When Real Science Meets GMOs
John Vandermeer is Asa Gray Distinguished University Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on tropical agroecosystems and theoretical ecology. Professor Vandermeer has written or edited 13 books focusing on agroecology and agroecosystems.
Professor Vandermeer recently wrote a blog titled “Discovering Science” about former anti-GMO campaigner Mark Lynas’s “conversion” to supporting genetically modified crops and foods. In the blog, Professor Vandermeer suggests that Lynas continue his education of science and look more deeply into the science of genetic engineering to see the negative human and animal health impacts of Roundup herbicide, the simplistic—and faulty—view of gene insertion and its unintended consequences on a complex genome, weed and insect resistance problems resulting from GM crops, and the myth of “feeding the world” with GMOs.
Ken Roseboro: In your recent blog, you mention Mark Lynas’s enthusiasm for science as ideology. Can you expand on this?
Vandermeer: There is an ideological perspective that any new technology based on science is automatically good no matter what. The truth is that it’s not always good. For example, thalidomide wasn’t good. (Thalidomide was a drug introduced in the late 1950s to help pregnant women with effects of morning sickness. It was later found to cause birth defects.)
KR: The science of genetic engineering relies on the theory that inserting one gene will produce one desired trait. Do you see this as too simplistic?
Vandermeer: Yes, most molecular biologists understand this. Genetic engineering is based on a dramatically incomplete knowledge of the genome. It is fundamentally based on an early naïve understanding that the genome produces DNA, which produces pieces of RNA, which produce proteins and that is the end of the story. But we now know that there are an enormous number of complications that are involved in that basic story. Molecular biology has now advanced to the point that we now understand that the genome is like a complicated ecosystem. Doing just one thing such as inserting a piece of DNA into a big genome and expecting just the single protein you are planning for and nothing else is probably not possible.
KR: What is the latest research describing the complexity of the genome?
Vandermeer: Pick up any issue of the journal Cell or any other molecular biology journal. There are many articles and lots of research that make that point.
You can screw up nature very dramatically. Invasive species are one example. In the 1930s, the cane beetle caused huge problem in sugar cane fields in Australia. The cane toad was introduced to eat the beetles. It was thought to be a simple solution: introduce a predator to eat the prey. But the toad took over Australia, and became a continent-wide problem. People were naive about the way an ecosystem works.
The same is true of genetic engineering and its unintended consequences on the genome. What may seem to be benign may in the end have dramatic unintended consequences.
KR: What are the other problems you see with genetic engineering?
Vandermeer: We know of problems that do exist, and problems will undoubtedly erupt in the future. There have already been unintended consequences. These problems don’t necessarily have to do with the transgenic process itself. If you introduce an insecticide like Bt and put it out there on a permanent basis, you are asking for trouble, asking for insects to develop resistance. If you put Roundup out there and spray it extensively, you are putting tremendous evolutionary pressure on weeds to evolve resistance.
Genetic engineering also puts big companies in control of the seed supply. It’s destroying the lives of many farmers around the world right now.
KR: You’ve written extensively about agroecology. Do you see this as a viable alternative to industrial agriculture?
Vandermeer: In my view it is the only alternative to industrial agriculture. It involves creating an agroecosystem based on ecological principles as opposed to an industrial system based on chemistry. We know now that there are certain basic principles of ecology, such as nutrient cycling and autonomous pest control, which should be used. These principles produce positive effects on health and the environment.
The Journal of Agroecology and Food Systems has articles on the recent advances in agroecology.
KR: You discuss intercropping as an effective farming technique. Can you give a specific example?
Vandermeer: The three sisters: corn, beans and squash. Native Americans knew to plant these together. Beans fix nitrogen from the air; squash covers the ground to keep weeds out. It is a complex system of mutualism that makes for a better way of growing and produces more sustainable yields than in monoculture.
KR: You’ve spoken out against corporate-sponsored research at public universities. What are the problems you see with this type of research?
Vandermeer: The research tends to be secretive; it’s driven by the needs of corporations and not the needs of people. Public universities should serve the public. I have no problem with corporate funding if it benefits the public and has no strings attached. But this type of funding does have strings attached.