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.

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