Do we dislike genetic engineers and plant breeders?

James, of the Giant Corn, asks an interesting question:

Do most people who work in the agricultural biodiversity field not like genetic engineering (and even plant breeders)?

This is prompted by his reading of Gary Nabhan’s Where our food comes from, which is about Vavilov and crop diversity and much else besides. James, who is studying for a PhD in plant biology at UC Berkeley, seems to think that the world — or at least Gary Nabhan — has it in for plant breeders and even more so for genetic engineers. I think it is salutary that a plant scientist, someone who has worked on teosinte and it’s more selected form, maize, had barely heard of Vavilov in all his training, and I’m really glad that he has now discovered Nabhan’s book (no matter what he thinks of it) and, more importantly, Vavilov. Here’s part of how I answered his question, in haste:

[T]he greater one’s awareness of agricultural biodiversity, the stronger is the impression that single “breeding” solutions, especially in relation to pest and disease resistance, are inevitably overtaken by the much more rapid evolutionary turnover of pests and diseases. Genetic engineering is even more simple minded than classical plant breeding, transferring just one or a few genes, and is thus even more prone to being overtaken by evolution on the part of the pest or disease. And for nutritional changes, dietary diversity delivers so many additional benefits compared to biofortified staples, that we find it odd that so much money and effort goes into the former and so little into the latter.

In his reply, James talked about stacking resistance genes and high vitA corn (maize) and conceded that both were a lot more work than genetic engineering, especially without molecular markers. My own view, for what it is worth, is that genetic engineering only seems faster. To truly have an impact, the constructs really ought to be put into a wide range of varieties that will thrive in a wide range of conditions. That takes time. So does clearing the regulatory hurdles. And in the end, at least so far, the bottom-line yield gains have hardly been worth sharpening a pencil to write home about.

I am definitely not against plant breeding, nor am I against genetic engineering per se. I do think that genetic engineering has been appallingly managed, has yet to deliver anything of interest to the people who actually have to eat its products (apart from the first ever cleared product, GE tomato paste), and has sucked vast gobs of cash and a few good minds from more interesting and more (intellectually) rewarding science. Other than that, I personally have nothing against it.

In other news: The Scientist Gardener reports that Monsanto’s patent on its first generation herbicide resistant Roundup Ready soybean is about to expire! and suggests that “[w]e’d be even better off (more competition, more disruptive technologies) if we loosened up genetic engineering regulation and let the small guys play”.

Now there’s a thought.

20 Replies to “Do we dislike genetic engineers and plant breeders?”

  1. Jeremy, one point I think you may be arguing with me about, but that I actually agree with you about is the relative merits of genetic engineering and other techniques.

    From the post prior to the one you linked to:

    The reason I spend so much time talking about genetic engineering (and to a lesser extent mutation breeding) isn’t because I think the techniques are more important than breeding using the existing diversity of crop plants and their wild ancestors, it’s because genetic engineering (and once more to a lesser extent mutation breeding) are the techniques that are subject to the most misinformation and opposition.

    I’ve barely worked with transgenic plants myself (just a couple of arabidopsis tDNA knockouts one summer), but it’s just possible I’m developing a persecution complex never the less… and my apologies to anyone caught up in it.

    1. Understood. And of course, as the old joke goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. But I think anyone who has an interest in genetic engineering and is not on any particular side needs to think beyond the rhetoric and examine each case for what it is worth. I wish I had time to do more of that.

      1. A few months ago I started a wiki in an attempt to do just that – to “get beyond the rhetoric and examine each case.” The site is So far there are only a handful of articles but it may be a good starting point for people who want to learn more about some specific gm crops. I encourage anyone with an interest to contribute to the wiki to join and do so!

          1. It is a bit bare – still working on adding more articles in my spare time and recruiting others to contribute. Article on BT coming soon…
            To watch the site I believe you need to at least have a wikidot account, though you don’t actually have to be a member of the specific site. More info here:

      2. You’ve definitely sparked a great discussion with this post!

        One other point I wanted to make was how useful genetic engineering ends up being for the hungry and malnourished of the world will depend on how expensive it ends up being. At one extreme I’ve heard, anecdotally, that transgenic papayas resistant to papaya ringspot virus were developed on a five-figure grant. But at the other end of the spectrum, seed companies now say it takes $150 million dollars to bring a transgenic trait to market. This ties in with the post you linked to at The Scientist Gardner, as greatest part of the difference in those two price tags is the cost of gaining regulatory approval.

        At the price of creating virus resistant papayas I think there are many traits that could be generated by the non-profit sector and freely introgressed into lots of different cultivars and landraces which would materially improve the lives of people around the world. It’s much harder (if not impossible) to think of genetically engineered traits that would generate more good than $150 million dollars spent on other projects.

        1. I think cost is dependant on what you are trying to do.

          If you are “just” engineering in a resistance gene, with no requirement for yield parity with commercial lines, and no requirement to prove safety for international regulatory bodies, then a five figure budget may well be all that is required.

          If you’re engineering in a trait which absolutely requires yield parity, requires proven efficacy across multiple germplasms and multiple environments, and requires regulatory approval in multiple different nations (ie anything which is likely to be exported rather than consumed in country of origin) then adding 4 more figures to the budget is probably going to be likely.

          I’d guess the 5 figure budget project also only spans a couple of years, whereas start to finish a commercial GM product will go through 10+ years of testing with incrementally expensive field testing in at least the first 6-8 years of testing (as it transitions through various phases) – my guess is that the transgenic papaya under discussion did not need to be field tested across multiple years in 20+ locations with a plethora of physiological and end point yield measurements being taken.

          However…. on generating more ‘good’ this depends if you look at good as purely humanitarian (in which case I’d mostly agree that the $100-$150M spent on smaller projects would likely do more good, although this is entirely dependant on what the $100-$150M project you compare it to – is reducing fertilizer, insecticide, water or herbicide impact on the environment not potentially as ‘good’ dependant on coverage of the trait, impact of the trait etc?) or in terms of revenue generated for farmers after the fact (I appear to have misplaced links here, but based on the various reports on the economic impact of GM crops on farmers globally the investment in GM crops translates to billions of dollars increases in farm productivity) – although clearly in areas where the current transgenics do not apply this is meaningless compared to say, Cassava with increased protein or other nutrients.

          Hopefully though, both can be done. If the western world would invest 1/100th of the amount it blows on new methods of killing people into transgenics developed by the public sector for specific small scale problems the world would likely be a far better place (and the requirement for the other 99/100ths of that arms budget would also probably fall off dramatically)

          1. Ewan, I’m not saying it doesn’t make sense for companies to invest in transgenic traits, even at $150 million a pop, nor that traits like bt or round ready and liberty link haven’t done good for the environment.

            As I see it corporate research is a separate pot of money. If it doesn’t get spent on genetic engineering it’ll get spent on marker assisted breeding for similar traits in similar crops. If for some reason it couldn’t be spent on crop improvement at all, it’d probably be spent on… I don’t know… advertising. The point I’m trying to make is that money spent in commercial research isn’t at the expense of humanitarian projects so it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) begrudged. (And when/if nitrogen use efficiency and drought resistant traits make it to market they’ll be worth every penny of that price tag.)

            But when it comes to the reason we haven’t seen more investment in genetic engineering by the non-profit sector (with the recent exception of the Gates foundation), is that the high price tag of regulatory approval (I heard it was ~80% of the total, 80-120 million, but this is clearly all hearsay) limits the number of problems it makes sense to address with genetic engineering. Improving a crop like Cassava that hundreds of millions of people depend on and that has been neglecting by modern ag is certainly one of them,

            Yet I’m certain there are many more, even just in the specific area of virus resistance (since those are some of the more straightforward traits to generate and test), that could be cheaply* and effectively addressed by genetic engineering and would create sustained improvements in the lives of farmers living at near subsistence levels and above, but don’t currently make sense from either a humanitarian or business perspective because the cost of getting a genetically engineered crop is so much higher than it needs to be. And that is in countries which at least permit genetically engineered crops in the first place!

            *I’m speaking only about generating and introgressing the trait when I say cheaply

  2. While I can find a lot of areas of agreement in what you say here, you do miss an important point. There are environmental consequences with genetic engineering, that go beyond possible safety issues for those who consume the transgenic plants themselves. These consequences include the possible contamination of the world’s food supplies.

    Somehow, these environmental and contamination issues have to be assesed and addressed in a credible way, before this technique moves into the home garden.

    You also make it sound like a remote possibility. I first started programming computers in the 1970s, and they said the same thing then. Wouldn’t it be great if the power of a computer could somehow find it’s way into people’s homes?

    Just how long will it be before the tools are cheap enough and the techniques well enough documented, that people can start doing this themselves anyway?

    1. How do the environmental consequences of genetic engineering go beyond the consequences of ordinary breeding?

      And are you therefore in favour of the compulsory use of GURTs in all commerically released genetically engineered varieties?

      People certainly can already do a lot of genetic enginering at home, if they have a well-equipped home.

      1. At the very least, the genes can end up in people’s food who don’t want them there. Not everyone agrees with you that they are generally safe, and since the current rules for organic food require these genes not be present, it’s also an economic issue for people who grow organic foods.

        What people can do at home now is nothing compared to sometime in the future when home breeders may have access to catalogues of marker genes, decoded genomes, advanced computer simulations and collaboration software. There may be many more things possible that aren’t now. I personally don’t think this kind of technology is so far off.

        It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and not necessarily something to be afraid of. I think however taking a strong stand that even someone with bad intentions and this sort of technology at their disposal couldn’t do anything that goes beyond the consequences of ordinary breeding would not be a credible thing to do.

        I think we need to take a more balanced approach than the extreme views people have now, and really put our heads together and figure out what is and isn’t possible. We all need to know what to be concerned about and what not to be.

        We need real independent science, well funded, with scientists free to come to their own conclusions and to pursue their own suspicions. This needs to be done in a way everyone can agree is transparent. At the moment we don’t have anything close to this and, until we do, it simply isn’t possible to say what’s generally safe or not and where the risks are.

  3. Jeremy: I watched some of the Buddenhagen videos, and he also feels that genetic engineering has been poorly managed. How do your and his views overlap or otherwise?
    Thanks, Don

  4. When you say that GE has thus far failed to provide anything of interest to those who eat it I think you do GE in general a disservice, or perhaps those that eat it do, one or the other.

    Roundup ready crops have resulted in a significant reduction in environmental impact when compared to other agricultural situations where herbicide is used for weed control. While this may not directly impact the end product consumer, it should at least be of some interest to them.

    Likewise Bt crops have reduced the useage of insecticidal sprays (both in terms of EI and in terms of quantity of active ingredient employed) and have significantly improved lives in developing countries where they have been adopted (India and China) – again, neither of these are a direct impact upon 95% of the consumer base (figure pulled out of the air, but probably in the right ballpark) but both should at least be of interest.

    Golden rice, and golden rice 2 both offer a massive amount to the
    world at large (if they can clear regulatory hurdles and dogmatic opposition to GE as a technology) – there may be an arguement that a diverse diet is the ultimately better work around for this type of technology, but historically it has held that fortifying the available food supply with required nutrients is easier and more manageable than diversifying the food supply (look at the eradication of rickets as a major childhood disease in the poor as a result of fortifying flour with vitamin D – possibly even today something which would hit western kids living under the poverty line should the fortification be removed).

    There is also the flooding tolerant rice variety which is out there, which again, doesnt have a particular impact on the majority of consumers, however when grown by subsistence or near-subsistence farmers it is pretty much a guarantee that in years of flooding this will have an impact and an interest to its consumers, in so far as it is interesting to have food as opposed to not having any food.

    Equally products currently under development should (although may not, due to apathy, or selfishness, or what have you) be of interest to the end consumer – intrinsic yield genes which boost yields 5-10% (admittedly something which may or may not hold up as breeding advances) reduce either pricing, or acreage requirements for crops (and in turn pesticide use and fertilizer use per unit yield) or both, nitrogen use efficieny genes, which either reduce overall fertilizer use, or look the same as intrinsic genes, vistive gold soybeans offer up healthier oils, omega-3 soybeans offer an alternative source of omega-3s, drought tolerance genes offer increased yields in poor conditions (which in the coming decade is bound to directly impact the consumer once projects like WEMA get it integrated an in use for subsistence and near-subsistence farmers in areas where a small drought period may annihilate a non-transgenic crop)

    In response to Patrick – I don’t see that there are inherantly any environmental consequences to GE. I personally dont see why there is such massive concern about single genes “escaping” other than a general lack of understanding and public hysteria around them. The same cross pollination risk exists with conventionally bred (and likely mutagenized) plants but rather than a single transgene being the concern here there are potentially thousands of genes (of unknown and uncharacterized function) which may escape and “pollute” wild species.

    However, I don’t see, nor would I hope to see, genetic engineering becoming a home garden accessible technology – this is where it really could get dangerous, and where cross pollination could be an issue – at present GE products have to pass stringent regulatory hurdles (too stringent in some eyes, not stringent enough in others – but at least they are there) – imagine a world where all I need to do to wipe out any local folk with peanut allergies is to engineer the antigen onto a pollen promoter on a widely dispersed pollen and then sit back and await the consequences – or some variation thereof (like engineering in a seed active cyanide producing pathway (homozygously) and merrily contaminating local fields of your favorite crop with the pollen. Etc et ad infinitum.

    1. The environmental consequences of Bt-GMOs are not well known and more than certainly overlooked. If the Bt gene is expressed in pollen, then in anemophilous crops dispersing a lot of pollen around (like Zea mais does), we have to expect side effects to any insect feeding on plants around fields (which are… ahem… a lot!). Such consequences may vary depending on whether experiences are done before or after rain, and have not been conducted at general levels such as insect communities so far (but only in a few case species), and quite not widely across regions. This impact appear to be varying, but dramatic consequences (and benign also) have been already documented…

      1. Laurent – you need to compare like with like however – it may be the case that some Bt pollen effects some species of insect (by no means all species of insect feeding near the plant, Bt proteins are at least somewhat selective) – although a cursory glance at the recent literature suggests that pollen effects on monarch butterfly larvae under experimental conditions do not translate particularly well to the field (a seperate study gives the rate of new publications on Bt impact in the field at between 20 and 60 per year between 2000 and 2008 which hardly suggests an area which is lacking in study, especially compared to the rest of agriculture):-

        You also have to take into account that utilization of Bt has to be compared to the effects of multiple insecticidal sprays throughout the season – generally broader spectrum and likely hitting every species of insect in the field aswell as a border around the field (my guess is that insecticide drift goes at least as far as corn pollen, and that insecticides in general have a broader range of toxicity than Bt)

        1. Ewan: a seperate study gives the rate of new publications on Bt impact in the field at between 20 and 60 per year between 2000 and 2008 which hardly suggests an area which is lacking in study, especially compared to the rest of agriculture

          Thanks for your claim, it made me consider the possibility that I hadn’t gone deep enough through the literature recently on the subject. Since I would need updating my classes notes, I did my homework.
          So I looked through ISI, with keywords wider then our arguments here: GMOs at large, specifically Bt, trimming out reviews (which are not bringing new data) and articles not specifically adressing ecological effects (that is, keeping things not specifics to arthropods but ignoring papers unrelated to the question at hand), and limited to SCI-EXPANDED DATABASE. Here is what I get (# of papers):
          Topic=(GMO) AND Topic=(Bt) AND Topic=(environment*)
          Timespan=xxx. Databases=SCI-EXPANDED.
          2009: 1
          2008: 0
          2007: 0
          2006: 1
          2005: 1
          2004: 0
          2003: 0
          2002: 0
          2001: 1
          2000: 0
          Topic=(GMO) AND Topic=(Bt) AND Topic=(impact)
          Timespan=xxx. Databases=SCI-EXPANDED.
          2009: 0
          2008: 3
          2007: 1
          2006: 2
          2005: 2
          2004: 0
          2003: 0
          2002: 0
          2001: 0
          2000: 0
          Of these, only one paper was specifically adressing the impact on insects (and it was Collembola). Your argument does not dismiss mine over the underappreciated effect of Bt-GMO cultures on insect communities.
          If there are so many papers on impact of Bt impact in the field, it is still ignoring a wide range of possible effects.

  5. Okay, redid the exercise without asking for GMO, and it raised the # of papers:
    2010: 4
    2009: 12
    2008: 14
    But I failed to see that many papers dealing at general levels yet (I found a few things nevertheless). Plus it mainly includes effects on pest that are target of the Bt protein so this is still quite large. The late comment is that there is quite a lot to trim out in quick overviews. Overall, we can’t say there’s no effect (many papers document negative effects). It’s true that it is probably better than spreading chemicals over and over, but is it the real only alternative? Do the benefits of reducing the issue of insect-sides effects to pollen drift overcome the gain in local use of chemicals?

    1. Laurent – I can’t find the paper I was pulling those figures from, and a quick look (not as detailed as your own) tels me that the figures may be somewhat overblown – although possibly not to the extent you are arguing (I’m not convinced that all reviews should be completely ignored as it is arguable that there is some benefit in looking at the meta-analyses contained in some)

      I wouldn’t expect a zero effect of Bt on the ecological environment, however I would expect that it provides a real significant improvement over conventional insect control methods, in terms of reduction in insecticides used, subsequent reduction in harm to non-target species, and in terms of yield in areas where insect control was previously sub-optimal (generally in India and China)

      As to whether there are other methods available – I honestly don’t know. I would have assumed that if another system was available with the same level of control and lack of insecticide useage that it would be adopted and would have been at least semi-widely publicized (at least within the debate about GM crops) – I’m not sure what methods organic farmers utilize (I’d guess more crop rotation and diversity, and um, spraying/tying on Bt) – as far as looking through the literature it certainly appears to me that non-target species are, in general, not directly effected by Bt which is counter to your claim that we have to expect side effects to any insect feeding around Bt crops (I dont even know that this arguement would hold for utilization of insecticidal sprays, although it would probably hit a lot closer to the mark)

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