Monday, July 20, 2009

Down with the Union of Concerned "Scientists!"

I always assumed that the Union of Concerned Scientists, a special interest group, spoke for my interests as a scientist. They definitely do not.

Science had a brief history of UCS a few months ago. This group originally focused on what they considered to be an "appropriate" level of regulation for nuclear power. Since, they appear to have consistently leaned less towards the scientific viewpoint, than the environmentalist one (in the worst, religious fanatic sense of the word). I was incensed to discover on their website that they opposed genetic engineering for the same silly reasons offered elsewhere.

Well, they're at it again. They recently released the report: Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Modified Crops. According to a story in Nature Biotechnology, contacted public-sector crop scientists have been "uniformly critical" of this report, for lots of good reasons described therein.

I'll keep it simple. They suggest that Bt crops don't have higher yield than their conventional versions. (Bt is a natural bacterial toxin that kills insects and is often used in organic agriculture. Bt-GMO crops have been genetically engineered to produce the protein themselves instead of relying on the farmer to spray it.)

This is a complete strawman argument. The whole point of having the crop make its own Bt is that it saves the farmer money, time, pesticide applications and tractor fuel. This is good for the farmer and the environment, whether yields are higher than with conventional crops or not.  And let's not forget that not all pesticides are created equal.  The active ingredient in Roundup (glyphosate) is less dangerous to humans than either caffeine or aspirin.  Additionally, GM glyphosate and GM Bt resistance have largely supplanted the use of infamously dangerous old-fashioned pesticides like atrazine and organophosphates.  Whatever threats you may hypothesize to the former two, the latter two have left a real record of human death and ecological destruction.

Farmer's aren't stupid. If Bt crops didn't work, they wouldn't have been adopted at such a phenomenal rate.


  1. One would think that a "union of scientists" would understand the concept of a "fitness penalty"...if a plant produces an extra protein, wouldn't a yield loss be expected? Great find and good points on the oversight of the UCS.

  2. I just came across your blog. You have raised good and understandable questions about the Union of Concerned Scientists' report, Failure to Yield. My colleague and the report's author, Doug Gurian-Sherman, has addressed a number of very similar questions at some length in his online column at I hope you will take a look at his April 29, April 30, May 8, May 11, and August 4 posts there.

    It's not fair to say, as you have, that the report's analysis of Bt crop performance is based on a "strawman argument." One important reason for adding the Bt gene to crops is in fact to increase what is known as "operational yield," that is, the actual yield obtained after losses to insect pests, disease, and other environmental stressors. Failure to Yield shows that Bt corn has been slightly more successful at this than, say, Roundup Ready corn and soy, which have achived no such operational yield gains. Still, engineering for Bt has improved operational corn yields only marginally. And no genetically engineered crop has yet increased potential--or intrinsic--yield. Period.

    Yet that hasn't stopped the biotechnology industry trying to convince the public that genetically engineered crops are making great strides to increase crop productivity. Monsanto, for example, is currently running an advertising campaign warning of an exploding world population and claiming that its "advanced seeds...significantly increase crop yields..." (

    Finally, it is worth noting that while the author of the recent Nature Biotechnology article you referenced did assert that the "public-sector crop scientists contacted by Nature Biotechnology [who] responded to interview requests...were uniformly critical of the report," two of the five scientists subsequently quoted do not appear to be "public-sector crop scientists" at all. Jonathan Jones is identified both as "head of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre" (a non-governmental institution) and "a co-founder of plant biotech firm Mendel Biotechnology." And Val Giddings is identified as "president and CEO of Prometheus AB, a biotech consultancy." These sound like private sector crop scienists with a stake in the technology in question.

    Doug has addressed some other points made in the Nature Biotechnology article in his most recent (August 4) column at

    Karen Perry Stillerman
    Senior Analyst, Food & Environment Program
    Union of Concerned Scientists

  3. Thanks for the input, Karen.

    My point with the strawman comment is that there are multiple benefits to Bt and Roundup Ready crops - regardless of whether they have higher yields.

    More to the point, there is no theoretical or empirical evidence that moving genes with Agrobacterium is qualitatively different than moving them with pollen or changing them with natural/induced mutations. The current hostile regulatory atmosphere is absolutely strangling the potential of this incredible technology. A cheaper regulatory system would allow much more diverse (and potentially game-changing) traits to be developed and tested in crops (besides just the big commodities).

  4. Actually, Mat, it's your point that's moot. If UCS's goal was to argue that the yield benefits of the bt crop is effectively null, then that was met. You choose attack them on their motives and label them, instead of attacking their position.

    Not a terribly scientific approach, though too common a one in science these days, unfortunately.

  5. Hey Kit,

    Health and environmental sustainability are too important of issues to get into trench wars over semantics.

    The UCS has staked out a strong position against genetic engineering by proposing theoretical "risks" that have not been documented in nearly two decades of widespread planting of GM crops, nor in 10,000 years of plant breeding (which inherently shares most of these "risks").

    It is disappointing that an organization that supports science-based conclusions regarding controversial issues such as climate change, evolution and vaccines decides to ignore the science underlying plant genetics.

    I was pretty appalled to learn that this organization, which I always supported in the past, was actually NOT on the side of science. It's important for other people to see this to.

    Neither you nor I are 100% right in our opinions of this issue. I've made my arguments pretty clearly throughout this blog. If you'd like to discuss any particular details in more depth, feel free to post!

  6. Nice blog. I recently began to look into Henry W. Kendall's career, and he is a rather troubling figure. While his work on the underpinnings of the quark model is undoubtedly good, valuable, and scientific, his profile as an exponent of population control is . . . disturbing. He was, of course, the co-founder of the UCS. To put it simply, he accorded the environment a value independent of its relationship to human life, and proposed that developing nations must curb population growth before they can be allowed to receive development assistance. These may be fairly common positions, but their origins are ideological rather than scientific. . . .

  7. Very interesting, I'll have to look into that..




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