Rule Five GMO Friday

I stumbled across this earlier in the week, and found it an interesting read; turns out folks who oppose GMO crops are the least well-informed as to what GMO technology actually is.  Color me surprised.  Excerpts, with my comments, follow:

A 2019 study, in fact, found that as opposition to GM technology  increased, scientific knowledge about genetics and GMOs decreased, but self-assessment increased. GMO opponents think they know the most, but in fact they know the least.  Other studies show that consumers have generally low scientific knowledge about GMOs. There is also evidence that fixing the knowledge deficit, for some people, can reduce their opposition to GMOs (at least temporarily). We clearly need more research, and also different people oppose GMOs for different reasons, but at least there is a huge knowledge deficit here and reducing it may help.

It‘s no secret that we have done a shitty job of general science education in this country for several generations.  Just listen to any politician whining that we should “listen to science,” or that “science says this,” or “science will win!”  Science isn’t an ideology and it isn’t some magical entity that makes pronouncements; science is a tool, a method for examining data and arriving at theories to explain that data.

It’s also important to note that the term “theory” as used in the scientific method is not the same as in general parlance. Isaac Asimov astutely pointed out that most people use the term as though “…it were something you dreamed up after being drunk all weekend.”  But the proper definition is this:  A coherent group of propositions formulated to explain a group of facts or phenomena in the natural world and repeatedly confirmed through experiment or observation.

Repeatedly confirmed.  Remember that.

Further, adoption of GMOs does, in fact, increase ultimate crop yield. The myth that they don’t is mostly due to the persistent anti-GMO smear campaign, largely funded by the organic industry, but is helped by several layers of confusion on this issue. First, we always have to be cautious when discussing “GMOs” because they are not one thing. Genetic modification is a technology, not an application. Yet anti-GMO propaganda has successfully tied the technology to just one application – use of herbicides. Many opponents still conflate the two in their mind. It is true that the first widely adopted GMO traits were for pest resistance (such as Bt) and herbicide tolerance (specifically glyphosate), and so some opinions are based on this 20 year-old impression of GMOs. But the number and type of GM traits is expanding significantly in recent years, so that impression is out-of-date.

Catch that main point there?  GMO is a technology, and not a new one; we have effectively been genetically modifying agricultural plants and animals for many thousands of years.  We have done it by grafting, by selective breeding, by hybridization and now, by directly modifying, adding or deleting genes.  The tools differ but the process is not new.

For example, C4 rice and wheat could make a huge contribution. Some plants use C3 photosynthetic pathways, while other use C4, which is more efficient. Rice and wheat use C3, but if we can engineer them to use C4 we could get a 50% increase in yield with fewer inputs.

Speaking as a biologist, C4 wheat or rice would be a huge deal.  A 50% increase in yield, it is important to note, means you could produce the same yield on 50% less land.

Recent applications already in the field, that reduce browning and improve drought tolerance, already increase yield. Other GM applications, such as golden rice, improve the nutritional quality of staple crops, reducing malnutrition.

To reinforce this main point – GM is a technology, and we have to judge each application and each GM crop on its own merits. We also have to think about the whole system, not just the crop. When you do it is clear that GM technology is incredibly powerful and useful, and is our best hope for meeting the nutritional needs of the world population while minimizing our carbon and land footprint.

The good news is, that while popular opposition continues (based on demonstrable misinformation), the science is progressing in the background and farmers are adopting GM crops because of their obvious benefits. Farmers are not stupid, nor are they being manipulated. They buy GM seeds because it is to their advantage to do so.

In other words, let the “no-GMO” crowd croak and even boycott, if it makes them feel better.  In the meantime agricultural products will continue to evolve and improve, agriculture the world over will continue to become more efficient, millions who were hungry will be fed, and eventually the deniers will go the way of Ned Lud’s followers.