Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Venturing back in to the scientific space, here is an article by Ron Bailey at Reason about gmo corn and some published research in Nature. The paper provided some evidence that genes inserted into GMO corn may have crossed into native populations. The investigators used a very sensitive assay known as inverse PCR (IPCR). Mr. Bailey raises some questions about the article, and some about the motivations of the author. However, I think he goes much too far in calling on Nature to retract the paper. Is there any credible evidence that the paper's results are incorrect? Mr. Bailey cites some contradictory evidence from other, reputable sources, and points out that one of the authors has publicly stated his opposition to genetically modified organisms for food production. All this is well and good, and important for the discourse, but none of it means that these researchers are incorrect, only that it needs more study. Nature may or may not have been too quick to publish this, but any paper in virtually any journal can be criticized, but that is not the same as calling for a retraction of the paper. The article is misleadingly titled "Environmentalist Biofraud", but I see no evidence of fraud, merely some possibly overreaching statements in the conclusion of the paper. Mr. Bailey should be very careful, because the jury is still out on this one. The more important question, rather than is this paper correct, is whether we should be worried about cross breeding of GMO plants. I would cautiously say no, because, after all, natural selection still works. If the trait is harmful, it will be selected against, if it is beneficial, it will be selected for. In most cases, the trait in question is pest or pesticide resistance (either to allow use of no pesticide, or more pesticide, for crops). It is pretty hard to see how these traits, if let loose in the environment, could be harmful. That doesn't mean that they wouldn't, and scientists will and should answer these questions. If the authors were wrong, the normal process of reproducing controversial results (see two posts down), will eventually answer the question.