The reign of poison, part II: Why the debate over GMOs is based on misinformation

Not long ago I was talking to a fellow environmentalist about fracking. It was her latest big cause, she said — really bad for the environment and on the rise across the United States.

“I don’t know a lot about fracking,” I told her. “I’ve heard a lot of people don’t like it, but yeah…So like what are they actually doing?”

It turned out she didn’t really know. She didn’t know how fracking worked; just knew it was bad because it involved lots of chemicals, oil companies are doing it and she’d heard it was bad for the environment.

We all do this sometimes. We decide whether we like something based on assumptions: what we want to believe, who we trust, what we think is natural, or what the Democrats or Republicans like (because we’re Democrats or Republicans and whatever our Party likes must be good). I tend to do this myself when it comes to political issues because I don’t follow politics very closely, so when I have to make up my mind about some kind of political issue, I tend to jump to knee-jerk conclusions. It’s not because I’m dumb or you’re dumb or we’re dumb, it’s because of time constraints. We’ve all got plenty of demands on our time — work, family, friends, credit card debt, significant other, hobbies, favorite TV shows, writing a science blog (!), playing beach volleyball, watching football, etc., and at the same time we’re expected to make up our minds about issues ranging from Obamacare to Proposition XYZ. We just don’t have time to investigate every single issue out there with the kind of thoroughness it deserves. And so we rely on assumptions, some of which are dumb assumptions if we took the time to stop and think about them. Natural is better than synthetic. Chemicals with long names are bad for you. If big companies like it, it must be bad for the environment. The Republicans care about middle-class values. I want to believe this, so it must be true.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the debate over genetically modified crops (GMOs). If you talk to people who don’t like GMOs, you’ll find some of them have wildly bizarre reasons (they’re destroying our gut flora, enabling corporate operations to take over farming, inserting foreign DNA into your body, etc.). More often, however, you’ll find people who don’t like GMOs don’t have any clear idea what they are. They know GMOS are unnatural, Monsanto makes them and Monsanto is a big company with an ugly history, and from this they deduce GMOs are bad for either us or the environment. Which makes about as much sense as assuming that since UnitedHealthcare has healthcare in their name and pictures of happy patients on their homepage, they must really care about making patients happy, right?


Like I said, we all make up our mind based on assumptions sometimes. But this is not the scientific way to make up your mind. In science you make up your mind based on the evidence. Is the evidence reliable? how was it collected? what does it suggest? and is your conclusion from that evidence consistent with what we know about the laws of nature (e.g. the laws of thermodynamics)? That’s it. We don’t care who disagrees or what their credentials are. I don’t care where you went to school or how many letters you have after your name. The ultimate arbiter in science is the data and what we know about the laws of Nature*. Period.

So let’s start over again and see if we can make up our mind about GMOs based on the science instead of the political crap. Let’s see why and how you make a genetically modified plant and think about what kinds of things could go wrong based on what we know.

*Or at least that’s how it should be. Unfortunately there’s politics in science as in everything else. But this is the way it should be.

So you’ve probably heard of proteins at one time or another. Proteins are all polymers made up of chemical units called amino acids. There are twenty common amino acids most organisms use. They’re all like this:

H2N-carbon with a side chain attached-COOH.

The only difference between these amino acids is the type of side chain they have. You can see what these look like in the diagram below.

amino_acids Now if you think back to those posts from a while ago on illegal drugs, you may remember that as you go towards the upper right-hand corner of the periodic table, elements get more electronegative, meaning they get more selfish about how they share electrons. Oxygen and nitrogen are much more selfish than carbon, whereas carbon and hydrogen tend to share electrons pretty evenly. A bond where electrons are shared evenly is “nonpolar”, whereas uneven sharing is “polar”, and the more unequal that sharing becomes, the more polar it is. You may also remember that “like dissolves like”; water is very polar, so it likes to dissolve polar compounds.

If you look at these side chains, some of them like the ones in phenylalanine and leucine are made of ONLY hydrogen and carbon. These are not going to get along very well with water at all; they’re pretty nonpolar. Others like lysine or serine have OH or NH2 groups. These get along just great with water.

A protein is a chain of amino acids. When you put it in water, it’s generally going to fold up in such a way that the greasy amino acids like leucine are buried in the interior where they stay out of contact with the water surrounding the protein, while the amino acids that DO get along great with water are all on the outside. That’s kind of the basic principle. It does get a little more complicated than that because these amino acids can interact with each other and so can the backbone of the protein (the part that is NOT side chains), but at the end of the day that’s the basic idea. The protein wants to fold up into a 3-D shape that’s stable because it maximizes favorable interactions like  a polar sidechain group exposed to water and minimizes unfavorable interactions like a nonpolar sidechain exposed to water.

When you’re dealing with a protein that has, say, three or four hundred amino acids, those 3-D shapes can get pretty complicated — a little like molecular origami. But at the end of the day the key take-home point, the thing you need to know is this. The sequence of amino acids in a protein determines what kind of shape or structure it’s going to become. And its shape in turn determines what it will do — how that protein is going to behave, how soluble it’s going to be, what it will react with and stick to.

For most of the past century, biologists have known there is a soil bacterium called Bt which produces proteins that kill certain insects. Don’t ask me why Bt wants to kill them; it’s just like Dexter. I don’t really know why he wants to kill people, but the show says he does. And as long as he’s just killing serial killers I guess that’s OK by me. The same applies here. Many microorganisms are embroiled in all kinds of crazy wars with both each other and much larger species. Regardless of the reason, Bt has developed a series of powerful tools for murdering insects: the Cry proteins.

The Cry proteins are very insoluble in water at acidic or neutral pH. Instead of dissolving, they form crystals, just like salt in the bottom of a glass. They only dissolve at high pH, up above 9.5 — the exact conditions found in the midgut of insects in the order Lepidoptera. Under these conditions the Cry protein dissolves — and that’s when it swings into action.

Enzymes that the insect uses to digest its food chop the Cry protein in two. One of the two parts, now that it’s on its own, can fold up into a new 3-D structure that will make it into a deadly weapon. This subunit is called delta-endotoxin. Thanks to its shape it can bind to proteins found on the surface of cells in the lepidopteran midgut. Once several delta-endotoxins come together, they form a pore in the cell membrane; the contents of the cell gush out through the pore and the cell dies. As thousands of cells fall apart and the lining of the insect’s gut disintegrates, the insect loses the ability to feed and slowly starves to death.

Cruel? No doubt. But Nature usually is. The important part from our point of view is that some species of insects in the order Lepidoptera want to eat our crops. The cry protein is highly toxic to them, and about as harmless to us as you can get. The important thing about it and the thing that makes it dangerous is a) the high pH of the Lepidopteran midgut and b) the fact that the shape of delta-endotoxin is a good fit for the shape of of proteins found on the surface of Lepidopteran midgut cells. From this point of view it makes an ideal pesticide, which is why some organic farmers have for many years sprayed Bt bacteria in water on their crops. The problem with spraying, however, is that insects have to eat the bacteria or the protein crystals and that limits its effectiveness more than you might think. Insects that tunnel into the plant, for example, will never eat the Bt, no matter how often you spray the bacteria on your plants.

What we really need to turn cry proteins into the ideal pesticides, then, is a way to put them into the plant. And this is where genetic engineering comes in.

Like any protein, the Cry protein is encoded by a stretch of DNA called a gene. The order of the As, Cs, Ts and Gs in that gene specifies which amino acids the protein will contain and in which order. The gene also contains a segment called a promoter that tells the cell when the gene should be “switched on” or activated and start coding for cry protein.

We can make lots of copies of the Cry gene using a technique called PCR, which makes a gazillion copies of a particular DNA sequence. (PCR is also used in DNA fingerprinting.) Once we have the Cry gene, we can use enzymes biologists have borrowed from bacteria called restriction enzymes that “cut-and-paste” DNA to insert the Cry gene into a small loop of DNA called a plasmid, a little like a tiny fruit loop. Now comes the hard part — getting the plasmid and the Cry gene it carries into a plant cell. (Fortunately, this is way easier than getting DNA into animal cells, which is a whole nother story altogether.)

Getting a plasmid into a bacterium is easy. One of the most common techniques is called calcium chloride transformation. You take some E. coli bacteria and combine them with a solution containing a) the plasmid and b) some calcium chloride (the same salt used for melting ice on driveways) then put it on ice. Next, you take the vial with your bacterial solution and warm it back up to 42 degrees Celsius for a minute or so, then transfer it back to the ice. Some of the bacteria now contain your plasmid. If your plasmid includes an antibiotic resistance gene, you can grow the bacteria on media that includes an antibiotic; only the ones that contain your plasmid will survive and grow. This is easy enough you could do it at home, if you know how to culture bacteria and have some basic reagents/lab equipment*.

So we can put the plasmid into some bacteria; but how do we get it into a plant? Here’s where another bacterium called Agrobacterium comes into play. (It’s kind of amazing, but pretty much all the tools that biologists use to manipulate DNA are tools we borrowed from nature. That’s why the history of molecular biology is so different from the history of chemistry and physics. The history of molecular biology is basically the history of biologists going, “oh wow, there’s this one cool bacterium that makes a protein that does X. Gee, why don’t we take that protein and use it to do X too?”) This bacterium infects plants inserting a plasmid into plant cells. The plasmid contains genes that code for proteins that will force plant cells to make plant hormones and food for the bacterium so the bacterium can form a colony inside plant tissue. That part is bad. But the cool part is that Agrobacterium knows how to take one of its own plasmids and put it into a plant cell.

So what we’ve done is this. We take the Agrobacterium plasmid and use restriction enzymes to cut out the bad genes, the ones for plant hormones and Agrobacterium food. We replace them with the Cry protein gene we copied earlier, then we put the plasmid back into Agrobacterium. Now Agrobacterium, like any bacterium, is not very smart. It’s just a little robot. It doesn’t know that we totally jacked up its little plasmid. It has no idea. It’s going to go out there and insert that plasmid into plant cells the same as it ordinarily would. In so doing it’s no longer accomplishing its own evil mission (because we took out all the genes it was trying to insert). Instead, it’s now inserting a plasmid containing the Cry protein gene, which is exactly what we wanted to do. If we put our Agrobacterium together with plant tissue in tissue culture, we can insert our plasmid and use the plant tissue to grow a plant. Every cell in that plant now contains the Cry protein gene, and when we breed that plant all its descendants now contain the Cry protein gene too.

This is kind of the bare-bones keeping-it-simple version of how genetic modification works. There are other ways to get DNA into plant cells now too, but I believe Agrobacterium remains one of the best and oldest. (Animal cells, again, are a whole nother story.)

The beauty of this is again the Cry protein itself. Remember what I said in Part I about the ideal pesticide? It’s highly toxic to the pest, but not to other species; it breaks down rapidly in the environment, but persists long enough to kill the pest; and finally it has very low toxicity to humans. Bt meets all of these criteria. It’s a protein, so if it gets into the environment somehow it will just get munched up by other bacteria (because there are hungry bacteria everywhere, and bacteria already know exactly how to digest proteins — no problem there). It has very low toxicity to humans. Because it’s inside the plant the only species it can kill are species of Lepidopteran insects that eat the plant! and if you are an insect and you are eating the plant, you are by definition a pest. Finally and perhaps most importantly, there are multiple Cry proteins. We can always genetically engineer a plant with several of them using the same technique and thereby make it very very tough for Lepidoptera to evolve resistance (they’d have to develop resistance to several different varieties of Cry at the same time).

The conclusion is simple: for now, genetically modified plants containing Cry proteins are probably about as close to the ideal pesticide as we can get. But we should as always be careful here and think about what can go wrong.

What could go wrong? Really there are two main possible concerns I can think of. One would be what happens when our crops cross-pollinate with wild relatives (which happens). Now you have wild plants that contain Cry proteins and can more effectively fight off pests, so they can out-compete other plants, which could alter an ecosystem in ways that are difficult to predict. That’s definitely a potential problem worth thinking about. But to my mind the potential for environmental impact there is dwarfed by the environmental impact of conventional pesticides. Imidacloprid slaughters bees; organophosphates and carbamates kill millions of birds a year. I feel like GMOs with Cry proteins are way more benign than most pesticides by any standard.

The other concern is toxicity to humans. Now the Cry proteins themselves are not toxic, although it’s always possible that a handful of people will be allergic to them. This in and of itself isn’t very serious, however, because there are people who are allergic to all kinds of foods. I know folks who say they are allergic to avocados and tomatoes, for example. Nobody would seriously suggest banning avocados and tomatoes because somebody somewhere is allergic to them. Same goes for plants with Cry proteins in them.

But what if there’s something more subtle going on? What if after Agrobacterium inserts the plasmid the DNA gets introduced into a region in the plant genome next to a promoter for some other gene, where it affects the activity of some other gene(s) in a way that somehow made the plant less nutritious (or in another way more undesirable)? This is an interesting question, and yeah, it’s something that the folks in Regulatory already thought of. EPA and USDA require a variety of field tests and animal studies before a GMO can be approved, together with test data to show it is nutritionally equivalent to the “normal” crop. The data strongly suggests this kind of “secondary effect” has not happened and is not happening.

It’s worth remembering how we got all our traditional crops — by breeding, often with wild relatives. Do we know what genes those wild relatives contain? No, not really. Could some of those genes and the proteins they produce be bad from a human health and nutrition standpoint? Sure. By this measure, genetic engineering is actually a more targeted approach.

What do critics have to say in response to the evidence that GMOs with Cry proteins are safe and reduce insecticide use? They complain it’s not natural. But neither are cars or condoms or caffeinated drinks, and I don’t see people giving those up just because you don’t find them in Nature.

So let me put it simply: just saying something “isn’t natural” is not a good argument in my book. There are legitimate reasons not to like GMOs with Cry proteins. “Not natural” isn’t one of them.

You’ll notice I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the Cry proteins and relatively little time talking about other GMOs. Clearly there are companies that want to make all sorts of GMOs. Just because I think GMOs with Cry proteins are a brilliant idea doesn’t mean I support all GMOs. In fact, there are cases where I do not support them.

My favorite example is salmon genetically modified to contain a gene for a hormone that makes them grow faster. Now with Cry proteins the benefit is clear: it helps us win the war with pests in a reasonably low-impact way. But with the salmon, there is every chance that some of these salmon will escape and cross-breed with wild populations, so that now some wild salmon will end up with the gene — and I have no idea what kind of effect that will have on the future trajectory of salmon evolution. I’d be prepared to live with that if I thought this would make salmon farming more environmentally friendly and increase the amount of salmon you could produce per kilogram of food. But to the best of my knowledge it doesn’t. So to my mind it just makes salmon farmers more economically competitive — at the cost of additional impact on the environment. No, thanks.

It’s important to realize that genetic modification of crops is a technique.  There will be scenarios where application of this technique is a great idea, and scenarios where it’s not. And there are other scenarios where it will be useless because transferring a couple of genes from some bacterium doesn’t address the problem you need to address. To say that “I support GMOs” or “I don’t support GMOs” is about as specific as saying that you do or do not like a whole genre of music. I like Daft Punk and Kaskade, for example, but does that mean I like all EDM? If I say I love Thrift Shop, does that in turn mean I like all rap music? So people who claim that GMOs are The Way To Save The World from Hunger are just as off-base as people who call them Frankenfoods. This is a technique. It has limitations like any technique, but there are cases (as with the Cry proteins) where it’s going to be incredibly useful.

With that said, however, the people who refer to GMOs as “Frankenfoods” tend to be much more off-base than the supporters. Critics of GMOs have come up with all kinds of nonsensical objections. My favorite is the claim that DNA from GMOs might get taken up by bacteria in your intestines and thereby cause all kinds of problems. Let’s stop and think a minute here, folks. Any time you eat meat or fruits or vegetables, you’re eating cells that contain DNA. If you’re worried that bacteria in your digestive tract could take up “foreign DNA” and use it in ways that compromise your health, then you should really stop eating meat, fruits and vegetables and confine yourself to a steady diet of processed foods. To my knowledge, none of the Nature-Worshippers who object to GMOs have actually done so.

The strangest thing about this whole debate to me, however, is this. I support GMOs with Cry proteins at least in part because I am an environmentalist — because I care about the environment. I think that if Rachel Carson were alive today, she would support them too. And yet it is the same environmental movement she helped found that has done more than anyone else to fight not just GMOs that don’t make sense (like GMO salmon) but all GMOs, in a nonselective and willfully ignorant way. What this suggests to me is that they are opposed to GMOs at least in part because they have no idea what GMOs actually are.


In response to the inevitable objections: no, I do not work for Monsanto and I do not work in agricultural biotech. This is my personal blog, which means it represents my personal opinion and mine only. So no, I am not a “paid shill” for Monsanto or whatever.

*Some people do. There are a handful of hobbyists out there now called “biohackers” who are into this DIY garage-experiments-with-genetically-engineered-E. coli type of stuff. I think that’s pretty awesome. Obviously you could raise concerns about the potential for bioterrorism and the FBI has apparently begun to show some interest in this, but there’s no point getting paranoid; I think the potential for misuse here is far outweighed by the potential for good. Let’s not forget that Henry Ford started out as just this guy tinkering with stuff in his spare time, you know…

30 thoughts on “The reign of poison, part II: Why the debate over GMOs is based on misinformation

  1. Many of the people I know here in the Upper Connecticut River Valley of NH and VT are very skeptical about GMO crops mostly because of the large corporate hegemony that often leads to what they see as agricultural practices that degrade the soil, decrease biodiversity, and entrap farmers in a cycle of unsustainable practices. Many manage highly productive small scale farms of less than 50 acres. These people are well informed on both the science of GMO and the politics of agriculture. They have much less concern about the transgenic crops direct effects on humans and much more on the imbalance of money and effort that as gone to the agri-industry that is profit driven. Scientists are often caught up in their own work and do not have the time or inclination to seriously consider if what they are doing is for improving the condition of humans or the income of one human.

      • That’s kind of silly. We know that Monsanto and other producers patent varieties with the specific intent to dominate the market with them. In fact, there have been cases already of patent holders going after farmers for holding onto seeds that have been unintentionally cross-pollinated with patented crops and therefore contained patented genes. Unless Congress acts and bans enforcement of these patents, which seems highly unlikely, this practice will continue and not just with the cry-GMO plants. In general, consumer behavior is a lot easier to affect than legislative behavior (unless you happen to have sufficient cash to bankroll a few politicians of your own). This has nothing to do with science or scientific ignorance. The point here is to influence a particular outcome.

        The post overrelies on understanding of particular areas of science. There is little doubt that much opposition to GMOs is based on neo-Luddite philosophy. But that’s only a part of the story and should not be represented as the entire story. First, the non-scientific considerations may have merit (and outweigh the scientific concerns). Second, being scientifically literate is no guarantee to ward off paranoid conspiracy theories or other nonsense. Most anti-vaccers are well-educated, with a substantial fraction coming from scientific and engineering ranks–precisely the people who, following the logic of this post, should be most aware of the fallacy of the anti-vaccer construct. I also personally know a number of practicing biologists who consider cow milk to be poison to the human body and engage in campaigns to ban human consumption of any form of cow milk (raw, pasteurized, dry, etc., but not fermented, such as yogurt, sour cream and cheese). Sometimes knowing more may be a bad thing because people get too confident in the correctness of their logic.

      • @ Shadowfox, You say, “… being scientifically literate is no guarantee to ward off paranoid conspiracy theories or other nonsense.” and you state that you know scientists and engineers who are anti-vaccination and anti-dairy (except yogurt). But I think that your characterization is wrong. It would be better to say that not all scientists are scientifically literate. Or perhaps you should say that not all scientists are scientifically literate in all areas. Because an antivax scientist is not literate when it comes to vaccines no matter what his/her contributions otherwise are. You also say that “… the non-scientific considerations may have merit…” and you are right, but this is a science blog and the anti-GMO sentiment being addressed on this science blog are scientifically ignorant sentiments. Much of the anti-GMO activism is undeniably focused on the spreading of scientific misinformation. If you oppose the legal and corporate practices of Monsanto, well then I’m sure that there’s an appropriate forum for you to suggest societal, legal, judicial, whatever retributions and regulations. GMOs aren’t intrinsically bad and if Monsanto is a bad corporate player it is because of their business practices and not because their product contains spliced genes. If they must be punished, then, as Gilbert and Sullivan say, “let the punishment fit the crime”

      • And where in my post did I say they were outright opposed to the technology? They are skeptical on the benefits of GMO crops since these crops are almost always monocultures and employ large agricultural practices that are advanced by mega corporations with little in the way of concern for the ecology. A few wider views: most people in the world that are malnourished are malnourished not because there is not enough food but because they are prevented, for often political reasons, from accessing food; recent estimates suggest somewhere between twenty and thirty percent of the worlds food on an annual basis is wasted; small farms that grow numerous crops on the same plot are often far more productive and less prone to their farms being overtaken by a singe insect, fungus, or viral pest; there are thousands of varieties of rice in India alone and the displacement and possible loss of these varieties to GMO rice has been a significant worry to ecologists in India…they have rice varieties with widely different nutritional contents, and environmental tolerance… but none have patents and none will make large agribusinesses any money. When Banglidesh was overrun by seawater it lost most of its GMO crops that were not tolerant to salt. There were a number of ancient varieties of rice that India had cultivated for centuries that were brackish tolerant. Historically, the farmers would have used theses seeds but since they had been drawn into the wonders of higher producing GMO, they had little stores of the seeds and many farmers starved and or committed suicide. As a scientist, this forces me to pay attention to the greater picture when I do research. Many young scientists have less freedom than I have had and they are drawn into research because the science itself is so intriguing and promising. Alas, the world is complex and there is no magic bullet such as GMO plants have often been touted as being.

      • I definitely agree that GMOs are not a “magic bullet” — they are a technique or an approach that is very useful for solving certain problems. There are cases where genetic modification is a useful approach because we are interested in a trait we can introduce by transfer of a single gene from an unrelated species (e.g. pest resistance mediated by Cry proteins), and cases where genetic modification is not a useful approach because the trait in question is polygenic and/or traditional breeding approaches provide better solutions (e.g. salt tolerance in rice).

        The attitude I take issue with is the view held by many environmentalists that GMOs are by virtue of their very nature unsafe and bad for the environment, which I think is based on the common assumption that anything “unnatural” must be either unhealthy or bad for the environment. I think your point, however, what you are asking is whether Monsanto (or any other company) should be able to patent living organisms? if GMO varieties become popular (as they have), then doesn’t that give a diminishing number of companies increasing control over world agriculture? Now that IS a concern that’s not related to the science — it’s more kind of an opinion question (like when people argue that biotech companies should not be able to charge high prices for lifesaving drugs because patients/their insurers may not be able to afford them).

        The other point you made is that adoption of a handful of GMO varieties is decreasing the amount of genetic diversity in our crop species, which increases vulnerability to pests/disease and leaves future plant breeders with less to work with. True, but that’s not new and is not really a problem with GMOs specifically so much as with modern agriculture. Widespread adoption of high-yielding varieties during the Green Revolution, for example, already reduced agricultural biodiversity substantially. (As a side note, many environmentalists don’t seem to like the Green Revolution — Greenpeace, for example, although speaking for myself I find it hard not to like something that make a lot more food available to a lot more people. It DID have its downsides, though, and loss of agricultural biodiversity was one of them.)

  2. Good post. I was totally floored a few weeks ago when Greenpeace destroyed the test fields for the golden rice. Anti-GMO activism, at least in that case, is an act of mass murder.
    I must, however, disagree with you about the GMO salmon. It is true that there is no evidence that increased yields of farmed salmon will necessarily lead to more sustainable aquaculture, but it is not an implausible consequence either. The fact is, we can’t make any really good predictions about how the markets will respond to Aquabounty’s faster growing fish, but we can delineate the spectrum of possibilities. Aquabounty salmon will likely undercut the price of conventionally farmed salmon and wild salmon. If more people get their salmon from aquabounty because of the lower prices, this would ease the overfishing of the wild fish. On the other hand, if the market responds in such a way that people increase their salmon consumption, rather than keeping their consumption static but decreasing their expenditure, then the additional salmon they eat will be displacing other sources of proteins from their diet. To the extent that that displaced protein is beef or lamb, the carbon footprint of their diet would be significantly smaller. Moreover, replacing beef, lamb, pork or even chicken with salmon would make for a healthier diet.
    Aquabounty has promised impressive safeguards to prevent escape of GM salmon. All salmon would be sterilized and in the event that that might not be 100% effective, salmon were to be raised exclusively in tanks on land. Proper oversight by relevant regulatory agency to ensure adherence to promised protocols would be effective at keeping the GM salmon separated from wild populations.

      • And, since GMO salmon mature faster and with less feed, fewer anchovies and sardines will die to put that nice pink aquabounty fillet on your plate than an equivalent, conventionally farmed salmon fillet.

      • @Bend You’re a bit overly obsessed with shutting down any criticism of the industry. It puts your objectivity in doubt, especially when you’re wrong. Sardines and anchovies may not be overfished like salmon used to be, but they are also not the primary food source for farmed salmon. In fact, there is rather severe overfishing–more importantly, local overfishing, that severely unbalances ecosystems–when it comes to aquaculture consumables. Considering that supplies for aquaculture utilize the species that are lowest on the foodchain, any overfishing has a profound effect on the entire food chain, even if global stock of the species are not threatened. And if you combine overfishing with pollution from aquaculture, doubts about the system are certainly warranted.

        In particular, Norwegian companies are well known for careful handling of their stock in Europe and North America. However, much of their supply comes from farms they opened in Central and South America, particularly Chile, Peru, Cost Rica, where they are not burdened by regulations as they are in the US, Canada and Europe. This is not a GMO issue, but is closely related to business practices of the same companies that engage in GMO production.

        You also ignored the fact that I specifically mentioned biologists as being in the crowd of anti-vaccers and anti-diary, not just generic “scientists and engineers”. More to the point, even non-biological scientists should be familiar with scientific techniques, in principle, far more than non-scientists. So if you are dismissing them as not being scientifically literate, your head is in the wrong place. In fact, you seem to be as much pro-GMO as they are anti-vaccine or anti-diary. That’s not a favorable comparison, in case you’re wondering. My point was precisely that scientific literacy is not the only determinant factor. And outside of science, we must contend with a certain amount of Frankenstein factor, so exercising some caution in releasing GMO varieties is not the worst attitude to have from a public-relations POV. With friends like you, the industry does not need to make enemies–you’ll do it for them.

      • @ ShadowFox
        Thanks for your response. But I must address a few things. I’m not trying to be anyone’s friend and you mischaracterise my position as trying to “shut down” any criticism of industry. Actually, I am not unsympathetic towards your view that major players in GMO industry are abusing the legal system to force out competition including (especially) competition from non-GMO farming. To the extent that this is happening, it makes my cold blood boil. Far from me trying to shut down your criticism of unethical and potentially illegal business practices, I helpfully suggested that you address it to a forum where such sentiment would be applied more usefully. Maybe writing your congressman or member of parliament or other applicable representative would be more productive than leveraging ad hominem attacks against me in the comments section of a general interest science blog.
        As far as the particulars of farmed salmon diet is concerned, my understanding is that they can be fed a variety of food pellets which include plant, terrestrial animal and marine animal matter. The fraction that is wild caught fish is mostly anchovy and often a mixture that includes, among other small, abundant fish, sardines. If you have contrary information… well… it really doesn’t change anything whether farmed salmon are eating anchovies or whether they’re eating capelin or menhaden. If a salmon matures to market size with less feed, then fewer wild-caught fish will be required to provide you (or me, since you probably won’t be eating it) with a nice slab of salmon flesh. I think I’ll grill it with a honey soy glaze. Or pan fry it so that I get that nice crispy skin and beautiful golden crust. I’ll dress it with a garlic, dill aioli and serve it with a side of broiled broccolini and roasted red potatoes.
        And my “ignoring” that you specified anti-vax “biologists” was neither intentional nor consequential. You know, I have an acquaintance who is a chemist who once told me that even though diet coke had no sugar it still had the same number of calories as coke classic. Look! It’s right there on the label, “zero calories.” Now this chemist did some fine work, but when it came to caloric content, which is something a chemist should be familiar with (I mean we all studied thermodynamics, right?) she was scientifically illiterate and possibly just generally illiterate too. Actually, I really don’t know what your original point about unscientific scientists is. Is it that scientists can have stupid ideas? If so, then we’re in agreement.

      • Until recently, our fishing practices made forest clear-cutting look like environmentalism. The wholesale sucking out of menhaden, sardines and krill still leaves deep holes in local ecosystems, leading predators to move on to other species. It’s all a bit touchy–not quite the same thing, but when seals started disappearing off the Alaskan coast, so did sea otters. It seems that killer whales, having lost their primary food source, developed a taste for otter meat. Normally, otters and killer whales coexisted just fine. But it’s not just the bottom of the food chain–we’ve severely overfished a variety of tuna species because they work so damn well in a can (unlike most other fish that either turn to mush or taste like fish oil capsules). But this is not a direct outcome of GMO, of course.

        People have irrational fears. Not labeling GMO feeds those fears, but arguments that we need to protect the industry only feed these fears more. There is a distinct possibility that companies like Monsanto and various aquaculture coops spend more money on lobbying against labeling (and against environmental protections) than they would on labels. I’d estimate that it’s not even close, especially since labeling would require a one time change while lobbying is self-perpetuating.

        A far better argument, in my estimation, is based on the impracticality of trying to determine what is and what isn’t GMO. We have the natural propagation issues (yes, even the supposedly sterile farmed salmon may not be as sterile as claimed, but the situation is naturally far worse with plants). But it’s a question of sourcing and of multiple steps in the production chain. If we have GMO sugar beets, should we label the derived sugar as GMO? If second generation heirloom corn variety ends up with some GMO genes because of cross-pollination from a neighboring field, does that qualify as GMO or non-GMO? If no external genetic material is added (but some may be removed), does that qualify as GMO? All these questions need to be answered and the EU punted. I would support GMO labeling if these issues were addressed (not resolved, necessarily, but a procedure would be put in place to both resolve individual cases in favor of inadvertent users and produce guidelines to prevent abuse). But there is no harm in labeling.

        We have routine nuclear power concerns and protests and we limit construction of nuclear power plants, but energy from the existing power plants is pretty routine. And the technocrat/scientist record on dissuading fears of new technology has not exactly been spotless, particularly with nuclear energy. Three Mile Island was a warning shot but Chernobyl and Fukushima are not merely something that just happens in other countries (although, clearly, in this case, it did). So every time we tell people with these fears that they are being scientifically illiterate, they point to Chernobyl and Fukushima and remind us that they were being told the same thing about nuclear power since the 1950s. And they are right. Corporate interest, in this case, defend against labeling not because it’s such a horrible idea but because they see it as a regulatory slippery slope. So, in reality, we have two populations with irrational fears–on opposite sides.

    • Yeah, Greenpeace. Their stance on GMOs is so irrational it’s unbelievable. They’ve spent well over a decade fighting GMOs for reasons that make absolutely no sense to me. Not only have they tried to destroy field trials, they’ve spread what I can only call outright dishonest propaganda in many countries (e.g. in the Philippines and China) — and this in an effort to prevent the adoption of GMOs with incredible potential for humanitarian benefit (e.g. Golden Rice) or environmental benefit (e.g. Bt corn/cotton/rice etc). You have scientists in Ireland who are developing a GMO potato resistant to potato blight (the disease responsible for the infamous famine), which would reduce fungicide use. And what is Greenpeace doing? Fighting it, because they oppose all GMOs blindly and on principle.

      Everything we do as humans has environmental impact. To me being an environmentalist means that you seek ways to reduce that impact wherever feasible in the interests of preserving our world so that future generations can enjoy it as well. GMO technology, properly done, offers us the potential to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture in ways we might not otherwise be able to do while maintaining and/or increasing yields — and that’s incredibly cool. How Greenpeace et al. fail to see that is beyond me.

      • Agreed on Greenpeace — I often shudder when facing their supporters. Theirs is a question of moral absolutism, they are not capable of nuance. In that, they are more like the very industries they oppose, from whaling to logging to GMO. And their tactics are hardly peaceful. Greenpeace moral absolutism, however, is no excuse for moral abdication, which is what companies like Monsanto are usually accused of. Given the business structure, it is easy to see that they they don’t believe — or, more importantly, their executives don’t believe — that moral considerations should stand in the way of profit. Scientists are often accused of similar but distinct positions — that moral considerations should not stand in the way of progress. That only leads to more villagers with pitchforks. There’s simply not enough attention being paid to Oppenheimer’s dilemma and I think you are wrong to believe that this is an extra-scientific consideration.

  3. The science is fine and I have nothing against it. What I have a problem with is the fact that when the food gets to me I do not know if it contains GMO or not. The producers of GMO need to support labeling of their products as such if they think they are so great and revolutionary. The consumer needs to decide if the want to eat GMO or not. Organic producers proudly label their products as organic. GMO producers should do the same and then work to change people’s ignorance towards these foods. They need to create an organization and label “proudly made with GMO” and let people decide to support their research instead of force feeding people that might not want to eat GMO otherwise.

    • Mihai,

      Food producers are free to label their organic, or “natural,” or whatever else they want. On the other hand, governments force, by law, only labeling of a certain kind–nutrition and food safety information.

      Do you believe genetic modification is a matter of nutrition or safety? If so, please justify your concerns.

      If not, let me ask you these questions:
      Should crops which are treated with organophosphate pesticides be labeled as such?
      What about mutants which were obtained by treatment with gamma radiation?
      How about plants fertilized with horse manure?
      Or harvested by gasoline-powered farm equipment?

      People may have legitimate moral or personal concerns with any of those kinds of foods. Yet we do not force producers to make a gigantic laundry list of labels because of idiosyncratic/uninformed/niche concerns.

      • fmxdaDavid,

        It is not about laundry lists of ingredients. It’s about if it contains GMO or not. As far as I’m concerned if the product displays GMO anywhere on the ingredient list I’m happy with it, how much space can the 3 letters take?

        You ask me if it’s nutrition or safety… I think it’s both. Nutrition it’s because a complex natural created compound got changed by force with the introduction or replacement or components from it. Is the result more or less nutritious? That depends on the test standards you apply to it and standards are dictated by government (we all know government writes the laws of nature, lol). Humans understanding of nutrition improves over time, so would anybody want to put all their eggs in the GMO basket now? If they want to I’m sure GMO developing corporation would love some test subjects for their products. Why is nutrition info for GMO always wrapped up in lawyer/legal language? (“Nutritious value of GMO is not significantly different that conventional products”) What the F*** does not significantly different mean? Is it different or not.

        Speaking about tests how much have these GMO crops been tested for human consumption? I know they have been on the marked for the past few decades. But the seeds are being “improved” constantly. The seeds that are planted today are not the same ones that were planted in the beginning. So that means that the food packaged next year with this years crop will have a different genetic makeup then the food packaged a few years ago with the same type crop grown on the same field but of course GMO manufacturers will say that it is not significantly different… what ever that means. Is this none public testing of the GMO a safety issue for me? it definitely is.
        Another few safety issues are:
        The fact that no 3rd party is allowed to isolate the genes that a GMO manufacturer introduced for 3rd party testing because of copyright laws on the genes.
        The government relies on testing provided by the manufacturer instead of doing it’s own independent testing.
        The development is done in corporate America, as well intended the scientists are, at the end of the day there will still be the one executive that takes a GMO project as a prestige matter to climb up the corporate ladder and they will make the numbers look the way the approving governing authorities want them to look (did I already say government writes natures laws?). Anybody that worked in a corporation for a few years should know this, unless they have their heads buried in sand.

        Producers are already forced to display the ingredient list. It is not that much harder to add GMO to that list. All GMO manufacturers already have list of the farmers that produce crops using their seeds. I will not be hard to take that list and push it down the line all the way to the processing and packaging plants.

        Look… I am not worried about you, because I’m sure you will be the first in line to buy the brand new GMO concoction marked or not, just like the person siting in line to buy the latest iPhone product. You obviously are able to inform yourself and make a decision based on that information and from what I can tell from your post you are probably smarter than I am. Who I’m worried about is me and the majority of the population that does not want to spend the time to research and who think that the government is looking out for them because they voted for those people. The capability is obviously there to label stuff why not make it easy for us uninformed people… we live in the same society, we should all have the same basic human rights.

  4. I am against GMO purely for the fact that these were introduced into the food system without prudent scientific testing. We have massive food related illnesses now, and for the most part we did not study these in a wholistic system. I am not saying that GMO is to blame, but I am not convinced it is safe enough to use yet.

    • “I am against GMO purely for the fact that these were introduced into the food system without prudent scientific testing.”

      Can you back this up?

      “We have massive food related illnesses now,”

      What illnesses are you referring to? When did these illnesses start to become widespread?

      “I am not saying that GMO is to blame, but I am not convinced it is safe enough to use yet.”

      Do you feel the same way about about all the other food-related innovations and changes that have occurred in the same time period?

      • I can back up much of this with studies that are going to be deemed as irrelevant or false by those that are pro-GMO. The sad fact is that the science in either direction is valid depending how you want the results to turn out. I am by no way advocating bad science, I would like to see independent studies done by credible organizations outside the debate, I fear the debate is far too emotional for critical inquiry by either side.
        Given that I am not on my laptop where all my sources are cited and available this is the best I can do at the moment to respond to our very valid questions. In the end I just want transparency in our food system. Tell me if it is GMO, let me make the choice if I want to consume it.

      • I have little faith in tests done by those who stand to gain from approval. I also fear the way we test everything is done out of a true system. We as a form of control tend to look at very small avenues of things. Our parameters are set up for testing viability without concern for environmental contingencies. For example look at how many health problems we have today, we tend to research not ways for prevention or elimination but merely treating symptoms. This cascades other health issues with our treatments.

        If we took the time to ask what the true problems are and what factors increase those issues, we would find solutions that were more wholistic and more focused on curing the problems. Starvation is what GMO is trying to cure, yet we grow so much “food” that cannot be consumed. Why is that? Because we failed to address the true causes.

        That is what my original statement had meant. Laboratory testing and control samples are lacking in systemic approaches. But we will never agree on this issue.

  5. Just curious about the Cry protein bit. If this should become a widely used technique, wouldn’t it potentially destroy the targeted insects to extinction? Say the crop plants do cross pollinate with wild cousins. Caterpillars eating your crops are bad, but the adults have value as pollinators. No non lethal food is available, no caterpillars reach adulthood…. pollination is affected, birds who eat the adult lose a food source and are affected, etc. Do they think about how this affects the environment, or is it just a pest and therefore completely without value? For what it’s worth I do agree that this type of GMO is much better than using chemical pesticides.

    • Yeah, GM corn could, in theory, cross pollinate with wild maize…but there’s not much around the intensively farmed GM maize, which makes that gene introduction into the wild population less likely. However, most importantly, if we eradicate the European corn borer from the Americas, it would be the removal of an invasive species-nothing wrong with that.

    • That’s a difficult question to answer. I think the simplest answer I could give would be that I don’t know. It would depend on the extent of gene transfer into the wild (how common IS that cross-pollination and which wild relatives can cross-pollinate with our crop) and the extent to which these genes spread in the wild population. I doubt that extinction would be very likely, though, because cross-pollination is only with very close relatives, so we are talking about a pretty limited number of species and possible scenarios. Corn, for example, has several wild relatives found in Mexico, but in the US it has no wild relatives — it was introduced here by humans, so there’s no wild relatives it can cross with.

  6. Washington State is one of the states where, this fall, there is playing out a re-hash of the GMO labeling initiative campaign seen recently in California. Big Ag/Big Food interests have, so far pumped at least 14 million dollars into this campaign, sometimes in apparently surreptitious ways:

    Clearly, these corporatist forces see this battle as one that is very important. This is unlikely to be because they see putting “May Contain GMOs” on labels as too expensive or too difficult. I think it has more to do with an overall campaign against disclosure. Lack of disclosure helps in efforts to thwart regulation, such as that which the FDA or the USDA might do with proper funding, authority, and also independent oversight.

    I think that the situation here is very analogous to that for food ingredient labeling, and that the corporatists are trotting out the same tired lines; it’s too expensive to implement, the public won’t know what to do with the information and will just get confused or boycott legitimate products. While food ingredient labeling is still a work in progress, it is progressing well, and it is increasing the ability of consumers to sort through food products in a more intelligent way. And that way has proven not to be that advantageous to these same food producers. Thus, those producers probably recognize GMO labeling as a first step. As with food ingredient labels, giving the public some information led to demands for even more information and then the next thing you knew they actually realized such things as how much sugar they were consuming. Better science lies in promoting greater access to food sourcing information, not less.

    In this era of big data, it is entirely possible to create informational online databases that can provide the public with much broader information regarding food sourcing. Much of this data already exists in private forms. This is proven every time there is a food health hazard, in that a contaminated cantaloupe, for example can actually be traced back to a single manure contaminated truck. Keeping this data private works to the advantage of Big Ag and Big Food interests. It favors commodity traders, for example over farmers. It is anti-consumer.

    I agree that GMO/not GMO is not a particularly significant bit of information on it’s own. But as these Big Ag and Big Food interests recognize it is a significant step towards greater disclosure. It would be helpful if science informed interests took a greater role in crafting improvements to these legislative initiatives that took more information into account. I think that if we want to have intelligent conversations overall, we need to do so in a free and open environment. We can then discuss not only existing GMOs but also impacts of invasive species outside their native environments, impacts on humans of natural plant toxins, mechanisms of so called “conventional” breeding currently flying “under the radar” which deserve greater scrutiny. And, in the case of yet to be introduced GMOs, we need to know that they have been carefully evaluated on a case by case basis before introduction. And that they are not only safe as produced, but also as implemented in the field. Which requires long term monitoring. Because, one of the harms from GMO crops is not so much their GMO status as their ability to allow large mono-cultural crops. All of this can only happen in an environment of openness.

    As a person with food allergies, I know that even in an environment in which there is no motivation to do a bad thing, it is entirely possible to use GMO technology to introduce material that may cause harm, and that in fact, Big Ag has had to be restrained from doing so. I think that the way forward, the way that establishes credibility and trust, lies in showing that there are clear distinctions to be made between the interests of science and those of corporations. And that science risks losing public trust if those distinctions are not clear.

    If we want to have a GMO debate that is not based on misinformation, we need to work to provide more and more information, not less. Those who study risk science know that acting as if you have something to hide leads to suspicion.

    There is much to be gained by a greater knowledge of our food chain. Those whose profession is in science or science communication ought to be strong allies on the side of those forcing these corporatist interests to give greater public access to such data. Freedom of information is a vital component of democracy. Science and liberty are linked.

  7. Awesome post! A late question from a layman though (I find biology and biochemistry fascinating even knowing absolutely nothing about both): why is inserting DNA into an animal cell different? And different in this case means more difficult or risky, or just different?

  8. In response to Tricolaco’ s question. I have limited direct molecular biology research experience, but extensive plant and animal tissue culture experience. Generally, animal cells and complete organisms are far more difficult to genetically modify an/or grow in tissue culture, they are more sensitive, and if they are not a “transformed” cell line they often crash in population numbers after a series of culturing transfers. Animal cells, my experience is exclusively with mammalian cells, also are far less tolerant to genetic mistakes, or chromosomal random insertions, deletions, translocations, inversions etc. At an organismal level most chromosomal anomalies are deadly. It is then a challenge to make quite specific genetic changes in animals to have the organism survive, and be healthy.

    Plant cells and plants are far more tolerant to genetic mistakes and chromosomal anomalies. They are quite easy to propagate in sterile tissue culture…middle school students can do it.
    Many plants have triple and more copies of their chromosomes (referred to as polyploidy) and are often more robust than diploid, or standard varieties of plants. The molecular biological manipulation of plants is also considerably easier than animals, also attainable by secondary school students.

    This makes the technology of genetic modification in plants cheap, easy, and in some cases done without much thought of the unintended consequences.

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