You can’t claim sabotage without evidence in the GE wheat incident

Yesterday, the USDA released an update on their analysis of the unexpected presence of an uncommercialized transgenic wheat in an Oregon field. There’s been a lot of unjustified attraction to the idea that since we haven’t figured out what happened yet, it must be sabotage. Unlike actual cases of anti-GM activism, there’s no direct evidence. When a lab is blown up by anti-biotech activists, it’s obviously a malicious act. Labs don’t just blow up for no reason. If a field trial goes up in smoke unexpectedly, it’s pretty obviously a malicious act. Fields that are behind locked fences with restricted access don’t light on fire spontaneously.

But this is pretty different. Unexpected seeds do actually appear in fields all the time. This is inevitable given imperfect seed cleaning, etc. Most of the time no one cares or even notices. In this case, if the farmer had tried to kill the wheat with a different herbicide, he probably wouldn’t have sent it off to be tested. Now obviously biotech seed trials are more heavily controlled than regular commercialized seeds. When the trials were ended, fields and equipment were cleaned thoroughly. Everything is inspected and documented. But humans do make mistakes and the seed line was available at dozens of places around the country for several years. It’s not impossible for some to have gotten somewhere it shouldn’t have and even possible no one noticed till now. There are literally hundreds of commercial wheat seed lines in the United States.

But they’ve tested some, of course. Monsanto, ironically doing a better job of public reassurance, has been testing commercial seed lines and publishing the results. Last week, they said they had tested enough varieties to cover 60% of the commercially planted acres of white wheat wheat in the Pacific Northwest and found no presence of the unexpected trait (white wheat is the variety the farmer in Oregon planted). The USDA’s press release doesn’t mention anything so specific which is unreassuring and vague. How many varieties have been tested? If there is some commercial seed line that has a small percentage of its output containing the transgene, it would only take a small bit of mixture. I wish the USDA would have been more specific about what they have tested.

Still, given how much has been tested, the “contamination”1 is a mystery. Perhaps it is sabotage. But how would it happen? As Andrew Kniss noted on twitter yesterday2, how would the saboteurs get the seeds? Monsanto starting shutting down the program in 2003. The last fields were cleaned up in 2005. Presumably Monsanto keeps the seed line alive somewhere, but likely that’s pretty heavily locked up. So did activists break into a Monsanto facility, find just the right seeds, then go pick a random field in Oregon to “contaminate”? Alternately, did some activists steal some seeds literally a decade ago, keep the line alive by planting and harvesting, then contaminate the field this year3?

I find the sabotage idea laughable at this point. I do not accept absence of explanation as proof of malicious intent. As far as I know there are literally hundreds of wheat lines that could have been the source. In my previous post, I clearly don’t consider this discovery unexpected or even particularly scary, but I do think it’s scary that some have so quickly jumped on malicious intent as an explanation. Many in the pro-GM side of the debate do not take the concerns of others very seriously. Escape of traits is a concern. Jumping to sabotage as the explanation rather than accepting that we don’t know everything is wrong. It reinforces the perception that some groups pushing biotechnology are arrogant and unconcerned with real risks and possibilities.

Some who oppose biotechnology spin fanciful stories about the risks of genetically engineered crops. Many of their stories depend on reasoning much like this. Without evidence, many anti-GM activists will accuse researchers or writers of being in the pay of Monsanto or wanting to “destroy the earth”. They don’t have positive evidence. They don’t need any in their mind because it’s the only explanation left in the complicated and confusing world they see.

Without evidence, a claim of sabotage here is the same. There is a world of possibilities for what happened. I’d rather a slow and careful investigation than conspiracies and accusations of malice. Instead of encouraging calm and reasoned discussions of values, risks and science, sabotage suggestions will just create a shouting match of competing conspiracies. That won’t do any good at all. To most people, Monsanto and large agribusiness surely look more malicious than activist groups who are trying to make the world better. Can we let the USDA and Monsanto continue their work? No one wins if evidence goes out the window.

  1. I don’t like to use the word “contamination” to express unexpected presence of a transgene. The word has been loaded with excessively negative meanings by anti-biotech activists. It’s doubtful they would use the word for a non-transgenic trait.
  2. See the long conversation around this tweet and especially WyoWeeds immediately following tweets.
  3. It would be risky for our intrepid activists to assume ten year old seed would reliably germinate.

Unexpected Wheat Traits and the Contradictions of Regulation and Reaction

This will hopefully be a short note, but something bugs me a bit about the current kerfluffle over one farmer finding a small number of wheat plants that have a Monsanto-origin trait for glyphosate tolerance. Even though we still don’t know how it got there (it’s been eight years since any field trials and it was never commercialized) or even how broadly spread the trait is in commercial seed, we’ve got entire countries stopping some wheat imports, others pushing conspiracies that it was intentional sabotage1 and GE labeling groups using it to support their cause2. But all this points to the fact that we aren’t having a reasonable discussion about the actual risks involved in plant modifications. The trait found was one that makes wheat tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate. It’s been successfully used in corn, soy and other crops. It’s safety record is quite good.

But Monsanto isn’t the only organization to develop glyphosate-tolerant wheat. Some researchers at Washington State University have developed non-transgenic glyphosate tolerant wheat, using mutation breeding (thanks to Steve Savage for mentioning it on twitter). They even patented it (most likely the university decides how to license it for development in commercially available seed). What is really different about this trait over the transgenic one? Fundamentally, the risks are similar. The major risk with herbicide tolerant crops (beyond overuse of an herbicide selecting for resistant weeds) is that the modified crop can interbreed with wild relatives, passing on the herbicide tolerance which might establish in the wild. This appears to be possible with wheat. Researchers are thus somewhat wary of widespread use of herbicide-tolerance traits in wheat (thanks to Bill Price pointing this out on Biofortified).

However, under the United States regulatory system (and most other nations’), only the transgenic wheat undergoes greater legal scrutiny. What would it mean for non-transgenic glyphosate-tolerance traits to be found unexpectedly in a farmer’s wheat crop? Practically it would mean the same to the farmer (difficulty controlling volunteers), but legally it would be very different. There would likely not be any talk of suing WSU for letting the trait escape or would Korea or Japan be suspending wheat imports. I’m not sure we would have even heard about it.

The worse part, to my mind, is that this inconsistent regulation means that non-transgenic versions of a trait may not be subject to the same scrutiny and care. With current transgenic traits, farmers often agree to use the seed responsibly. For example, with Bt corn, farmers are required to plant refuges3. There’s little in the regulatory system that would consistently require that for non-transgenic traits. The reason it works with transgenic ones is that the seed seller (e.g. Monsanto) has to get regulatory approval which mind end up requiring farmers agree to use it how the regulator wants. Fortunately, most seed sellers try to manage their products well even if non-transgenic (for example, Clearfield products are non-transgenic herbicide-tolerance traits that BASF at least recommends good practices.) I’m not sure what the answer is here, but it’s clear that we don’t consider non-transgenic traits as having similar risks at the regulatory level, even though they can.

Another part of this question is the expectation that there be 100% no “contamination” of seed lines with unexpected traits — if that trait is transgenic. But fundamentally this is impossible. We can make it unlikely it will happen (thru careful equipment cleaning, buffer zones in trial fields, etc.) but we can’t make it impossible. The focus on this being “GM wheat” distracts from reasonable investigation of how and why it happens and what is a reasonable way to control it. If it hadn’t been a transgenic version of the glyphosate tolerance trait (and even worse, Monsanto’s), would it have even been news? How many resources could the USDA have put behind the investigation to find out where the trait entered the seed supply? Would they have quietly tested likely varieties and, when they didn’t find them, throw it up as a fluke? Would there be greater pressure to have management practices (and regulations!) to prevent spread of possibly risky traits into wild relatives on the assumption that seed will occasionally be “contaminated”?

I’m not sure I have any answers. It just bothers me that (so far) a very low risk discovery is being spun into apocalyptic proportions. Grist worries about “GMO wheat infecting the food supply” which is clearly absurd. Would they worry so much if it was a trait derived from mutation breeding, but still with all the same practical risks to farmers and the environment? Our current regulatory system suggests few would. Maybe we can get past the idea that everything “genetically engineered” is dangerous while treating non-GE as safe. I still hope we can regulate the outcomes of using particular crops or crop systems, rather than the methods that developed them.

  1. Some headlines on this story suggest Monsanto is positively saying it’s sabotage. Sadly, their spokesperson used the phrase “accidental or purposeful mixing” to describe the likely source of the trait. A reporter took this to mean possible sabotage which the spokesperson did not rule out when questioned (how could they?) but also sadly did not say they have no evidence of it being sabotage. So, depending on our political ideologies, this is wild anti-GMO activists trying to make Monsanto look bad or Monsanto failing at their regulatory duties and blaming others. It’s depressing.
  2. It is unclear to me how labeling matters for unexpected presence. It’s partially for this reason that EU labelling rules allow for 0.9% “adventitious” presence. That is, a small amount of genetically engineered corn in a non-GE batch that is unintended doesn’t trigger labeling. Sadly, the I-522 labeling campaign chose an image of a person in a protective coverall, complete with face mask, to head their petition.
  3. Obviously, there is a lot of research and concern that current Bt refuge requirements are not sufficient to manage insect resistance, but at least the regulation exists.

Recommended Reading on Genetically Engineered Foods

Late June in 2009 (wow, almost four years ago), I went to a talk at the Long Now Foundation. It was Pamela Ronald, plant geneticist, and her husband Raoul Adamchak, organic farm instructor, talking about their vision for the future of food. I won’t say I was against genetic engineering before that talk, but I was vaguely of the opinion that GE was bad, categorically, bought mostly organic food, etc.

I’d been living San Francisco (or the area) for a while. I shopped at my local co-op (I miss Rainbow) or Whole Foods. I bought foods in bulk by preference. I often chose organic food (I can afford it). I went to the farmer’s market weekly. I won’t say I was a “well-informed consumer” but I did believe I was making choices that were at least a bit better for people and the environment. I vaguely thought GMOs were dangerous. And anyway, they were only used for corn/soy agriculture feeding animals (and creating lagoons of polluting animal manure) — or for processed food I didn’t buy much of. Processed foods are bad for you, right? But the talk description was intriguing. What could organic farming and genetic engineering have to do with each other?!

But I went. I learned a lot. That both of them were there, coming from different perspectives, made it easier to believe what I was hearing. An organic farming teacher from UC-Davis surely would not let lies go by. Nor did they try to pretend there were no problems with modern agriculture. The idea was: how do we use the best of all the tools we have? So I went home and read their book. Then I read another book and then read some more. Soon I became fascinated with how complicated agriculture is — even that corn/soy monoculture I was (and many others are) so dismissive of. I became enthusiastic about how food changes the world. Not food in the sense of buying organic (though I still buy a lot of it) or going to “local, sustainable, etc.” restaurants (though I still do a fair bit!). Agriculture changes the world by making it easier and safer for us to feed more people, while valuing the rest of our environment. The process is messy, it’s not always equitable and we will never be perfect.

But we are getting better. With a bit of reading (and an open mind and informed by some smart science communicators) I realized that even parts of agriculture I was uncomfortable with had something important to say about the future of food. These are some of the books that gave me a better perspective on agriculture and food. You don’t have to read all of them (and if you only read one, read Tomorrow’s Table) but depending only on inflammatory and shallow web stories (the current food scare!) doesn’t support a good conversation about food and agriculture.

Tomorrow’s Table

Tomorrow’s Table opened my mind to what can be done with modern biotechnology that is more sustainable than what we have now (and this includes the unfortunately dichotomous “organic” and “conventional”). Why shouldn’t we use science to make plants better able to survive floods so farmers don’t lose their crops? Why shouldn’t we use science to let a plant defend itself rather than using external pesticides (which organic systems use as well)? Yield is important for sustainability and protecting the natural environment: the less land we have to use to feed everyone, the more land can be left for other purposes (including wild spaces). Tomorrow’s Table is the best single volume I know of that introduces the breadth of agriculture and biotechnology (“GMOs”) without being too technical. On the way it covers many of the controversies and fears, but I think in a way that isn’t dismissive of why people believe them (I believed some of them once!) There are some awkward stylistic issues — neither of the authors are polished non-fiction writers — but their knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject are clear. You don’t teach organic agriculture or search for genes to make rice flood tolerant because you want to become rich and famous. You do it because you believe you can make the world better.

The Doubly Green Revolution

There are millions if not a billion of people that would likely not exist without the first Green Revolution. The first Green Revolution brought us plants with wildly increased yields with fewer people having to work on farms due to mechanization. But it also brought increased pesticide use, indiscriminate fertilizer use and an emphasis on limited cereal crops to the detriment of diversity. It undeniably improved many lives but it wasn’t perfect. Gordon Conway’s The Doubly Green Revolution tells the story of the first Green Revolution and asks what we can do better. It’s a bit dated (published in 1997) but it is a broad sweep. It’s not only about genetic engineering, though he mentions it (at the time very few GE crops were in the hands of farmers). After reading this book I had a better idea of the broad sweep of agricultural history and a greater respect for the “conventional” agriculture I feared so much. It’s not perfect but there’s a reason it exists the way it does. The book is also unabashedly (and I think not unreasonably) optimistic (the author is still optimistic). We solve problems by understanding the world and figuring out a better way to implement our values. I want everyone to live a fulfilling life — well-fed — and able to decide how to live their own life. Agricultural science can help make that happen.

Mendel in the Kitchen

After a while I became more interested in more “nitty gritty” about agricultural biotechnology. Higher level descriptions, appropriate more for a long magazine feature, of how biotechnology works wasn’t really enough. I wanted a bit more. Fortunately I found Nina Federoff’s Mendel in the Kitchen. It’s not a scientist’s book: it’s still written for a non-expert. But it does go into enough detail that sometimes I had to go read some other sources to really get to the meat — and it had enough references for me to find more sources. The best part is it walks thru a history of breeding plants to explain genetics. This was the first book that made me realize that a lot of words I had for food had a lot more history behind them. What is kale really?

The Partisans Speak

The next couple books are unabashedly what you might call “pro-GMO”. When I first read them, I was ready to be convinced by every word. Soon I realized they were a bit too pro. But that doesn’t make them bad books: that just means you have to read more skeptically. There is good stuff in both. Better still, though, they help you understand why some (on the “pro-GMO” side) find it so hard to accept GMO labeling1. To many working and advocating in this field, the decades of misunderstanding and restrictions don’t seem reasonable and sometimes even seem harmful. It’s very easy to become very partisan and unwilling to give an inch if you feel embattled. Anyway, on to the books.

Pandora’s Picnic Basket by Alan McHughen covers the “myths and truths” about GMOs. It’s been a while since I read it so I’m sure I would find more things to quibble with now than I did when I first read it, but overall it is a good resource. Many of the usual scare stories about GMOs are either not true or are far more interesting (and less scary) than the short version and he gives descriptions of them all. The book also contains clear and concise descriptions of the regulatory process and some of the terms used in it. Ever wonder what “substantial equivalence” really means? He explains it well (with examples). Ever wonder how complicated it is to get a GMO crop to market in an international food market? There’s that too. Stylistically, it’s arranged in relatively easy to read chunks. You can read a small section at a time and get something out of it.

Starved for Science by Robert Paarlberg is the most political book I’ll recommend. The author is morally outraged at what he sees as a very paternalistic attitude that European and North American groups have towards people in Africa. In short, the fears of the well-fed (in Europe and here) keep scientific advances from farmers in Africa. This is not quite true but the idea is compelling (the details, however, matter). But Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, and Jimmy Carter were willing to write a forward for it, so you might be willing to give it a try. The moral determination behind the viewpoint of the author is similar to the one behind projects like HarvestPlus. We can improve the lives of all through agriculture, but it will require using all the tools available.

Improving the Conversation about Agriculture

So there’s a few book recommendations. If you are skeptical about agriculture or biotechnology, read one (especially Tomorrow’s Table). I don’t expect reading a book will change your mind overnight. I hope that reading a book from someone who is passionate about what agricultural science can do for the world will shift our conversation a bit. Can we talk about improving agriculture without dividing into pro/anti camps? Can we accept that agriculture (and especially the commercial part) is not perfect, but that all parts have some value or at least something to say? We need to talk about what might work rather than condemning the “other side”.

  1. I have a post planned soon on my current ideas about GMO labeling — with a surprise announcement!