Union of Concerned Scientists Vs Pamela Roland

The magazine "Boston Review" has published in its September issue "a forum" on GM crops.

The "forum" kicked off with a long article by the well known GM proponent Dr Pamela Ronald promoting the value of genetic engineering for agriculture and attacking GM labelling.

The "Boston Review" also published 8 much shorter responses to Ronald's article. However, 5 of these came from other GM proponents - some, like Nina Fedoroff and Robert Paarlberg, with biotech industry connections. Another response came from Greg Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI is one of the very few consumer-advocacy groups to take a pro-GM stance, although CSPI does support improvements to the US's lax regulatory system.

The two remaining responses - from Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the biotech scientist Prof. Jack Heinemann - were from a more critical perspective. Margaret Mellon, for example, makes the basic point that GM has been greatly over-hyped compared to the considerable successes of conventional breeding and agro-ecology.

Tellingly, the Boston Review didn't only ensure that voices like Mellon's were very much in the minority, it also provided no responses to Ronald from anybody in the global South, even though Ronald's article particularly promoted GM in terms of its value to farmers in the developing world. This led the internationally acclaimed Kenyan writer, Shailja Patel, to challenge the Boston Review over its inability to find a single such voice from the whole of Africa, Asia or Latin America, commenting, "a forum on GMOs without a voice from the South" was rather like "a forum on Syria without a single Syrian voice".

The forum also gave the final word to Pamela Ronald who was given a second article in which to reply to the responses to her main article. And Ronald has used this reply to launch a scathing attack on the Union of Concerned Scientists, describing it as "once well respected" but now "increasingly untethered from science" on the subject of GM. Ronald also accused UCS of disregarding "decades of research and the conclusions of the global scientific community" and of displaying "little concern for farmers, global food security, and environmental degradation". She even accused UCS of fanning "the flames of misinformation and fear". Ronald rounded off her attack by rubbishing three UCS reports on GM, which she dismissed as "widely discredited, but UCS keeps churning them out without critical review".

To anyone familiar with the very careful work of UCS and the reports produced by UCS's senior scientist for its Food and Environment Program, Doug Gurian-Sherman, Ronald's attack is extraordinary.

Dr Gurian-Sherman, far from being some anti-GM hothead hell-bent on fanning "the flames of misinformation and fear", not only has a doctorate in plant pathology from UC Berkeley and did post-doctoral research on rice and wheat molecular biology at a USDA laboratory, but formerly worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) where he was responsible for assessing human health and environmental risks from GM plants and microorganisms, and for developing biotech policy. He has also worked in the Biotechnology Group at the US Patent and Trademark Office and has worked as an advisor on biotech to the Food and Drug Administration.

And when Gurian-Sherman left the EPA, it was initially to become the founding co-director and science director for the biotechnology project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest - an NGO that has, as we've already noted, a cautiously pro-GM stance. And although over time Dr Gurian-Sherman has become more openly critical of the way in which GM crops are developed, marketed and regulated, even at UCS he is not part of an organisation that has a position of blanket opposition to GM crops.

The fact that Ronald feels the need to try and brand even such cautious and well informed criticism as that of Gurian-Sherman and UCS as "alarmism" is very revealing as to how she, like a number of other GM proponents, deals with even the most informed of critical voices in the GM debate. And Doug Gurian-Sherman wrote to her to point out that in dismising his UCS reports in such blanket terms - "widely discredited" etc. - without specific points of criticism, it made it impossible for UCS to reply

As a result, Ronald has now published a correction of sorts to her attack on UCS's reports. This is available on a separate blog that she now has with Scientific American - because, yes, this hard-core GM supporter has, as Tom Philpott has noted, been turned into "the go-to intellectual to adjudicate the GMO debate" by not just the Boston Review.

Ronald's correction is reproduced below and as you will see it is actually used to launch further attacks. We have also reproduced some of the responses to it, including those of Gurian-Sherman.

Tom Philpott has also challenged Roanald's dismissal of Gurian-Sherman's work as "widely discredited". Pamela Ronald tried to support her claim by providing a link to an article by Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent of the ultra-libertarian Reason magazine. Bailey for anyone who doesn't know is author of "Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse...", and of articles such as "Organic farming could kill billions of people" and "Send in the Clones". He also has long-standing connections to the extremist Wise Use Movement.

Understandably, Tom Philpott asked Pamela Ronald, "on what planet is Ronald Bailey, climate denier turned climate down-player, capable of 'discrediting' someone's research?"

Of course, Pamela Ronald and Ronald Bailey are not alone in being keen to damage UCS's reputation. Mark Lynas, for instance, dismissed the organisation on BBC HardTalk as merely a "lobby group" with "almost no scientists on its staff", even though, as Gurian-Sherman's cv makes all too clear, the scientific credentials of UCS's staff are considerable (Lynas, on the other hand, has none). Lynas has also attempted to claim that Gurian-Sherman orchestrated opposition among scientists to a statement on GM by AAAS's board - a claim Lynas was subsequently forced to retract as completely untrue.

The reason for these attacks, of course is that UCS has been highly effective in undermining the hype around GM crops, and so GM propagandists are desperate to either smear it or silence it.

Update to "Boston Review" Forum on GMOs

Pamela Ronald, September 10 2013

Doug Gurian-Sherman at the Union of Concerned scientists wrote me a polite email yesterday. He protested that one of the sentences in my response to Margaret Mellon’s response to my recent Boston Review piece on “GMOs”, was “not professional and far from worthy of my typical efforts”. I appreciate his candor and civility and have concluded that he is right - the sentence was overly harsh and not specific enough to be meaningful. How can UCS respond to such a broad attack? For these reasons, please consider this sentence deleted:

“The three UCS pieces that Mellon cites have been widely discredited, but UCS keeps churning them out without critical review.”

and replaced with this:

“The UCS reports cited by Mellon were published and distributed without critical review. Since publication, several scientists have noted selective use of datasets and calculation errors in the initial report. Specifically, because the benefits of GE crops to neighboring farms, were not included in the UCS analysis, the conclusions of the report are not useful. Furthermore, the report focused only on corn and soybean in the US, omitting the extensive data available from cotton and canola in the US and abroad. Finally, the UCS claim that GE crops on the market have “failed to yield”. This is highly misleading. One of the first GE traits developed, BT crops, was designed to guard the plants against insect damage and reduce the use of sprayed insecticides. A decade of peer-reviewed reports attests to the success of this approach in achieving these objectives. In addition, BT crops have reduced pesticide poisonings of farmers and their families and dramatically enhanced yields in developing countries. Collectively, these omissions in the UCS report serve to distort the actual situation and confuse the public.”

The editors of the Boston Review have agreed to post this link at the end of my response on their website. I will also post this note in the BR comments section.


1. hicks.daniel.j

(If this comes off as too hostile, I apologize in advance — I’m a philosopher, and our normal tone is antagonistic.)

Peer review doesn’t always provide a good reason to trust a source. I spent last Monday tracking down citations for a peer-reviewed publication that’s been cited by Monsanto to support the claim that GM crops have increased yields. For the developing world, the citations in this article were to papers that were more than 10 years old, statistically weak, published by individuals or organizations with biotechnology industry connections, or simply unavailable through standard academic channels. In addition, the article was written by consultants who have worked for Monsanto in the past, and this possible conflict of interest was not disclosed. You can read that post here:

I haven’t yet conducted a similar review of the citations in the Carpenter paper that you [Pamela Ronald] link under “peer-reviewed reports,” though I plan to do so in the next few weeks. I note, however, that Carpenter’s piece is designed to look like a meta-analysis, yet doesn’t include the methodological details that a meta-analysis should; uses an unusual and coarse statistical methodology; and the web version of Carpenter’s paper (N.B. not the published/PDF version) discloses that her research was supported by CropLife International, which is a biotechnology industry organization. For these reasons at least, critics of GM crops have reason not to take Carpenter’s findings at face value.

2. Doug Gurian-Sherman

I appreciate Pam’s willingness to edit her original statement. However, there remain several inaccuracies or points of contention in her correction.

First, she continues to refer to “the UCS reports cited by Mellon,” but her new critique focuses on only one of those reports, “Failure to Yield,” published in 2009. That report was followed by “No Sure Fix” in 2009, addressing the important environmental issue of whether GE was addressing nitrogen use and pollution, and “High and Dry,” published in 2012, about GE and drought tolerance (all linked in the “learn more” section here: ).

Together, these reports show that for these important traits GE has accomplished relatively little—and has produced no commercial traits for nitrogen efficiency in the US—where GE must compete with other advanced agricultural technologies and methods. GE has no commercial traits for drought tolerance or nitrogen use efficiency globally.

Importantly, the reports also show that breeding has, and continues to accomplish, much more in aggregate than GE for all of these traits (and others), and why this is not likely to change much in the in the next several years. The yield contribution of breeding and improved agronomy, for example, is higher than for GE in corn in the US (or soybeans). And breeding and agronomy have steadily improved drought tolerance and nitrogen use efficiency.

It is important to understand that breeding has barely scratched the surface of its potential, as a recent review in the prestigious journal Nature pointed out ( and in this blog post: ). This is why it is critically important for public sector breeding, producing public crop varieties, to be better funded.

Similarly, ecological farming methods can accomplish a huge amount of improvement in sustainability and crop resilience, as the reports also discuss.

Second, Ronald incorrectly claims that the reports did not receive critical review. All UCS reports must be reviewed by outside expert reviewers, usually academic scientists, in relevant fields. There have been at least three for each of the above reports (see the acknowledgments sections), and all made critical suggestions for change that were largely incorporated.

The reports did not go through the anonymous peer review used by science journals. But neither do reports from US government science agencies, and so on. Neither did Ronald’s own book, I assume (it would be virtually unheard of), which she actively promotes in the hope, I have to believe, of trying to influence the public debate on GE based on its ideas and science analysis. Most of the literature analyzed in my reports consists of peer-reviewed science journal articles.

Journal peer review is an important process, but not the only one that produces important and legitimate science analysis. UCS reports or Ronald’s own book can be evaluated by scientists and anyone else for the quality and accuracy of their content, which is what should ultimately matter.

More substantively, we could not really have omitted the area-wide (beyond those who use Bt) suppression of European corn borer data in our 2009 report, because the suppression data were not published at the time our report was released, so not readily available. However, it is an important piece of the yield puzzle. Because I used a conservative approach in my calculations, area-wide suppression should not make much difference. I assumed that virtually all acres that experienced heavy infestations of borer, based on historical data, would use Bt and would achieve 100 percent control. Only acres with lower borer infestations were likely omitted from my calculations. Data discussed in my report suggest that low to moderate infestation suffer no to small (a few percent) yield loss. So it is likely that the area-wide suppression of borer would only add a small amount to the yield above my calculations. In addition, the other Bt, for rootworm, achieves no area-wide suppression. Nonetheless, additional analysis of yield benefit since the report is needed to clarify and quantify this issue, and review other newer literature.

The report did not claim that Bt failed to yield, as Ronald suggests. The content of the report showed modest yield benefit from Bt on corn. And the report was not misleading in not including data on things like chemical pesticide reduction in corn or other crops. All reports and papers (including those by Ronald) have limits on their extent and coverage. Our report was about one important parameter—crop productivity (and in fact we did acknowledge in the report that chemical pesticide reduction has been achieved in Bt corn and cotton, and is a good thing). Likewise we did not include cotton because we focused on food and feed crops. And both canola and cotton are minor crops in the US compared to soybeans and corn which we covered. Likewise yield in other parts of the world were simply beyond the scope of what we could cover with our resources. This is a complex question that is beyond what can be addressed here.

Therefore the reports are neither distortions nor misleading. If read carefully (a reasonable expectation by an author) they add useful data and analysis to the debate about these crops. And if put into the context of the additional literature about other issues regarding GE crops, can be evaluated for their proper contribution along with other analyses about the other issues that Ronald raises.
Link to this

3. Doug Gurian-Sherman

In addition, Carpenter’s peer-reviewed surveys include many that did not control for important variables (by using isogenic controls, widely agreed upon by scientists) or use econometric methods that may sometimes compensate for the lack of such controls. Therefore, her data overall are questionable.

In addition, her values for yield in Bt corn in the US in another peer-reviewed paper are close to mine. Yield benefit from herbicide tolerance has been shown to be very small (about 2 percent) in a recent paper that uses better methods and a more extensive dataset, though somewhat higher for Bt.