The Thick and Thin of the GMO debate

Last week I attended a lecture on GMOs by Richard Roberts, a scientist who received the 1993 Nobel Prize for discovering introns (sequences of non-coding DNA that are interspersed in coding regions) and the mechanism of gene splicing.

His talk framed GMO technology as a savior to the third world, with malnutrition and illness being alleviated by foods modified to produce more vitamins and minerals.

Roberts supported his thesis by centering his talk around golden rice, a rice cultivar that’s been modified to make beta-carotenes, precursors to vitamin A, that give the rice its distinctive golden hue.

Golden rice is an outlier when it comes to most GM foods. It’s intended for populations in developing countries (most GM food is grown in the U.S.A). It’s modified to produce a vital nutrient (the most prolific GM crops, soy and corn, produce pesticide and herbicide resistance). It’s intended for direct human consumption (most GM crops are grown for animal feed, or for their oil and sugar). And there are no royalty fees or seed-saving restrictions for farmers making less than $10,000 a year (farmers in the U.S.A. must abide by terms of use contracts, pay fees and not save seeds of crops under patent protection).

However, despite focusing on a GMO outlier, Roberts asserted that any perspective that criticized or rejected GMO technology in general—such as the European Union’s tight restrictions around GMfood—was anti-science and based purely on “emotion and fear.”

However, many in the audience brought up a variety of points on how suspicion of GMOs can stem from more than fear of health-concerns—the topic Roberts framed as being the public’s main issue. Instead the questions focused on:

  1. Intellectual property and questions of ownership.

  2. The role of local diets, and how supplemented foods may not work as well in the field as they do in research trials. (Most golden rice trials have been conducted using American subjects).

  3. Unintentionally promoting herbicide/pesticide resistance in weeds, and the potential for genetic drift between GMO cultivars and wild plants. (See Horseweed for an example of this).

The audience questions referenced actual cases and highlighted the complexities of an otherwise scientifically sound development. In contrast, Richards’ replies echoed the conceptual nature of his talk, and boiled down to all technologies have their pluses and minuses.

That’s true. But society and culture, through laws, business practices and behaviors of communities and individuals, control where the biggest impacts of a technology are most likely to be, how it develops and how it is applied.

Despite the large role of “unscientific” influences, it’s usually the scientists that play the largest role in introducing a technology to the world, and influencing what questions are legitimate. Other views are portrayed as irrational or unqualified or, as Roberts put it, “emotional.”

John Evans, a sociologist at UC San Diego who studies biotechnology, describes the tendency of scientific experts to be seen as more qualified among others as the “thin description” and credits its rise with the field of modern molecular genetics in the 1950s. 

Genetics enabled life’s processes, from animal reproduction to agriculture, to be understood and manipulated in an empirical, testable and precise manner, which led to issues surrounding life to be examined through a similar lens while rejecting others, says Evans.

“Those concerned with other issues were labeled irrational and ultimately voices of the public were excluded from serious consideration,” says Lianne McTavish, an art history professor at the University of Alberta, paraphrasing Evans in her chapter on the rhetoric of embryo depiction through time in the book “The ‘Healthy’ Embryo.”

I saw signs of the thin description in Roberts’ characterization of all GMO critics as “emotional.” But I also saw it manifest in another way at the lecture.

After the lecture I asked an audience attendee if he was interested in writing a piece for Vector. He had questioned Roberts on his characterization of GMO-critiques as emotional in light of very real questions of intellectual property and local control of agriculture systems.

His immediate response to writing a piece was “I’m no expert.”

I said that you don’t need to be.

To combat “thin description” that has a narrowing effect on discussion, Evans instead promotes “thick description,” an analysis that McTavish sums up as “interpretation attuned to the contexts and practices within which social meaning is produced.”

In other words, to understand the multifaceted consequences of a technology in the world, we need more voices than those so heavily invested in a technology's creation and study. These perspectives should be well-informed, well-developed and well-researched. And they should reach outside of the walls of the R&D lab.

 So have something to say about GMOs? We’re collecting submissions for our first issue dedicated to exploring the technology. Please drop us a line.

NOTE:  Roberts gave the same presentation I heard at a  Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting talk. The presentation is called a "Crime Against Humanity" and can be viewed here