Sensationalizing science misleads public regarding GMOs

Posted on March 02, 2015

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A recent press release by the University of Guelph has received surprisingly widespread attention. University of Guelph researchers are said to have identified a gene that codes for a protein that brings about cleistogamy “cloistered gametes;" essentially pollination before flowering. Actually they looked at the levels of a chemical in two types of peach flowers, those which had very showy open flowers vs. those with almost closed flowers.

Much has been made of this discovery by the press release itself and it has been picked up subsequently by various media (including international newsfeeds). This is primarily because the press release takes what would have normally been a non-newsworthy piece of research (but maybe an important contribution to plant physiology) and extrapolates this finding to speculate on the potential this discovery may have to reduce “contamination” of non-GMO crops by GMO pollen – an extreme case of sensationalizing which uses the media hype around GMOs to garner attention. This extrapolation is predicated on the unfounded assumption that such pollen spread has negative consequences and the press release even raises the spectre of “superweeds,” which some media have then happily converted to the term "Frankenweeds." 

Cross pollination is a natural and harmless phenomenon that occurs at a low frequency in nearly all agricultural systems. However, the very low levels that might occur between adjacent crops of the same species, even crops with different end-use qualities, is never of any significance to have either an agronomic or economic impact; the chances of cross pollination between crops and their weedy relatives is even more remote. 

It is indeed difficult to visualize a scenario where a weed might gain some competitive advantage from a crop relative. Because of domestication, crops have lost most of their weedy traits and have little to offer to make a weed a “superweed." Such a scenario was certainly raised with the first herbicide-resistant crops, but all cases of herbicide resistance in weeds have arisen through the development of naturally occurring mutants in the weed species because of selection imposed by the herbicide, not through cross pollination. 

While this recent discovery by University of Guelph researchers may eventually lead to something useful many years from now (maybe a closed flowering habit could help to prevent fungal and bacterial pathogens getting into the flower and damaging seeds or fruits), I believe that the attempt to justify it on the basis of the GMO issue is both unfounded and unfortunate.

Dr. Graham Scoles
Associate Dean, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, University of Saskatchewan
  • Robert

    Posted on 06/03/2015

    Well said. Hype and extrapolation of basic science are having far too much notoriety. The result down the line is a loss in support for science. A disaster for society.