Someone is WRONG on the internet (More on GM…)

This is me this lunch time:

Faced with a day of experiments that don’t require poking every 15 minutes, an inability to order anything due to some delightful fluke of our ordering system, no teaching commitments because my undergrads had their exam this morning, and no social engagements, you might expect that I would be spending a peaceful half hour sat on a polystyrene box outside my office enjoying the sun. (That’s not actually a joke… photos to follow).

Sadly, not.

Thanks to the Twitterverse I have discovered that the Independent has published this gem of an article.

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What is inherently wrong with this article, is that it’s been written by someone without a basic grasp of the science that she is writing about. If you don’t know the facts, then you have to make do with vague comments, emotive language (Baby foetuses. What other kinds of foetuses have you heard of? The headline is designed to create a more emotional reaction) and scaremongering. I’m not so naive as to suggest that everybody writing on a scientific subject should have a full scientific education, but the author apparently doesn’t have even a passing interest in finding out what GM actually is and how it works.

There are so many things wrong with this unashamedly partisan piece of ‘reporting’ on some important and controversial science. Just to pick out a couple: 

  • The use of the term GM pesticides. The pesticides used on GM crops are the exact same ones used on conventional crops, like glyphosate and atrozine. They are only not used on organic crops: where ‘safe’ chemicals like copper sulphate are used instead. (Yes, the same copper sulphate you used to make pretty blue crystals at school).  
    There’s a possibility that she’s actually referring to the CRY protein some corn is transformed with, but that’s not really a pesticide. If that is what she means then she should read this fantastic debunking of that paper.
  • “an open field experiment that has the potential to contaminate neighbouring farmers’ crops”. Could that be a reference to the recent paper by the Bigler group reporting a shocking three out-crosses (between a GM test crop and external non-GM wheat) out of 180 000 plants surveyed? Of which “[a]ll three hybrids were found in the border crop surrounding the experimental area, but none outside the field”? Based upon which they “conclude that a pollen barrier (border crop) and an additional isolation distance of 5 m is a sufficient measure to reduce [crossing] from a GM wheat field trial to cleistogamous varieties in commercial fields below a level that can be detected”?
    In case you missed it, the Rothamsted trial has both of these things. 
  • “and trigger unpredictable impacts on other species” Unsurprisingly, Ms Blythman isn’t big on the scientific details here. Maybe that’s because she’s a food writer and not a scientist. There is one highly unlikely, but nonetheless precisely predictable impact upon other species: in the exceptionally rare instance of horizontal gene transfer then those other species would also produce Ebeta-farnesene, thus rendering them aphid resistant too.
  • “GM increasingly looks like an inherently risky old-hat technology left behind by more advanced approaches that can boost yields more effectively, and without the associated risks.” This is genuine propaganda. What is this inherent risk in GM? And what are these advanced approaches? Scientists don’t keep battling against public opinion to do GM science because it seems kinda cool. They keep going because all other approaches have, as yet, been unsuccessful.
  • “Animal feeding trials repeatedly show kidney, liver, reproductive damage and allergenic responses to GM feed.” Interesting that she chooses not to mention what kind of GM crop this is a response to? Does the author understand that you cannot have any kind of reaction to “GM”? You can only have a reaction to whatever gene is transformed into the crop. It’s like suggesting that somebody is allergic to baking, thereby suggesting their problem is with things being heated in an oven, without specialising that they had a reaction to wheat.

The Independent is free to print whatever rubbish it chooses: people have their opinions, and the UK has a free press. If it has chosen to take an anti-GM stance, or even to present both sides of the argument, then that is fine by me (but expect to see me hanging around their comments pages a bit more often). But I think there is something just plain wrong with allowing somebody to write in the guise of a science writer (mentioning scientific papers, citing studies) when what they actually are is a food critic who doesn’t understand that “GM” just means “changed in a lab” as opposed to “changed far more dramatically in a field by domestication or breeding.” Valid criticisms of GM technology do exist, and if the Indy wants to join the anti-GM lobby then they should be reporting on that science rather than letting someone try to sell a few more of their anti-GM-food books by repeating something they heard about in passing once but don’t have the scientific knowledge to back up.

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