What could be a more fitting topic for a Halloween post than cucurbits, the family of plants that (in addition to crops like watermelon and cucumber) include squash and pumpkins? Yeah, I know it’s a stretch.
A week ago a paper came out in PNAS (the proceedings of the national academy of sciences. A very prestigious journal, one step down from Science or Nature), that showed when an artificially inserted gene in squashes that provided virus resistance was introgressed into a wild related species it actually made them less fit. Short version: the wild squash also suffer from the virus which attacked domesticated squash but are also attacked by beetles, and the beetles prefer to eat squash without the virus. Tomorrow’s Table has a much better and more complete explanation of the research.
In that post the very first commenter predicted the result, that in this particular case a transgene (like most genes involved in domestication) was beneficial for farmers but not for wild plants, would be spun into “another failure for GMOs” when the real message is “we were worried about pollen drift, but in this case it turns out we didn’t have to be.”
He was right.
The research paper itself was released on the PNAS website on october 23rd. One week ago.
The first time non-scientists probably would have read about it was this piece, which stays true to the results of the paper which came out from NPR on the 27th.
The next day (the 28th) La Vida Locavore picked up the story, managing to mangle the science in the process.
One day after that (the 29th) Grist cites the La Vida Locavore story as proof for the statement:
And when scientists do create a more useful GMO trait, like virus resistance in squash, things still don’t turn out right. In field trials, the GMO squash was indeed more resistant to the viruses, but more susceptible to a squash-killing bacteria. As a result, the conventional squash out-performed them.
Which is completely false since that original research wasn’t a field trial and was working with wild species, not actual domesticated squash plants. The squash farmers are doing fine. Most farmers are actually quite smart people, they have to be to succeed in modern agriculture. If GM seed isn’t providing a benefit to them (and sometimes it won’t, depending on the area, local pests, the trait, and the crop), they’re not going to pay extra for it.
So there you have it, from cool scientific publication, to interesting news story, to spin, lies, and distortions in less than a week.
Predictably the same article on grist also cites the Des Moines Register article I talked about here two days ago.