Professor Nina Fedoroff, Chair of the AAAS board – Q&A on GMOs

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?

Professor Fedoroff:

“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”.

What is the consensus, and what is your take on the UCS critique?

Professor Fedoroff:

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?

Professor Fedoroff:

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?

Professor Fedoroff:

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?

Professor Fedoroff:

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?

Professor Fedoroff:

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…


  1. Scott

    “I particularly enjoyed your assessment of the organic movement – a huge commercial hoax.”

    “The problems of agriculture are many: from an ecological perspective, there just isn’t anything as destructive as agriculture.”

    and then

    “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.”

    It is unbelievable how someone could be so smart and so clueless at the same time. It is almost as if there are blinders.

    Organic most certainly is more sustainable, much less destructive to the environment (can even benefit it in some cases), has a much more efficient nitrogen cycle, has the ability to recover phosphorous, yet federoff still calls it a hoax? Seriously?

    I would be curious what exactly she considers a hoax.

    1. Luke Matthew Sutton


      “It is unbelievable how someone could be so smart and so clueless at the same time.”

      You’ve copied and pasted a large quote, then in response added nothing but an ad hominem attack. This is rubbish and you really ought to try harder. You’re not going to convince anyone by being rude. In fact, on those grounds you deserve to be discounted.

      There are certainly more polite advocates of organic farming than you.

      “Organic most certainly is more sustainable”

      Every form of organic farming? Specific forms? What plants in what regions? What is the metric for sustainability? Where is the evidence of this claim?

      “much less destructive to the environment (can even benefit it in some cases)”

      Please describe these benefits. Also please explain how non-organic methods are more destructive and conversely, how/why they also lack the beneficial attributes you assign to organic farming.

      “has a much more efficient nitrogen cycle,”

      Oh really? That is an extraordinarily broad claim. I definitely want to see some evidence of this.

      “I would be curious what exactly she considers a hoax”

      A substance or method for which claimed benefits do not actually exist. Usually done for profit, though not always.

      Consider your own claims about organic farming being good for the environment, or having a more efficient nitrogen cycle. Yet… where is the evidence?

    2. Scott

      1)”There are certainly more polite advocates of organic farming than you”

      I certainly admit I am far from the most polite organic advocate. I accept your criticism there. Spot on. You are 100% correct. I am not now nor ever have been very cultured in that way. I know a lot about farming. I never had much use for people who distort the truth while hiding behind social graces or politeness.

      2)”Every form of organic farming?”

      No not every form. There are good methods and poor methods in both conventional and organic. However, if you compare the most modern organic methods that are actually based on science (as organic was originally intended) to the most modern conventional methods, then across the board there is a significant advantage to organic on the sustainability issue. So to compare like to like. ie the best versus the best, the average versus the average, almost without exception organic methods beat conventional hands down on sustainability.

      The biggest metrics of sustainability are the soil, the carbon cycle in the soil and the air, the water cycle both in the soil and waterways, and the ratio of required energy inputs compared to the energy outputs. There are other advantages like biodiversity and other environmental factors that are far harder to measure.

      Here is one tiny little bit of evidence. I’ll make it easy so you can see for yourself. It is just one farmer, so you could claim it is anecdotal, but multiply that by thousands all over the world with similar repeatable results and in fact it becomes clear.

      3) “Please describe these benefits”

      Much easier for me to quote those more eloquent than me. Especially considering how crude I come off. 😉

      “40,000 lbs. beef

      30,000 lbs. pork

      10,000 broilers

      1,200 turkeys

      1,000 rabbits

      35,000 doz. eggs

      off of 100 acres

      and at the end of the year

      there is more biodiversity, not less

      there is more fertility, not less

      there is more soil, not less.

      This is NOT a zero-sum system!”- Michael Pollan On Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm

      4)”I definitely want to see some evidence of this.(nitrogen cycle)”

      Well Joel at Polyface has discussed both the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle quite thoroughly in many of his books and seminars, but instead of using him twice as an example, I will use another educator of modern successful organic techniques, raising an entirely different food crop, Helen Atthowe of Biodesign Farm.

      This is a 2 part playlist of one of her educational vids. Nitrogen cycle in organic is discussed in part 2 at about the 2:20 mark. Again she can discuss it far more eloquently and politely than my crude attempts.

      5) “A substance or method for which claimed benefits do not actually exist.”

      Since all three examples I posted are repeatable and in fact have been repeated over and over thousands of times around the world, then this in fact does not qualify as a hoax by your own definition.

      The reason I brought this whole “hoax” thing up to begin with is because there are “hoaxes” in organic. But the hoax is in conventionally produced food fraudulently pretending to be “organic”. These hoaxes are especially prevalent in the egg industry.

    3. Mikeb

      Your statement “organic is most certainly sustainable” is evidence enough that you are coming from an ideological position and not a scientific one. Certitude is by definition unscientific.

      I worked at an organic farm for four years and called myself an organic gardener for about twenty years. Once I began reading the manuals themselves, I realized I had been utterly hoodwinked.

      For example, the whole movement is based on the naturalistic fallacy, and that is stated right up front by the NOP:

      “In general, synthetic substances are prohibited unless specifically allowed and non-synthetic substances are allowed unless specifically prohibited.”

      (NOP “About the National List.”)

      It is not only fallacious but absurd: It says that synthetic substances are not OK, unless they’re OK, and that natural substances are OK, unless they’re not OK.

      Second, they simply fudge the issue of pesticides, allowing people to believe that organic farmers don’t use pesticides when they do (I had to be a certified pesticides applicator to work at the organic farm), and they exaggerate the risks of “conventional” pesticides use, which is highly regulated and proven to be low-risk, no matter what the egregious Environmental Working Group says.

      Third, organic is a magnet for pseudo-science and quackery. Witness the fact that while therapeutic antibiotics is absolutely forbidden (one shot of antibiotics and your animal is forever tainted and can no longer be respresented as “organic”), organic farmers frequently use untested herbal remedies and even homeopathy as “veterinary medicine.”

      The document linked above should make any rational person blanch.

    4. Scott

      “Certitude is by definition unscientific.”

      Not necessarily. I say that because I was not discussing some theoretical model somewhere someone had a hypothesis about. I was referring to proven methods repeatable in the field.

      Now there are theoretical models in organic out there. In fact I am testing one starting this year. But that is simply a possible improvement. I will not say anything with certainty about it till I prove it myself, then have it repeated by others. I don’t need to use my model that is under development in order to be certain that other sustainable models do in fact already exist.

      I agree with you about pesticides. I generally don’t use chemical pesticides, even if approved for organic use. There are other ways to control pests besides pesticides in almost every case. An organic farmer (or conventional farmer incorporating organic methods step by step) that relies heavily on pesticides has a lot more learning to do. However, at least they are heading in the right direction.

      The antibiotics thing is a over reaction made by extremists. How it got into the definition of organic I am not entirely sure. I guess because in CAFO antibiotics are typically included in either the feed or the water or both whether the animals are sick or not. This lead to a huge (and growing) problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria. I personally have no problem with giving an animal antibiotics if it actually needs them. It rarely is needed if the animals are raised in a clean open environment. I have almost never even seen it first hand. But in the rare case it would be needed I would have no problem using antibiotics and simply quarantining the animal for a time. That is a change in most organic certification programs I would like to see.

  2. Gavin Venn

    “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.”

    That trait of the fish in being able to withstand conditions where ice crystals would otherwise form, is part of it’s success in living in it’s cold water environment. That success didn’t happen overnight, or over the past 30 years, it is the result of the complex interaction between the genetic evolution of the fish and it’s environmental conditions. The trait, as far as it’s connected with the fish, is part of it’s “fishy” success story.

    Tomatoes need sun and warmth to ripen: they are ideally suited to warmer climates. The tomato plants’ success story hasn’t included the expression of a sub-zero tolerance trait because it didn’t need it. Why bother trying to grow or even start tomatoes growing in sub-zero temperatures? Does it not make more sense to work with the much more powerful environmental conditions in a given locality? Diversity of food is the result. Diversity of food is a key requirement of food security.

    1. Scott

      There is no need for a GMO frost resistant tomato actually. Frost resistant tomatoes are already being bred and have been bred for years without the need for GMO’s. Right now there are only a few varieties and most are not available commercially yet. But I expect within 5 or 10 years it will be widely available.

  3. Rat in the kitchen

    More of the usual industry guff & blather. Here’s but one example:

    Fedoroff disingenuously/mendaciously overstates the regulatory burden. And we KNOW she does, because the industry have said so:
    Regulatory Testing and Registration: $35.1 million ( 26%)
    Discovery: $31.0 million (23%)
    Development: $69.9 million (51%)

    (Croplife, September 2011)

    While at the same time, conventional breeding requires an average of just around $1 million to bring a trait into the field—compared to $100 million for a GM trait. 

    This is of course not to mention the routine & systematic corruption of the regulatory & scientific processes:

    The FDA in the US ignored all of the warnings & misgivings of its own scientists & indeed pretended there weren’t any, 24 documents available here (only as a result of a legal case) –

    ” Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers….

    …But agritech companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta go further. For a decade their user agreements have explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research. Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails. They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. And perhaps most important, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects…

    Research on genetically modified seeds is still published, of course. But only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal. In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering. “It is important to understand that it is not always simply a matter of blanket denial of all research requests, which is bad enough,” wrote Elson J. Shields, an entomologist at Cornell University, in a letter to an official at the Environmental Protection Agency (the body tasked with regulating the environmental consequences of genetically modified crops), “but selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be toward [seed-enhancement] technology.”

    Shields is the spokesperson for a group of 24 corn insect scientists that opposes these practices. Because the scientists rely on the cooperation of the companies for their research—they must, after all, gain access to the seeds for studies—most have chosen to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. The group has submitted a statement to the EPA protesting that “as a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology.”

  4. Karl Haro von Mogel

    “While at the same time, conventional breeding requires an average of just around $1 million to bring a trait into the field—compared to $100 million for a GM trait.”

    This quoted statement actually comes from Doug Gurian-Sherman at the UCS, who has been brought up as of late as a source of questionable information. (The tweet about AAAS not being on the side of the NAS and NRC is curious, because the UCS has been misrepresenting reports from the Academy, and Doug GS has recently admitted so when called on it.) While he has background training in plant pathology, he is not a plant breeder or a geneticist, and has no experience with evaluating these different methods in a practical setting.

    How accurate is this claim? Somewhat, but a lot of important information is being left out. It has been a general rule that a professional plant breeding program will cost about $1 million per year, which is where this million-dollar figure comes from. However, it is not like you can just spend $1 million and be done and grow your new corn variety everywhere. The variety that you develop over the course of many years will be adapted to one set of local conditions and not to everywhere else. So you will have to set up several million-dollar programs around the country and the world to continue to work on traits through conventional breeding.

    The word of mouth from the seed companies is that they spend approximately half of their R&D budget on breeding, and the other half on genetic engineering. They can afford to do so because ignoring plant breeding is not an option, and the return on their investment for engineering traits into commodity crops is worth it because they are grown on so many acres. Additionally, since farmers saved soybean seeds before GE soy, but now they buy new seeds every year if they go for GE soy, there is a steady source of income for the plant breeding half of the equation. While there are issues related to intellectual property, price, and all that, there is also the influence of GE on the feasibility of investment in plant breeding. It is now more worth it to bother breeding better performing soybeans every year.

    So how about the industry figure of $100 million? This only gives a part of the picture. As I said, these companies are doing genetic engineering for commodity crops, and so they can spend millions upon millions annually to develop only a few traits for commercialization, and only send the best ones through that process. Smaller companies and universities do not spend anywhere near that much money. (It actually costs only mere thousands of dollars to make new transgenic events themselves.) Companies such as Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which made a non-browning apple, I can guarantee did not spend $100 million. There is a variety of virus-resistant black beans developed in Brazil that only cost $1.9 million to develop. For more information, see this:

    So now imagine that you are able to scrape together the funding as a public researcher to put a useful trait together, and you want to go through the regulatory process. Now the millions of dollars spent on regulation which is “mendaciously overstated” as you describe, are now hugely exorbitant. It would probably not cost $30 million per trait for smaller companies, especially since they may not be getting approval in a dozen countries at once, but even $2 million presents a significant barrier for small companies and public scientists to have a chance at accomplishing this.

    Finally, there is another way that this dichotomy between breeding only and breeding-with-GE is being oversimplified. Once you develop a GE trait that is useful, you can add it to your breeding programs everywhere, and the benefit can be shared by all breeding operations. So the $100 million spent by a big seed company can benefit all of their breeding operations worldwide (for those countries where it is approved). $1 million for breeding only brings a trait to market for the region where it is adapted. The virus resistance trait in beans, or Bt in corn, can each be bred into many different varieties adapted to different conditions, which makes the $1.9 million cost for a broadly useful trait far less onerous.

    1. Karl Haro von Mogel

      I just realized that I should probably give the link to the admission of misrepresentation:

      Always be suspicious of small, isolated quotes. My experience with debating issues of science has taught me that the full quote from the original context is absolutely necessary for interpreting the meaning. And I have on more than one occasion been misrepresented myself in the same manner, which I go into in the link above. I never find it fruitful taking people’s words out of context or assuming they claim or believe things that I have no knowledge of.

  5. Mike Stephens

    The argument about whether to spend the resources on breeding versus GM has gone on as long as there has been the GM option. Needless to say — money speaks louder than words and the evidence that the major seed companies are spending about the same on each means they both have benefits and you shouldn’t depends on only one. It’s a multi-pronged approach that seems to work. A balance of elite germplasm, biotech traits, the right chemistries and agronomic practices is needed. A benefit of transgenics is you have the potential to develop one trait and then easily put it into 200 corn hybrids and even use it in different plant species, but it takes a while to get it through regulatory approvals. Breeding a trait can take as long, and doesn’t need regulatory approvals but in the end you have one variety or a multi-QTL trait that is usually more difficult to get into all the different germplasm (varieties/hybrids etc) needed by farmers in different parts of the country or world.

  6. Gavin Venn

    “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.”

    I’m not clear on what the Professor means here. Is the Professor suggesting that transgenic plant technology per se is safe up until it’s implementation? And in that respect there are no safety differences between breeding methods?

    If the Professor is suggesting that practices used in transgenic plant technology per se are no less safe than other breeding methods, such a view is questionable. In 2009, EFSA reviewed the research of the effects on humans and the environment through the use of antibiotic markers in transgenic plants. EFSA’s report gave the practice the all-clear. Yet this recent study on river microbes may begin to suggest the practice has safety implications:

    Looking again at the Professor’s statement:

    “problems depend on the plant, how it is used and in what context”

    Since the plant’s traits and resulting extended phenotypes depend to some degree on the breeding method, just what is the Professor saying here?

    1. Mary

      I can’t speak for Nina, but I assume she’s referring to the knowledge about the alterations as in the likelihood of unintended effects as shown here: . As you can see, on the scale GMOs are not the most likely to have issues–conventional mutation breeding is.

      But there are even more precise techniques coming–really amazing stuff.

      And in that book you can find examples of conventional potato plants with high levels of toxins, and the conventional celery that affected those harvesting it. That celery might have been fine in some other purpose–like biofuels, but hand harvesting was a problem.

      I don’t have access to that paper on the markers, but what makes you think those were from plants and not from drug making or lab research that’s got nothing to do with plants?

    2. Gavin Venn

      Yes, the effects to microbes shown in the research above may well be attributed to transgenic medicines. Yet the practice of using antibiotic resistant markers is also used in developing transgenic plants. The example was given as the Professor seemed to be suggesting transgenic breeding per se is no less safe than other forms of breeding. It would be helpful if the Professor would clarify her meaning here.

  7. John Fryer

    Nina Federoff is an intelligent lady but she is one voice supporting GMO foods while equally brilliant professors from around the world have found proof of harm.

    And yes there are attacks on the credibility of people on all sides of this GMO war.

    Nina helped get a ban on labelling of GMO foods which is a view in lmy opinion only possible if you want to force such foods on the unsuspecting.

    As an opponent of GMO food without choice of other alternatives I find this stance of keeping the public in the dark of what is in our food and drink is not just dishonest, not just morally dishonest but criminally dishonest.

    France has labelling but I fear that nobody other than those controlling the labelling would know what is GMO and what is not. Certainly there are millions of tons of GMO food imported and by the shipload every week here in Brittany. The imports are forced upon the nation with billion dollar fines for refusing such food.

    Any sane person would demand free choice or be suspicious of why not?

    The health of the nation is visibly getting worse with no prizes yet for anyone who knows exactly why and many scientists here are clear. GMO food is a hazard to our health.

    Today food in France is admitted to be a calculated risk with some GMO produced foods having marked limites of how much should be consumed to keep healthy.

    Chidlren and babies not fed with breast milk are now the lab rats of GMO goodness and are over exposed to GMO food compared to their parents and child health is particularly falling compared to any measure you want to choose.

  8. John Fryer

    Nina is not just an expert on Barbabra McClintock and her jumping genes but has a book published on this distinguished scientist.

    She must realise that the genes from GMO will transfer and make weeds resistant to round up herbicide causing an increased and not decreased use of this non-environmentally friendly toxin now turning up in all out precious water supplies.

    How does this lead to either sustainability, easier farming methods or more nutiritious food and drink?

    Chemical farming has lasted for some time but the clock is ticking whereas organic methods go back thousands of years and are still and always will be sustainable.

    Much of GMO crops are actually used for industrial and medical use and so actually reduce the food for the poor and the rich and hence explains why food prices have risen much more as GMO crops are used more widely.

    The sweet chestnut harvest of a few months ago was a reminder that this yield per hectare is greater than any other food crop GMO, non-GMO and much more than that of using land for animal foods for humans.

    1. Scott

      You are all over the place with the comments John. Some I agree with and some are the reason people have no clue about organic.

      Organic is not thousands of years old. Organic describes a set of methods that were borrowed from many old techniques, tested scientifically, and then modified for modern agricultural use when found effective, discarded when found destructive or ineffective. This idea started in the 1940’s and is approximately the same age as “the green revolution” (now called conventional).

      BOTH organic AND conventional were scientific attempts to improve agriculture. Conventional basically used the same destructive techniques that have been in agriculture for thousands of years and added NPK etc and more modern labor saving equipment. Organic took a different path, just as scientific, but instead looked at the whole biodiversity in the soil, especially the carbon cycle, and tried to understand why agriculture historically destroyed the land. It has always been the goal of organic to develop methods that do not destroy the land, even heal it. It should be no secret that the term “organic” was chosen precisely because of the link between the carbon cycle and soil health. Humus is carbon. Carbon compounds are “organic” compounds after all. It always was based on science.

      Enter GMO’s. A new technology. There is no reason this new technology couldn’t be embraced for the good of organic methods. The fact that it wasn’t is complicated and would take a whole book to write. But part of the reason was that people like Mark Lynas who supposedly was an organic advocate (I am guessing due to his environmental advocacy) had no clue what organic really was about, thinking it was anti-science or Luddite in nature I suppose. Nothing could be further from the truth. But he and thousands of others have done a huge disservice to the organic movement.

      This makes me very angry because with or without GM crops, organic agricultural science has in fact made many breakthroughs that now, for the first time in the history of agriculture, make it possible to produce large scale agriculture WITHOUT destroying the land. In fact the newest and most modern organic methods can actually heal the land and the environment while out producing conventional per acre.

      Meanwhile the idiots are arguing about GMO’s? It’s like complaining about the mosquito while the lion eats you. Ridiculous!

      Don’t get me wrong. I am against the GMO’s available now, mostly because the vast majority were developed by the most evil modern corporation in the world today, Monsanto, and I wouldn’t trust Monsanto anywhere near any food I ate! But the concept of GM and the technology of GM, (as long as it is FAR FAR away from Monsanto) is a technology that has huge potential for good.

      So I would suggest you drop the whole paleo thing. Organic is not about going back to the stone age. Organic is about improving the environment using modern science and technology and still producing food for everyone. Something for which Nina Fedoroff admits conventional Ag has no solution.

      “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.”- Nina Fedoroff Phd

      Unlike conventional, organic has many solutions, but none of them involve going back to the stone age or even a romanticized Luddite, pre industrial revolution, or even pre 1940’s time.

    2. John Fryer

      Hi Scott

      Thanks for your precision on organic farming. All farming practices have developed but the practice of farming started thousands of years ago when the nomadic lifestyle was abandoned in some cultures. and crop rotation came naturally to man a very long time ago.

      I used to teach the four year crop rotation system in the local rural school I taught in in the 1970’s so it was just holding on back then but failing with the advance everywhere of monocultures and the use of chemicals. This particular system goes back to at least 1800 and before.

      Is a history that is simplified but relatively correct.

      You note some derision of the system in Africa as crude but in fact they had for a long time an extremely long cycle to maintain the soil and feed their people which has never been attained in Europe with a very quick rotation. Special conditions of drought, sun and lack of water etc.

      The only reason this crop system has declined is the greed of farmers to make as much money as they can ( a practice universal in the world) but they do put at jeopardy the future of our land as seen rather some time ago in America and other places.

      GMO crops are an advancement too far and will predictably cause problems already beeing seen around the world and not even due to the toxicity, weed resistance et al.

      15 years ago it was impossible to tell a farmer that GMO crops were bad without getting lynched. Many of those farmers have embraced GMO farming, gone bust, had bad yields and committed suicide.

      Farmers using the GMO culture survive not because of increased yield, better quality food etc etc but simply because we all now pay two to five times as much for our food.

      With up to nearly one half now sidelined off for biofuel, medical use etc. it is not the way forwrd to feed the world.

      The population is going up by leaps and bounds and the problems of food will need addressing but GMO food will only aggravate this situation.

      The idea of luddite resistance is wrong as farmers can and do use GMO food growing with soya now almost 100 per cent GMO. The luddite resistance comes in reverse where new foods are accepted without looking into the down sides more and more evident and regulators, governments and more than half the population accept the wild claims of the Big pHARMa companies even down to the fact that all the problems with GMO are because of scientific objectors portrayed as having zero sense.

      Professor Seralini has spent ten years of his life and millions of euros to test just one of thousands of GMO crops. The results were so bad that he is attacked furiously starting before the research was published. The embargo process is universally adopted and has been portrayed as some bizarre system that only he has ever used.

      A complete travesty and the future of GMO will come to haunt us and for those famrers dead from this technology possibly millions there are many candidates available?

      Problems today do pre-date GMO so GMO is just an aggravation of a system already recognised in private as non-sustainable.

      Any sensible person must get full nourishment from the sea where we choose to get rid of valuable minerals now lacking in our over worked soils where we now get up to two crops a year in to make that almighty dollar for the farmer.

      GMO farming will collapse in on itself but for those like myself who do not want GMO food at any price now or in the future, the systems in place to force feed everyone amount to tyranny.

      Mexico and thousands of ancient maize varieties now each and everyone polluted with increasing amounts of GMO genes is but one catastrophe caused in America to go along with hundreds of others over the years there.

    3. Scott

      I get your point about crop rotation. But that is a really REALLY simplified idea of what organic is. That is one tool that almost all farmers use actually. It’s true organic farmers rely on it more, but rotating crops does not define any farming method. It is simply one of many “borrowed” old traditional techniques that most farmers use whether conventional or organic. It’s true that some conventional farmers are now trying to ignore this old wise tradition, but they do it at their own peril.

      You are also out of line about “overworked soil”. That is a phenomenon of conventional ag only. In organic methods the more you produce the better, because each crop makes the soil more fertile. More production means even more fertility. “This is NOT a zero-sum system!”- Michael Pollan on Polyface farms. That’s also why organic agronomy makes extensive use of cover crops and multiple crops per season.

      In a sustainable organic model, the more you produce, the more you can produce! It spirals upwards until you reach some theoretical maximum where sunlight is the main limiting factor. We are a very long way from reaching that theoretical maximum in organic Ag. But that’s why in organic we want MORE green plants at all times, as much as possible. Each crop or cover or grazing adds fertility to the soil and builds more soil. Meanwhile conventional Ag productivity has generally stagnated. Each “improvement” due to GMO’s or “better” chemicals is offset by further deterioration of the soil and the ecology.

      Lastly you mentioned the “greed” of the farmers. That’s silly. Farmers are not getting rich off conventional Ag. It is the support industries associated with conventional Ag. Organic farmers generally make much more by bypassing the middlemen. Also organic food is slightly higher at the market. But if you provide a higher quality product, and people want that higher quality product, why shouldn’t they sell their product for a price equivalent to that higher value?

      But I venture to say that for the vast majority of farmers who use organic techniques, money is not the primary reason they farm organic.

    4. John Fryer


      What I meant was that promises of increased profit drove farmers to accept GMO crops regardless of problems of long term use or whether it was good for the consumer.

      When this profit was not realised maybe not even due directly to GMO maybe a million farmers committed suicide.

      Would they have committed suicide if they continued with their traditional farming? Who knows? Investigations into this issue have not been good.

      The trend to larger farms continue with big corporations involved but normal farmers who use GMO get a net increase say in profits but that is eaten into by money taken by the seed suppliers resulting in a hidden and large loss which can be above 100 000 dollars on larger farms and is sustainable only by the rich and large farmers.

      GMO is therefore harmful in many more ways than that of the E Coli bacteria and SV40 viruses, antibiotic markers, gene stopping switched off (cancer?) which the ordinary man in the street is not aware of and is lied to by those who do know or not lied to as the experts are clueless.

    5. Karl Haro von Mogel

      “When this profit was not realised maybe not even due directly to GMO maybe a million farmers committed suicide.

      Would they have committed suicide if they continued with their traditional farming? Who knows? Investigations into this issue have not been good.”

      This is incorrect. The issue of farmer suicide has been a long-term problem in India, and it pre-dates the introduction of genetically engineered cotton. Since the introduction of GE cotton, suicides have actually leveled off. When you read claims of Vandana Shiva and others, they make it sound like GE has accelerated (or invented) this trend, but this is not backed up by the statistics. Thus, it has become a persistent meme in the GMO debate. Farmer suicides are a complex problem, and part of a larger suicide problem in Indian culture.
      For a reference so you can see the suicide rates and a discussion of the factors involved in this issue, see here:

    6. John Fryer

      Hi Karl

      First of all a suicide is not something you lump into figures until you have a million such indian dead farmers.

      It is an individual catastrophe to that family who at times have been farming for several generations. Often there is a domino effect with other members in that family taking this extreme action (not counted as farmer suicides!)

      And yes, there may be idiots on both sides inflaming the facts or stirring up confusion. I have read many many stories where the issue is and was the GMO issue so figures of increases or decreases are irrelevant to the direct deaths precipitated by over selling GMO salesmen and money lenders.

      I couldnt get to the heart of that site you mentioned but some that you can see cheat with the way they show the results – graphs starting at zero or not to exagerate the or cover up harm attributable to GMO.

      I finally did say the situation is not clear cut and farmers have indeed been committing suicide at high levels for decades but the earlier cases could easily be laid at the door of organophosphate -cidal products (round up herbicide strangely is an organophosphate but Monsanto isnt keen for this to be known)

    7. Karl Haro von Mogel

      “I couldnt get to the heart of that site you mentioned but some that you can see cheat with the way they show the results – graphs starting at zero or not to exagerate the or cover up harm attributable to GMO.”

      Since by your own admittance you have not read the source, then with all due respect I find your statement about graphs starting at zero, exaggerating or covering up harm to be completely irresponsible. Since when does someone make claims about someone’s analysis without first reading it?

      “And yes, there may be idiots on both sides inflaming the facts or stirring up confusion.” Indeed there is, and I think we found one.

    8. Scott

      I don’t know what to tell you John. I appreciate your strong resistance to GMO’s but I do think in the end it is a red herring. All new technologies have bugs to work out. The same will happen eventually with GMO’s. (unless we are talking about Monsanto GMO’s in which case all they will do is cover-up and denial that the problems existed in the first place just like PCB’s, dioxin and Agent Orange)

      The real problem in India and even really the rest of the world, isn’t the GM crops, it is the fact that those GM crops are specifically designed to allow farmers to kill even MORE biodiversity in their fields. As if killing everything except their crop is somehow beneficial. It is the fundamental flaw of all conventional farming. But especially in India with a thousands of years old tradition of “ahimsa” (do no harm) It has caused even more destruction, not only of the land, but also to the farmer’s psyche when they realize all the harm they have caused.

  9. John Fryer

    Nina Federoff is well aware of the Asilomar conferences and the worry of illness from GMO foods etc. She talks of the over estimation of risk by these meetings.

    In fact she completely forgets or misrepresents excactly why these conferences were organised and as someone says it must make any sane person blanch.

    The specific worry of GMO was that of an AIDS like illness. Back in the early 1970’s this was actually predicted some 8 years before the outbreak of AIDS in the heart land of GMO experimentation.

    Today people try to distance the origins to remote corners of some far off continent rather than see the coincidence of it among the workers maybe of the new and unregualted GMO experimentation.

    Far better to sequence AIDS and show the true origins than press on in ignorance of this disease origin or that of the hundreds of dangerous E coli types now proliferating in our societies.

    E Coli is used to manufacture tryptophan and caused illness and death and is currently used for many GMO produced products notably aspartame.

    The first scientist to alert the world to GMO harm was Professor Robert Pollack making scientists in this GMO war actually pre-date the experiments of hybridising SV40 and E Coli chosen then because of the fact they were then harmless to man and posed no health risk by altering them.

    Today the excuse of how could we know is never invoked as they the GMO supporters are either unaware of or deny any connection just as they prove to themselves the risk is still zero. In any event the sacking of those who claim harm has worked and will continue to work to enable GMO food to pervade the planet.

    Considering that wheat has never been allowed into the food chain we should consider the consequences of its turning up in European imports 15 years ago and the fact that one GMO escapee from experiments may be hundreds of thousands the next year. Harm to people from wheat may not be due to GMO escapees but wihtout testing how can we know.

    Testing costs around several hundred dollars for food that you can buy a ton of for the price of a few lab analyses. Hardly a recipe for cheaper food when testing before was cheap and did not need us to know what the 100 000 gene sequence was to ensure no dangerous pathogens were in our paleo foods?

  10. Bob Macgregor

    One point I haven’t seen mentioned is the rapid uptake of GM crops by farmers around the world. Scott advocates strongly for organic agriculture, and touts the “proven” results. Well, repeat sales of crops with GM traits have been great. Farmers, even the most impoverished farmers in Africa or India, are NOT stupid. They are always on the look-out for ways to improve what they do, produce more saleable output and earn a better life for themselves. These are the folks who have overwhelmingly endorsed herbicide tolerant and Bt crops.
    Organic production may be more benign than “conventional” agricultural practices, in some ways, but yields tend to be lower, so more natural land must be converted to organic farming to yield the same total output. Another sign of shortcomings of organic production is the routinely higher price of organic food. This is not solely the result of monopoly power; it reflects very real cost of production issues in organic agriculture…another reason it remains a “fringe” element in agriculture in most of the world, despite the tremendous sales job the organic industry has done with consumers.

    1. Scott

      Of course repeat sales are high. GMO crops available now are specifically designed to prop up the failing conventional methods. A farmer would be a fool not to use them if he used conventional methods and they were available to him.

      You are not going to see organic farmers using a GM glyphosate resistant crop (even if they could) because organic doesn’t use glyphosate! Or any other chemical herbicide for that matter. What’s the point? Organic methods rely on biodiversity. Killing every other plant in a field besides the monocrop is ridiculous to a farmer using beneficial “weeds” and companion crops to improve the ecology, soil, biodiversity, productivity, nutrient cycle, drought resistance, and general fertility etc. of his land.

      And why would an organic farmer need a Bt transgenic when commercial sources of Bacillus thuringiensis are widely available?

      If you are a conventional farmer these things are helpful and they will endorse them highly, but they are useless to an organic farmer.

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