less desirable member of the same or a closely related species into the high quality background.  Sometimes it might mean moving a gene from some other plant when no same-species options are available.  It could mean simultaneously pursuing the use of several different genes so that they could be co-deployed for resistance management purposes.  It might mean engineering a rootstock that would protect the traditional variety grafted on top.

Also, with these crops it would be feasible to maintain separate "GMO" and "Non-GMO" product options.  "Identity preservation" is the norm for crops like this because they have the value and quality attributes to justify the cost of keeping records, using different equipment etc.  There may be consumers who will never trust the science, and in a rich society they can continue to buy a non-GMO option.  What does not make sense in a rich, technically sophisticated society is that a vocal minority has already compromised the future supply for all of us. You can't get back more than a decade of potential progress just by throwing money at a problem in a crisis.  What makes even less sense is that the people who would lose the most in these pest-driven scenarios are, in many cases, the poorer people whose labor we require in order to enjoy these luxuries.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com.  My speaking website is www.drstevsavage.com

Wine and Chocolate Pairing and Glassy Winged Sharpshooter image from Wikimedia Commons.  .Coffee rust image from de.wikipedia.  Banana wilt image from ilbe.com