Dr. Nina Fedoroff is a leading geneticist and molecular biologist and a Distinguished Professor of Biosciences at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, where she is establishing a new Centre for Desert Agriculture. She is also an Evan Pugh Professor at Penn State University. She has contributed to the development of modern techniques used to study and genetically modify plants. From August 2007 to July 2010, she served as the Science and Technology Adviser to the US Secretary of State and to the Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Dr. Fedoroff is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the European Academy of Sciences, and is also a 2006 National Medal of Science laureate, the highest scientific honour that can be bestowed by the United States government. She was AAAS President in 2012 and is currently Chair of the AAAS Board of Directors.
Questions (by Mark Lynas):
1. You have read my speech to the Oxford Farming Conference. While it has attracted a lot of worldwide attention and support, it has also been attacked by some who make great play of their scientific credentials but who do not seem to actually be active in the plant science/molecular biology field. Since you are highly distinguished in this area, and indeed one of the pioneers of the field of transgenics, is there anything you think I got wrong which should be highlighted?
“But what about mixing genes between unrelated species? The fish and the tomato? Turns out viruses do that all the time, as do plants and insects and even us – it’s called gene flow.” (Mark Lynas speech to Oxford Farming Conference)
This is a bit of an exaggeration. There is more mixing between species through horizontal transfer (viruses and such) than we used to think happens, but it isn’t all that common. The real answer to the question is that genes are simply instructions for making a protein and they aren’t either “fishy” or “tomatoey.” The rules for making proteins are the same in all organisms, so if you express a gene in another species, it will do the same thing it did in the first place. So the fish gene for a protein that inhibits ice crystal formation would make the tomato a little more resistant to below-freezing temperature, but it won’t make the tomato fishy.
This is a relatively minor point. On balance, you got most of the most important issues and you got them right. I particularly enjoyed your assessment of the organic movement – a huge commercial hoax.
2. As 2012 President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and current Chair of the Board of Directors, you are in a good position to help laypeople understand what the real scientific consensus is on GMOs. For instance, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS – an environmental lobby group) attacked the AAAS board statement on GMO safety and yesterday in a tweet claimed that the AAAS statement was “in opposition” to the National Academy of Sciences, the NRC “etc”.
— Concerned Scientists (@UCSUSA) January 31, 2013
What is the consensus, and what is your take on the UCS critique?
The board statement is pretty careful. It says, as the UCS attack quotes: “Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.” You’ll notice that the AAAS Board statement DOESN’T say that “all plants genetically modified by modern molecular techniques are safe,” nor did it say what he [Doug Gurian-Sherman from UCS] claims it does: “a blanket statement that GE crops are “safe” is misleading.”
There is no evidence that modifying plants by molecular techniques causes problems to the plants, people, or nature. In fact, everything we’ve learned says that plant genomes are much less disturbed and altered when genes are introduced by molecular techniques than when changes are made by genetic crosses, or mutations are made by chemicals or radiation or by putting plant tissues into culture, then regenerating the plants.
Whether a human crop plant causes problems depends on the plant, how it is used and in what context and it matters not at all whether if was modified by modern techniques, old techniques or not modified at all. We have created problems everywhere in the world not just by our agriculture, but by moving plants, animals and insects around. Gypsy moths got out of someone’s back yard. Kudzu was introduced into the US from Asia to control soil erosion (which it did).
However, it is important to keep in mind that agricultural crops are much less likely to cause problems simply because they’ve already been modified over millennia to make them reproduce the way we want them to, make big fruits (sometimes seedless and therefore sterile) and grains that stick to the plants. The problems of agriculture are many: from an ecological perspective, there just isn’t anything as destructive as agriculture. But none of them have to do with the techniques used to modify the plants.
Next the writer of the UCS attack says: “We already have one clear example of a harmful engineered gene (though not commercialized).” Well, my guess is he’s referring to the story about the storage protein from Brazil nuts that was going to be transferred to a crop plant. That was caught in precisely the kind of modern testing, using modern knowledge, that we use now. The gene was expressed and the protein tested for allergenicity because it was a likely candidate and sure enough, it was a good allergen. That stopped the experiments, but the urban myth lives on.
Anyway, you get the picture. He insinuates allergenicity isn’t ever addressed and implies that the AAAS statement says it can’t cause problems. In fact, allergenicity is probably the biggest concern. But we actually know a fair amount about allergenicity and a developer of a transgenic crop has to express the protein or proteins he/she wishes to clone in the genes for and show the FDA that that they are not allergenic. There’s a whole complicated protocol for assessing this (I’m sure it could be improved) and crops have gotten a bad rap for naught because a protein failed one of the crudest tests for allergenicity (remember the Starlink fiasco?), even though it didn’t prove allergenic in subsequent testing. And while he’s technically correct that the FDA doesn’t mandate testing, companies cover themselves prospectively by making sure that they do everything the FDA (and the other agencies) require them to do.
And then there’s the proof of the pudding… there is no evidence that any of the proteins that have been introduced in the most widely grown GM crops have caused allergies.
And yet, there are some major allergens in foods, among the best-known are the wheat glutens and the peanut storage proteins. These are “natural.” GM techniques could be used to eliminate these allergens — and would be — if people weren’t so busy obsessing about some future unspecified danger… and creating regulatory blockades that cost tens of millions of dollars to penetrate on the way to market. Peanut allergies kill!
3. In your AAAS Plenary Lecture, you mentioned GM vitamin A-enriched ‘golden rice’ and the fact that it has been held up by unnecessary regulation. What do you think the effect of anti-GMO activism has been on the deployment of ‘golden rice’ (as opposed to, say, issues with technical development) and what effect if any has this had on people in poorer countries who suffer from Vit A deficiency?
The simple answer to this is that the continued GM activism against “golden rice,” especially the recent efforts to discredit the trials that were being carried in China, is a humanitarian abomination. As everyone knows by now, vitamin A deficiency is a major problem for people who subsist largely on rice, as it contains none of it. In the early days of its development, Greenpeace ridiculed it because they believed that alleviating the vitamin deficiency would require the consumption of unrealistically large amounts of it. As the beta carotene content was improved over the years, they found other reasons to demonize it. Today one reads that it’s a sinister plot of big biotech companies…
But the truth is that it was developed by individuals who were driven by the desire to help the poorest people of the world, not by the profit motive. The intellectual property issues have all been resolved and the “golden rice” is to be made available to farmers free of charge. So frankly, this will be one of the real success stories for development, if it ever makes it out of regulatory purgatory and becomes acceptable (which itself will take some marketing itself in view of the decades of GM demonization).
4. You also mentioned in the lecture the need to massively increase food production in response to population growth and other factors. What is your response to the often-heard objection that we already have enough food, and all the problems are in distribution and wastage or other social and economic factors?
The answer is that it isn’t either/or, it’s all of the above. Yes, today there is enough food if we could just reduce waste and spoilage …. and oh, by the way, solve the poverty problem, so that everyone could buy the food that is available. But it still won’t change the fact that the number of people will continue to grow for some decades and, paradoxically, reducing poverty creates more demand for food of higher nutritional value. As people climb out of poverty, they seek more food and particularly to add more animal protein to their food. This creates an even greater demand for the grain crops we largely feed animals – and which are now increasingly used for producing fuel. The central issue with animal protein is that it simply takes a lot more grain and water – and I mean like 10 times more — to make a pound of hamburger than it takes to make a pound of you if you’re eating the grain yourself.
Much food spoilage is attributable not to people discarding good food, but to insect, fungal and bacterial contaminants, as well as the inability to preserve food long enough to get it to a market, in some places hampered simply by the lack of roads. GM approaches can contribute to the amelioration of the spoilage problem – if the regulatory costs burden could be reduced. Reducing other aspects of spoilage in many less developed nations is about building roads, refrigerated storage facilities, and food processing plants. And finally, changing peoples’ food habits to get them to consume less is a social and sociological problem of significant proportions – we haven’t been especially successful in getting people to eat less of the salt, fat and sugar that gives them heart disease, hypertension and diabetes – but its important to continue and increase these efforts.
5. What developments in plant biotechnology do you think are most promising in terms of improving the sustainability of agriculture in future, particularly given the challenge of climate change?
There are all kinds of things that are either in the pipeline or in development that could improve sustainability – and many, many more that could be if we could dismantle the regulatory thicket that is choking it off. Among the most important are modifications that will increase nitrogen use efficiency and the ability to recover phosphorus. There’s just a plethora of modifications that will reduce loss to pest and pathogens, both during field growth and after harvest and during storage. But the real breakthroughs, if they ever come, will be in the efficiency of photosynthesis, which is not terribly efficient. That’s a very tough nut to crack and there aren’t many scientists directly working on it.
6. So I’ve admitted I was wrong to oppose GMOs. What do you think other current and former anti-GM activists should do under today’s circumstances? What lessons should they learn from the past two decades’ of scientific research?
Well, obviously I think they should do what you did: stop and learn what the science is about, what we’ve learned over the past almost 4 decades of working with molecular techniques in plants and what this can do to make it possible to grow more food for more people on less land with less water and energy. I would ask that they did what I did when I wrote my book “Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods.” What I did was to learn as much as I could about, for example, how organic farming developed, whether it’s better for people or the land than what we now call conventionally grown food, about what’s behind and under all of the prevalent scare stories about GM foods, just keep learning and evaluating.
I would also ask that they begin to understand that science is not a set of facts to be harvested from knowledge trees, but a very human process of testing, trying, repeating and only then coming to conclusions. At the heart is a hugely important concept of the “weight” of the evidence. What this means is that any given study can come to very wrong conclusions for a large variety of reasons, including such things that it wasn’t designed well and that the investigator is out to prove something he or she already believes, rather than testing an hypothesis. But if the pile grows and there are 10 studies that come to one conclusion, compared to 1 that comes to the opposite conclusion, and that ratio then grows to 15 to 1 or 50 to 1, then the balance is tipping toward the conclusion come to by the many and not the one.
In the GM field, there have been reports for example, that GM feed makes sickly animal pups, that it poisons rats, or gives them tumors. If you look a bit closer, you often find that these results were leaked to the press (and sometimes never published) or were eventually retracted by the journal in which they were published. But the most important point is, are there 10 or 30 publications that come to similar conclusions, or is the study standing alone against the 10 or 30 that have come to the opposite conclusion? If it keeps on standing alone, then it probably isn’t right…