It is well accepted observation that when the pseudoscience or anti-science crowd runs out of supporting evidence (usually when it’s thoroughly debunked by scientific skeptics), it has to rely upon the whole range of logical fallacies, which are errors in reasoning to support a position in an argument or debate. Because scientific skeptics (or if we’re talking about medicine, science based medicine) always demand high quality evidence to support their own claims, or alternatively demanding evidence from other making suspicious claims, the anti-science and pseudoscience pushing troupes frequently cherry pick “peer-reviewed” research to use as their “proof” for their claims.
Cherry picking makes it appear that there a nothing but ripe beautiful cherries of evidence supporting your position. The problem is when you look at the whole basket of cherry’s you see all sorts quality. Same with peer-reviewed evidence. You may find one article that says “Point A is correct.” But what is the quality of that article? How does it fit with all the other articles that say “Point A is not only incorrect, but Conclusion B is the scientific consensus.” You can’t cherry pick one article, without understanding and analyzing the vast breadth of research in a field.
Moreover, because the pseudoscience promoters are resort to confirmation bias, always looking for evidence to support their beliefs rather than seeing what the evidence supports, they ignore the vast majority of evidence or tend to misinterpret the evidence. So, when you read some blog post or pseudo-news article about a published scientific article that says GMO’s are dangerous, you need to dig beyond the headlines, and head right to the scientific source to determine what is really being said. And this happened recently.
A few months ago, Scientific American blared a headline that “Genetically Modified Crops Pass Benefits to Weeds,” and stated that genetically modified crops might pass certain genetic information to “weeds,” which will then get an unintended biological fitness increase from these modified genes. Scientific American concluded that even though some people are pushing for relaxing of rules about genetically engineered foods, a newly published article supports the need for continued careful evaluation.
But once again, it’s time to look at the actual underlying paper, instead of a journalist’s interpretation of what was written, which is often clouded by their own biases. The Scientific American story is based on an article was written by Wang et al. published in a very respectable journal of plant sciences, called New Phytologist. The authors examined hybrids of what is called weedy rice (that is, rice plants that are not domesticated and have little nutritional content) and genetically modified rice, and they concluded the following:
- They determined that physiological traits and field performance of rice crop/rice weed hybrids had a fitness (increased ability to produce a next generation) because of the over-expression EPSPS gene, which was developed to confer glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup) resistance in rice. The reason to place this EPSPS gene into rice is to allow it to be resistant to glyphosate, so that farmers can control non-rice crop weeds (including wild forms of rice which have no agricultural benefit).
- They found that transgenic crop–weed hybrids produced 48–125% more seeds per plant than nontransgenic controls in monoculture- and mixed-planting designs without glyphosate application.
- They also determined that transgenic plants also had greater EPSPS protein levels, tryptophan concentrations, photosynthetic rates, and per cent seed germination compared with nontransgenic controls.
If there results are accurate, it would be case of gene transfer from the target plant (crop rice) to the weed plant (non-crop rice or grains) would give the weeds a theoretical advantage over the crops. In other words, the farmer could use all of the Roundup they wanted, and the weeds would be the ones that survived. This would be a case where GMO crops could lower yield.
Except, maybe not.
In a review of the Wang et al. paper, one researcher was less than impressed. And I’m not impressed either. Here are a few points that matter in judging the quality of this study:
- Primary research. It’s a primary paper, which means it’s the first to make this claim about GMO rice transferring a fitness advantage. In fact, it appears to be the first article to discuss this type of advantage for any crop. As I’ve stated before, it is best to avoid primary sources (ones in which the authors directly participated in the research or documented their personal experiences) but instead, utilize secondary sources (which summarizes one or more primary or secondary sources, usually to provide an overview of the current understanding of a medical topic, to make recommendations, or to combine the results of several studies). The reason secondary sources are so valuable is that they combine the works of several authors (and presumably locations), eliminating biases of one laboratory or one study. This doesn’t mean this study, just because it is a primary one, is worthless, but it lacks confirmation from other laboratories.
- Repetition of experiments. In my review of the article*, along with other reviews, it was established that there was no repeat of any of the experiments by the original researcher. They did the research at one location, under one set of conditions, with one type of soil. Would this observation be the same in Alabama? Or Japan? Or anywhere? Most journals that publish articles on environmental effects want longer time periods, results from experiments done over a large number of areas, and significant repetition of the data under different variables. I’m surprised that New Phytologist, a moderately high impact journal, would have such weak requirements for repeatability, but I would speculate that the journal wanted a big news story article. They got one.
- Inconclusive results. Though the authors make the claim of increased fitness of the transgenic weed plants (which of course has been broadly disseminated), the results were less than satisfying. It appears that the weed/rice hybrid arose from a different strain of GM rice, but the authors chose to compare the hybrid to a strain that is not associated with the hybrid. So, they’re making a claim of increased fitness when the measurements of fitness appear to be cherry-picked out of data that actually shows that there isn’t a fitness increase. In fact, the fitness level of most of the GM + weedy rice hybrids was below that of non-GM rice. Three out of four of the groups of hybrid rices showed no change in fitness!
- Development of weed-rice hybrids. Here’s the biggest problem. Weedy rice may have some inherent fitness advantages because of genetic diversity. And because the second and third generations of the weedy hybrids self-pollinated, it’s possible they derived the minor fitness advantage that they exhibited not from the EPSPS glyphosate resistance gene, but because of some other, unknown or poorly understood, genetic advantage in the weedy rice that has nothing to do with the transgenic gene. In other words, without properly controlling all of the millions of genetic combinations that could confer an advantage to the hybrid, we don’t know if the transgene had anything to do with it. This would be like forcing humans with blue eyes to keep cross breeding, then concluding that humans with blue eyes are smarter. Maybe it was hair color that made them smarter. Or larger brain volume. Or anything.
- Controlling for genes close to the EPSPS gene. The authors determined that hybrids that had EPSPS gene were glyphosate resistant, and those that didn’t, weren’t. That makes sense, but for the fact that genes sometimes are closely linked to other genes. In other words, there may have been a half dozen other genes linked to the EPSPS that conferred an advantage to the hybrid. The authors “assumed” that it didn’t. But that’s not even a reasonable assumption, that’s again ignoring other possibilities to confirm your hypothesis. Again, why was this article published?
Even though I don’t think that this study showed what everyone is claiming it showed, there’s another issue. In fact, if this really works, it gives a way to create a better GM hybrid rice that increases yield, substantially. All we have to do is determine what genes, that help express higher fitness, are linked to the EPSPS gene, patent it, sell this new hybrid seed, and we’re good to go. We have a higher yielding rice crop. And maybe we could find a similar gene combination in other grains.
I wrote this analysis and critique a few weeks ago, just based upon my reading of the data, and what other researchers, more closely aligned with this type of science, have said. This article makes no sense, and yet it was published. Until this week, when I was informed that a response to the Wang et al. article had just been published in New Phytologist. The authors of the letter, Gressel et al. made several harsh criticisms of the Wang et al. article including the lack of availability of genetic material foresting.
Gressel et al. made other scientific points, the most important of which I’ll summarize here:
- They dispute the conclusion that the hybrid weedy rice actually had a fitness advantage. As I said above, the fitness may have been associated with ESPS gene, or weedy rice is inherently more fit. But Wang et al. failed to provide any data that would support their conclusion of excess fitness.
- Wang et al. failed to mention that there are numerous methods to reduce or eliminated transgenic gene flow. If there really is an improved fitness in transferring the ESPS gene, then there are ways to block that. Wang et al. assumed that once (or really if) genes were transferred the weedy rice would take over the field.
- Wang et al. did not make a statement that the genetic materials would be made available to other researchers, and in fact did not provide said material. This is a very critical step in the scientific method. If one group discovers some novel genetic idea, other researchers need to validate it. New Phytologist even issued a statement about this violation:
Editorial Note: the Letter from Gressel et al. states that sequence data were not supplied in Wang et al., despite this being a requirement of the Journal. In light of this, New Phytologist has taken steps to ensure that authors must, if their paper includes new sequence data, provide the relevant accession numbers. In addition, we have made our policy on data deposition explicit by amending our Author Guidelines. These now state that New Phytologist requires authors to make their data available to readers and interested parties upon reasonable request.
So, here we go. The experiments were fairly poorly designed (again what was the journal thinking when they accepted the study). And the results, even if true, may not lead to where the anti-GMO forces think it leads. It may just lead to better, more productive, GMO rice!
This is why one publication, even one that appears to be well done, cannot be the basis of a conclusion. I, and most others in science, examine the one article, but using our rational minds, compare it to the broad knowledge that has been published previously. It’s how science works. A single data point doesn’t a theory make. It requires dozens of studies. But this study on weedy rice was, in fact, so poorly done, so poorly managed, to me, it adds nothing to the discussion about genetically modified food. None.
* The original article is hidden behind a paywall. I cannot stand paywalls for scientific and medical articles, because too many people read only the abstract, and try to conclude that they understand it, just from a few words. Good critical thinking skills requires us to read the whole article.
- Gressel J, Neal Stewart C Jr, Giddings LV, Fischer AJ, Streibig JC, Burgos NR, Trewavas A, Merotto A Jr, Leaver CJ, Ammann K, Moses V, Lawton-Rauh A. Overexpression of epsps transgene in weedy rice: insufficient evidence to support speculations about biosafety. New Phytol. 2014 Apr;202(2):360-2. doi: 10.1111/nph.12615. PubMed PMID: 24645782. Impact factor: 6.736.
- Wang W, Xia H, Yang X, Xu T, Si HJ, Cai XX, Wang F, Su J, Snow AA, Lu BR. A novel 5-enolpyruvoylshikimate-3-phosphate (EPSP) synthase transgene for glyphosate resistance stimulates growth and fecundity in weedy rice (Oryza sativa) without herbicide. New Phytol. 2013 Aug 1. doi: 10.1111/nph.12428. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 23905647. Impact factor: 6.736.