Nature Biotechnology slammed over IAASTD
Off the rails or on ?
Nature Biotechnology May 2008 Volume 26, Issue 5
To the editor:
Your March editorial on the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Report(1) raises what it views are both specific flaws in content of the Biotechnology Synthesis and the extensive peer-review process under which it was developed. The editorial demonstrates fundamental misunderstandings of the process and the Report, which is both disappointing and inappropriate considering that it was published on the eve of the meeting where governments will debate the Report.
You begin by criticizing the very definition of biotechnology used in the Synthesis, complaining "the focus was muddied - where the definition of biotech is so broad it's virtually meaningless." Oddly, this is the same definition adopted in international agreements on biodiversity and consistent with your magazine's content. It would be irresponsible of the Report authors to focus exclusively on genetically modified (GM) crops at the expense of other biotechnologies that will be essential for meeting in a sustainable manner the present and future needs of the poor, hungry and malnourished.
The editorial then asserts a dispute between the "industry" and the Report, extending that to the Synthesis authors who, it therefore concludes, must present "biotech from a highly skewed viewpoint" in contrast to a view implied to be uniform among all the different commercial activities in biotechnology and all the workers in these companies and research organizations. In contrast, the IAASTD Secretariat assembled over 900 competent authors and reviewers. How is that substantial research-based voice less credible than the few anecdotes provided in the editorial as the voice of "industry and scientific groups"?
Perhaps the most contradictory aspect of the editorial is the claim that the Synthesis is too negative on GM crops while then going on to admit that this assessment just about might be arguable with regard to the achievements of the past 10 years". As GM crops have been in commercial production for about that long, what other evidence could the Report authors have drawn upon? The editorial implies that we already have the answers within the "broad church of scientific thinking on GM crops." What a truly curious metaphor from a piece of writing that sets itself up to be more objective than thou. That "church" has also been used in the past to delay recognition of climate change and policy changes that might have prevented the mad cow and now the human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob epidemics, to name a few recent examples. Why attack a Report that has been subject to the most comprehensive international peer review just because some of its conclusions do not favor the views of a small number of companies and commentator groups?
Some background to the Synthesis would be helpful for correcting misinterpretations of the process. Although the editorial asserts that the Synthesis is against GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in general and GM crops in particular, this could not be further from the truth. The IAASTD Report is original thinking developed by authors that were from the private sector, academia, government and nongovernmental organizations. The substantial Report is directly grounded in the research literature.
The Synthesis, however, is not an assessment of biotechnology separate from the Report, but a representative compilation of the major issues described in the Report. It is misleading for Nature Biotechnology to criticize the Synthesis as "unsupported by data" because only the Report and not the Synthesis was allowed to make direct reference to the literature. The topics chosen by the authors for the Biotechnology Synthesis were given priority based on frequency of appearance and literature citations. What the Synthesis authors could not do was invent a topic that was not in the Report. The editor was right to criticize an industry that did not contribute, or did not produce evidence to maintain, hypothetically missing topics.
Your editorial highlights the role of industry representation in the Report and Synthesis, so further clarification is warranted. As one 'biotech industry' representative is reported by Nature Biotechnology to have said, industry did not have the time - perhaps did not find this exercise important enough to make the time - to participate at the scale it supposedly now in hindsight thinks that it ought to have. The industry representative had the lead responsibility for the initial draft of the Biotechnology Synthesis, something that was willingly agreed to by all authors. However, the industry contribution appeared three weeks later than promised and only two weeks before the deadline. What finally came was an assemblage of excerpts, from only a few places, rather than being a comprehensive survey of the themes in the Report, or wholly new opinions which had not gone through the IAASTD assessment and peer-review process. Subsequent drafts developed by the team to meet the impending deadline got no comments from the industry representative until long after the deadlines had passed. Nevertheless, the Secretariat relaxed the deadlines for the Biotechnology Synthesis, but in the end, even these extensions failed to elicit a substantive contribution from the 'biotech industry'. In short, to argue that the industry was somehow denied their proper role in this process is to seriously misrepresent how hard other authors and the Secretariat worked to accommodate them.
The Report does not close the door on GM crops; it opens the door for this and other technologies that bring solutions suited to poor and subsistence farmers and their local communities. As far as GM crops go, even the editorial seems to muster only faint praise for what the 'biotech' companies have done with ten years of opportunity to apply modern biotechnology solutions to yield and intensification problems. Nature Biotechnology perhaps should be asking why existing public and commercial frameworks have not led to a GM crop industry that has progressed beyond "an approach that might just have quite a bit to offer to agriculture in the next 50 years." The Report should not be dismissed just because some do not like the answers it provides.
Jack A. Heinemann
Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety,
University of Canterbury, 22 Kirkwood Ave., Christchurch, New Zealand 8020.
1. Anonymous. Nat. Biotechnol. 26, 247 (2008)