James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

October 31, 2009

Predictable Spinning of Squash

I dont have any picture of pumpkins handy, so this watermelon (and fellow cucurbit) will have to do.

I don't have any picture of pumpkins handy, so this watermelon (and fellow cucurbit) will have to do.

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.


  1. This is a great post, thanks so much!

    Comment by Liza Wheeler — October 31, 2009 @ 6:19 am

  2. Thank you!

    Comment by James — October 31, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

  3. I would have bet money that Locavore would misinterpret that. She and I have been going around the same swamp of her fallacies for years. And when I see them propagated to other sites it is nauseating. They have this network of foodie blogs that keep repeating the same wrong stuff, reinforcing each other without questioning.

    One time we were discussing something about the Rodale paper. I said something about the data. She assured me that I did not understand the Rodale paper and that I was completely wrong. I quoted it. She stopped speaking to me.

    Comment by Mary — October 31, 2009 @ 7:22 pm

  4. I don’t read the site often. In fact this is probably this first time since I got all fired up about the author calling the green revolution “no help at all”.

    Needless to say, so far I’m not impressed. Yet I’m sure the site gets more traffic in a day than I do in a month.

    Comment by James — October 31, 2009 @ 8:48 pm

  5. I don’t go to her blog, she posts on other large sites and that’s where we have locked horns.

    Comment by Mary — October 31, 2009 @ 9:47 pm

  6. Gotcha. I definitely see her writing cited a fair bit across the web.

    Comment by James — October 31, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

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