The 2,340th Meeting of the Society

December 5, 2014

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

The 35 Years GMO War

Nina V. Fedoroff

Evan Pugh Professor of Biology, Penn State University
Distinguished Professor of Biosciences Emerita
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

About the Lecture

The molecular and genetic revolutions of the late 20th century gave rise to new gene-based approaches in agriculture. Despite the widespread acceptance and use of older gene modification technologies in agriculture, the use of the new molecular techniques came under fire early in their development in the mid-1980s. Today, only crop plants and animals modified by molecular techniques are designated “genetically modified organisms” or GMOs. Despite substantial evidence of their safety and efficacy, GMOs remain embroiled in fierce controversy.

The lecture will address both the historical origins of the GMO controversy and its current manifestations in widespread protests, often focused on multinational biotech companies such as Monsanto, and destruction of public sector GMO research efforts. Despite these on-going conflicts, the GM crops that have reached markets have been adopted very rapidly by farmers around the world and have provided substantial economic and ecological benefits in countries permitting their adoption. However, many potentially beneficial GM animals and crops, such as the Golden Rice pictured, remain mired in costly and lengthy regulatory requirements.

About the Speaker

NINA V. FEDOROFF is Evan Pugh Professor of Biology and Willaman Professor of Life Science at Penn State University. She is a member of the External Faculty of the Santa Fe Institute and Distinguished Professor of Biosciences Emerita of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. She serves as Science Adviser to the Global Knowledge Initiative, which she established to forge collaborations between scientists in developed and developing countries. She is a trustee of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt and a member of the Science Advisory Board of the Santa Fe Institute. Nina received her BS from Syracuse University and her PhD in Molecular Biology from Rockefeller University. She was a member of the faculty at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the Johns Hopkins University before joining the faculty at Pennsylvania State University. At Penn State Nina has served as Director of the Biotechnology Institute and as founding Director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. She is an author of three books and more than 160 papers in scientific journals. She is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2006. She was Science and Technology Adviser to the US Secretary of State and to the Administrator of USAIDA. Nina was President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2012 Before becoming a scientist, Nina worked as a Russian-English translator, serving as the Assistant Manager of the Translation Bureau Biological Abstracts, and as a musician, playing flute in the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra and teaching.


President Larry Millstein called the 2340th meeting of the Society to order on December 5, 2014 at 8:06 p.m. He announced the order of business and welcomed new members to the Society. The previous meeting's minutes were read and approved. The President then presented a summary of the 15th meeting of the Society on November 18, 1871, in which President Henry gave his annual address, the Society received a letter on the American expedition to the North Pole, and a paper on the spectrum of Encke's comet was presented. President Millstein then introduced the speaker for the evening, Nina Fedoroff of Penn State University. Her lecture was entitled "The 35 Years GMO War."

Dr. Fedoroff began her lecture by introducing the history surrounding genetically modified organisms. A GMO is an organism, such as a crop plant, that has been modified by the addition of genetic material through modern molecular methods. The current controversy about GMOs is whether they are a public menace or essential technology for a growing population on a planet with a changing climate.

Dr. Fedoroff then surveyed the history of food gathering and production. She noted the problems of a growing population, soil exhaustion, and rising food prices in some parts of the world. She noted that the world was able to avoid a Malthusian collapse through science and the development of synthetic fertilizers, genetics, and the internal combustion engine, all of which vastly transformed agriculture.

For example, Norman Borlaug, a leader in the so-called Green Revolution, developed higher-yield crops for famine-plagued and poverty-stricken populations in Asia. He used genetic modifications to develop these crops.

Dr. Fedoroff then noted that the world's population growth is slowing, but will probably not stop short of the ten billion mark. Increasing economic development will increase the demand for meat, and hence for more feed stocks. Rising global temperatures will reduce yields, and water resources for irrigation are being exhausted. Greenhouse agriculture can help satisfy some of the demand, but grains cannot grow under glass. Moreover, we are using a hundred million tons of fertilizer per year, and it is poisoning water sources. We are also using a billion pounds of insecticide a year, which kills both pests and beneficial insects. GMOs can help reduce and overcome these problems.

The molecular and genomic innovations of the last half of the 20th century have created a strain of GM corn that is inherently pest-resistant and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. This innovation has been adopted around the world. But environmentalists today are often vocal opponents of GMOs, despite these advantages to the environment.

Current GMO crops include corn, cotton, beans, and canola. GM technology has added $116.6 billion to farmer income between 1996 and 2012, with half of this occurring in developing countries. Yield increases are of the order of 10 to 15%. GMO crops have greatly reduced CO2 emissions and increased carbon sequestration.

Very few specialty crops, such as fruits and vegetables, however, make use of GM technology. The only one to date is the ringspot-virus resistant papaya which saved the Hawaiian papaya industry in the 1990s. The reason is the prohibitive cost of the current regulatory process. Just to bring a single variety of crop to market can cost more than $100 million and take many years. Small companies cannot bear this cost, and specialty seed markets cannot absorb it.

Dr. Fedoroff then said that the problem with our future food security is not the science; it is the people, policy, and politics. She recounted the history of obtaining approval for recombinant DNA technology in the 1970s and 1980s, which made use of a respected advisory committee.

Around 1984, however, there were several requests to field-test plants. This resulted in a regulatory framework for transgenic plants in 1986. The general approach was that the use of these plants was not inherently risky, but could be regulated under existing statutes. In 1987, the National Academy of Sciences released a white paper concluding that there were no unique risks associated with the use of molecular biology to modify the genomes of crop plants. The recommendation was to base regulations on the properties of the organisms, and not on the process of their creation. But the actual regulation, as it developed, was in fact process-based, hugely expensive, and reinforced the public perception that GMOs are especially risky and to be feared. Years of work on improving important crops has been destroyed around the world by this perception.

Dr. Fedoroff wondered if, while we have created a regulatory tangle around transgenic technologies, it may be possible with newer technologies to avoid such tangles. She is of the opinion that science-based regulation is not likely to be adopted in the United States soon, but it is more likely to be taken up in South America, Bangladesh, Canada, and India.

In summary, Dr. Fedoroff said that we are approaching a tipping point, with an expected population of 10 billion people. Will we cling to fear-based systems, or be able to weigh the pros and cons of new technologies and use them? She believes we can, but will we?

After the question and answer period, President Millstein thanked the speaker, made the usual housekeeping announcements and invited guests to join the Society. At 9:17 p.m., President Millstein adjourned the 2340th meeting of the Society to the social hour.

Attendance: 86
The weather: Overcast
The temperature: 5.7°C
Respectfully submitted,

Zeynep Dilli
External Communications Director & Recording Secretary