From what I have read about him, I am pretty sure that Richard Feynman would not have signed the recent letter in which a large percentage of our living Nobel laureates urged Greenpeace to end its opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 for his basic research in quantum electrodynamics. He also knew and thought a lot about technology–i.e. the application of basic science–because of his work on the Manhattan Project during World War II. (He was also the guy who famously dropped a Shuttle o-ring into a glass of ice water to demonstrate a deadly flaw after the Challenger tragedy.)
In his book The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, Feynman described the role he believed scientists should play when science moves out of the lab and into real world applications such as–in the case of genetically engineered (GE) foods–onto people’s dinner plates. Feynman said that scientists should explain the science behind the technology to the public, and in doing so they should not “only tell what’s true but…make clear all the information that is required for somebody else who is intelligent to make up their mind” about the technology. He was very adamant that scientists should be abjectly honest when carrying out this duty for the public, i.e. they should not just tell the truth, but the whole truth and nothing but the truth when explaining their science.
He also said that technology “carries with it no instructions on how to use it…[and that how to control technology] is something not so scientific and is not something that the scientist knows so much about.”
So, based on these thoughts of Citizen-Scientist Feynman, I don’t think he would have signed that GMO-promoting “Laureate Letter” for at least two reasons.
1) The letter is not an attempt to explain the science of genetic engineering to the public, but rather a collection of general statements that does not convey the whole truth about (among other things): the technology’s possible risks, who is currently responsible for declaring them “safe” and the results of animal-feeding studies. (For a more thorough review of these issues please see “Statement: No scientific consensus on GMO safety,” signed by another group of scientists.)
2) The letter delves instead into the realm of control/regulation of the technology, the realm Feynman described as one “not so scientific” and “not something that the scientist knows so much about.”
Granted, even though the Laureate Letter-signers are not (at least to my knowledge) experts in crop genetic engineering, they are certainly entitled to their opinions as citizens on how this powerful technology could and should be applied to our global food systems.
But I wonder if they know that over the decades that we have been debating how to control/regulate this technology, most of the scientists who are experts in crop genetic engineering have not been telling the public the whole truth about it. The consequent dearth of abject honesty about the science behind the technology of genetic engineering has, in my opinion, confounded people who are intelligent in making up their minds about GMOs.
Take the title, “Laureates Letter Supporting Precision Agriculture (GMOs),” as exhibit A. The letter organizers are obviously equating GMOs with “Precision Agriculture,” consistent with the fact that most proponents of GE crops over the last 25 years have touted the “precision” of crop genetic engineering.
But the whole truth includes the fact that there are many imprecise aspects of this technology as well; it’s just that most GMO proponents never mention them, at least not in public.
For example, with both of the methods that have been used to insert foreign genes into the GE crops we in the U.S. have been eating since the mid 1990s, genetic engineers have no control over where in the plant’s genome the foreign genes will be inserted and, it turns out, those foreign genes can land in and insertionally mutate protein-coding genes in recipient plants at rates of 27-63%. These mutation rates are high enough that the Agrobacterium-mediated method of genetic engineering was used by plant scientists in a largely successful effort to mutate (and tag) every protein-coding gene in the Arabidopsis thaliana genome.
Somaclonal variation, inadvertent insertion of “extra” vector DNA and unintended changes in the types and numbers of endogenous sRNAs expressed in GE plants are other examples of the “imprecision” inherent in the technology of crop genetic engineering as it has been practiced over the last 25 years.
Adverse consequences of some of these imprecisions, like inserted vector DNA sequences or mutations in endogenous protein-coding genes (at least in crops for which complete genome sequences are available), can be identified in crop plants that have been genetically engineered and give genetic engineers the option to eliminate such material from their product pipelines. But, because we just don’t know enough yet about plant genomes, physiology, biochemisty, etc., we can’t do the same for others. In fact, it is because of the imprecision inherent in the technology of crop genetic engineering, and the unexpected, unintended consequences that might occur as a result of them, that GE food crops are fed to rats…to check for possible negative consequences that cannot be anticipated.
Additionally, and despite the claim in the Laureate Letter that “There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from [the] consumption” of a GE food, there are actually a few peer-reviewed scientific articles that have described negative health outcomes in animals fed some GE crop-derived foods. (See, for example, articles in The Lancet and Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. Also of interest, the U.S. corn crop was monitored for seven years after StarLink™ corn was removed from the market until levels of the GE protein in it, which posed concerns related to human allergenicity, were deemed below levels of concern/detection.)
But, instead of following up on these studies to confirm or refute their results–as the scientific method I was taught dictates (and, it seems to me, the government agencies responsible for “regulating” these products should require)–plant molecular biologists and others with similar conflicts of interest in relation to GE crops have instead called for retractions and vilified study authors. In one infamous case of a “negative” study involving Monsanto’s NK603 corn variety, a peer-reviewed paper in print for over a year in a respected international journal was retracted for mere “inconclusiveness.” (NK603 is a good example of the imprecision of genetic engineering at the molecular level, as described in an earlier post on this blog.)
One could conclude that crop/plant scientists who call for retractions instead of experiments to confirm/negate initially published “negative” results are trying to prevent others from being abjectly honest in explaining the science behind genetic engineering to the public.
And I just don’t think that Richard Feynman would have been okay with that.
Technology is a very different thing than basic science. Technology, as Feynman described it, “carries with it no instructions on how to use it, whether to use it for good or for evil.” And that, along with the imprecisions inherent in the technology of crop genetic engineering, is why each GE food crop should be regulated on a case-by-case basis.
The World Heath Organization agrees: “Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” (See my post on this subject, and references cited therein.)
Golden Rice? It’s developers have not even submitted it to regulatory agencies for safety assessment yet. And the hold-up has not been Greenpeace but the fact that the GE rice varieties developed thus far have yields deemed too low for farmer acceptance.
So what is needed now is higher yielding GE Golden Rice varieties, and abjectly honest scientific data assessing their safety, to submit to regulatory agencies in the Philippines, Pakistan, etc.
Not the general views or opinions of superlative basic scientists about what is still a hypothetical product of the technology of genetic engineering…
Not cherry-picked pieces of pro-GMO information…
And certainly not the emotion-packed suggestion about a “crime against humanity” that was used to close the Laureate Letter.
I can only imagine what Richard Feynman would have had to say about that!