Field of Science

Non-GMO foods: nonsense

I was at a local organic food market recently buying lunch, and I noticed that my avocado-and-hummus sandwich proclaimed that it contained "non-GMO" ingredients (GMO = "genetically modified organism).

Now, I happen to like organic groceries. The ones near me tend to have better produce and fish, two of the main ingredients in my diet. But organic markets are a hotbed of bogus, even laughable health claims, and I often have to suppress my urge to complain to the store's management. (I once wrote to Whole Foods, but they never responded.)

Here in the U.S., most of our food supply is filled with so-called GMO foods, but in Europe the situation is dramatically different. For some reasons, our otherwise well-educated European friends are terrified of GMO foods. They don't seem to realize that we've been modifying the genes in our foods for centuries, and it's generally been a good thing. The latest biotechnology merely allows us to modify plants (and animals too, though none are yet on the market) much more quickly, and more intelligently. Today we can alter just a few genes to produce a more-desirable plant, rather than doing it by trial-and-error over many generations.

In fact, the "GMO" foods of the past likely had hundreds of unknown gene modifications.Farmers selected plants for seed because they looked and tasted good, without having any idea of what was really different about them.

Let's take a look at corn. The corn we eat today, organic or not, looks nothing like the "real" corn (or maize) from centuries ago. The earliest corn cobs discovered by archaeologists were tiny, with only a few kernels. This picture shows a primitive form of corn, called teosinte, compared to modern corn:

The history of corn is a history of genetic modifications made by earlier humans who didn't even know what a gene was. Today's GMO food is simply a continuation of that history.

That hasn't stopped opponents of GMO foods from sounding the alarm. Even the World Health Organization makes some errors on its website, where it discusses three main "issues of concern for human health":

  1. Allergenicity. Not a problem. The WHO says "No allergic effects have been found relative to GM foods currently on the market."
  2. Gene transfer. The WHO gets this one wrong. They write that "gene transfer from GM foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract would cause concern if the transferred genetic material adversely affects human health." Gene transfer is a topic that I've studied in some detail, and published papers on. The WHO says that the likelihood of a gene transfer event is "low," but in fact it is vanishingly small - so small, in fact, that not a single gene transfer event has ever happened. In the history of our species, and of all mammals, going back tens of millions of years, not a single gene from something we've eaten has been transferred into the human genome or, as far as we can tell, into bacteria within our guts.
  3. Outcrossing. This is "the movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops," and this really can happen - they're the same species, so they can interbreed. But it's only a concern if GM plants are harmful, which they're not.

The bottom line is, you're far more likely to be harmed by being hit on the head by a corn cob than by some kind of deviant GMO corn gene.

The WHO concludes that GM foods "are not likely to present risks for human health." Of course, not all GMO foods are good. I'm not a fan of engineering crops to be more tolerant of pesticides, for example: this type of GMO food benefits big agricultural firms rather than the consumer. And it is theoretically possible to insert harmful genes into plants, but agricultural firms wouldn't have any reason to do that.

So the next time you see the non-GMO claim in your grocery, ask yourself whether the ingredients could really be completely unmodified from their "natural" state. I doubt it.

My sandwich was really good, by the way.

53 comments:

  1. Nice piece and your points are well taken but this point is overstated: "not a single gene from something we've eaten has been transferred into the human genome or, as far as we can tell, into bacteria within our guts".

    What do you think of Hehemann, J.-H. et al. Transfer of carbohydrate-active enzymes from marine bacteria to Japanese gut microbiota. Nature 464, 908-912.

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  2. Further to your point, " Of course, not all GMO foods are good. I'm not a fan of engineering crops to be more tolerant of pesticides, for example: this type of GMO food benefits big agricultural firms rather than the consumer" — I think it's worth considering that people may avoid GMO foods, not because they believe them to be a direct health threat, but to place an economic vote of no confidence. Against, for instance, Monsanto suing farmers for seed-saving:
    http://www.organicconsumers.org/Monsanto/farmerssued.cfm

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  3. Anon: I stand by my point about lateral gene transfer. The paper by Hehemann et al. refers to transfer from one bacterial species to another - a rare but not unprecedented event. The WHO site (and others) express a concern that a gene FROM A PLANT will get into a gut bacterium. That event has never happened, and believe me, scientists have been looking (because they'd get a Nature paper out of it).

    There were claims in 2001 that bacterial genes had been transferred into the human genome. We thoroughly disproved those in our paper paper, which we published in Science: Salzberg et al., Science 292 (2001), 1903-1906.

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    1. Forgive me, but I don't think transfer between bacteria is all that rare. Indeed, hasn't HT caused difficulty in phylogenetic analysis of bacteria in general? That being said, who cares? Bacteria swap genes regularly, but plants and bacteria do not. And even if they did, there is nothing particularly dangerous about GMO genes relative to any other plant genes. The reason people are scared of transgenes is because they buy into the naturalistic fallacy.

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  4. Heh. Just before I saw this on the twitter I had seen Michael Pollan lead his flocks to this:

    http://twitter.com/michaelpollan/status/13854152484458496

    @michaelpollan: How the gene-disease paradigm appears to be collapsing. Why aren't we hearing about this?! http://p2.to/14XB

    Yeah.

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  5. I think one of the dangers of GM crops may be that if the GM crops are sterile (ie non-seed producing--an important trait if an agri-business wants to try to make sure that farmers will have to continuously buy the crop's seeds from the corporation year after year rather than be an independent farm) and then the GM crops naturally transfer this trait to non-GM crops then you could have a terrible situation.

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    1. First, GM crops are not sterile. That technology was abandoned. Second, since horizontal transfer is exceedingly rare, it is extremely unlikely that a "terrible situation" would result.

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  6. Cross-breeding will be a serious problem as long as seed companies enforce their intellectual property rights.

    I might be more pro "trans-species, laboratory-gmo" (as you say, i can't call it GMO since hybrid = GMO) if the intellectual property wasn't stacked towards the best funded, for-profit research groups wholly owning the seed supply (when their genes have blown into neighboring crops).

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  7. Two points: farmers who grow a GM Crop sign a contract with the company to say they won't save seed. Those that do know the consequences, regardless if whether you think it right or wrong.

    Second: one of the reasons for developing a sterile GM crop is to prevent it crossing with non-GM crops - ie it is sterile and can't breed.

    Jason, TechNyou
    University of Melbourne, Australia

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  8. Re: "Outcrossing. Only a concern if GM plants are harmful, which they are not". This is not really correct. The majority of GM crops in the world atm are herbicide-resistant. Outcrossing of herbicide-resistance genes could be incredibly harmful; kind of hard to kill a plant with multiple herbicide resistance if it becomes a 'weed'.

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  9. All I ask is that my products be labeled as GMO (laboratory frankenfood)or organic (traditional frankenfood) so I can make a choice.

    Why?

    Artificial sweeteners.

    Aspartame gives me headaches, but Sucralose doesn't. If all diet drinks were labeled "artificially sweetened", I would be screwed.
    So if I have a reaction to GMO corn or wheat or pork, I would like to know what to avoid - because just because 99% of the population can eat it, doesn't mean that the other 1% should have to suffer with side effects.

    It's easy, and no one should have a problem with it. Look:

    Contains: GMO corn (2010-11a)

    See? GMO corn and the strain used. Wow. That was so... easy!

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  10. I must disagree, but first let me say that any implication that the genetic material of the GMO crop will be incorporated into the human genome must have been made by someone with a 5th grade Biology education. I am blown away that WHO even bothered to address such a ridiculous claim.

    That said, certain GMO crops are dangerous and should be avoided. Outcrossing is quite significant if the GMO crop was modified to greatly reduce seed yield, as is the case of several patented strains. Just last year Haiti destroyed tons of donated Monsanto "terminator" seed, since they feared outcrossing would decimate local agriculture.

    A more significant concern for me is the potential for certain GMO strains to absorb, retain or even produce toxins to a far greater degree than natural strains (as intended). Consider the 2009 paper by de Vendômois et al., which showed that feeding specific GM corn strains to rats greatly increased the likelihood of renal and liver failure. The strains in question were made and marketed by Monsanto as especially pest resistant. One accepted, absorbed and retained far higher levels of their Round-Up brand pesticide than normal, and another naturally produced its own pesticide. In both cases, the strains retained many of these toxins after harvest, and these toxins had considerable impact on the mortality of the rats that ingested the tainted corn meal.

    To say that GM crops are universally dangerous is completely ignorant, but we cannot say that they are universally harmless either.

    >> de Vendômois, JS | Roullier, F | Cellier D.| Séralini, GE. "A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health". Int J Biol Sci 2009; 5:706-726)

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  11. This post exposes you as someone pushing a transhumanist agenda.
    We all know about the selection process which made cows, corn and the rest what they are today, but you seem to overlook that biotech does things quite differently, instead of working inside a natural process, it is interfering in this process to manufacture some change.
    This relatively new way of doing things can have unforeseen long-term consequence which requires caution. Considering the current state of the food industry and the fact that a low probability doesn't mean it is not possible, what if only one gene manipulation happened to have adverse effects a large part of the planet population would be put instantly at risk.

    Let me tell you that you are way out of your league when you make affirmations such as in a span of 10 millions years something has not happened, this is not science, this is fallacious argumentation to prove a point which hurts your credibility.

    About the third point, a reevaluation of your information is advised because it does happen and it does have very serious consequences, get some insight, leave your specialized standpoint for a more global view to understand the various impact of cross-pollinization,see India as a concrete example, but also USA. There's a movie made about monsanto which mentions this kid of cosequences.

    As a closing statement, maybe you have already forgotten the PR campaign that changed the meaning of GMO from Genetically Manipulated Organism to Modified, I haven't, so when I ask myself whether the ingredients could really be completely unmanipulated at the gene level from their "natural" state, the answer is pretty clear.

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  12. "And it is theoretically possible to insert harmful genes into plants, but agricultural firms wouldn't have any reason to do that."
    Of course they have a reason. Agricultural firms don't want that insect it their crops and have therefore an incentive to let the crop produce pesticides that fight those insects.

    The economics don't really allow you to profit from giving a crop genes to produce more vitamins. The economics incentivise pesticide resistance or letting the crops produce pesticides themselves.

    Arguing that fear of GMO crops isn't justified when you yourself oppose most real life GMO crops misses the point.

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  13. Although I agree with much in this post--such as the substantial amount of pseudoscience nonsense that surrounds the debate about GMOs (from both "sides"), there are several points where data contradict what Prof. Salzberg has written.

    First, the paper by Netherwood et al. (Nature Biotech, 2004 http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v22/n2/abs/nbt934.html ) demonstrated partial gene transfer to gut bacteria. The genetic signature of the transferred DNA could only have come from an engineered plant containing that artificial construct. Although the whole EPSPS gene was not transferred, with a larger sample size, transfer of the whole gene may have been detected. It would be nice to have other research that confirms these results, but the dearth of research (especially follow-up research) is a real problem with GMO science. (note that one may be fooled by the last sentence in the abstract, which seems to contradict gene transfer, but the author is referring only to additional gene transfer from a deliberate feeding experiment, not gene transfer that had already occurred).

    And even if the current few GMOs are safe for the environment or to eat, this says nothing about the many other genes that may be used in coming years. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has said repeatedly, in several reports over the past 10 years, that GMOs may harm the environment or people. That should not be exaggerated--they are not going to cause the end of the world--but also should not be dismissed.

    As to putting dangerous genes into crops, I would not be so sanguine. I would not expect well-meaning scientists to put something with a high expectation of harm--like ricin metabolism genes--into a crop. But what about the ricin binding domain (the part that attaches to the intestines, but is not toxic) hooked to the Bt insect toxin. This has been done (not commercialized) and is perhaps the kind of gray area that is more troubling.

    The unequivocal statement about gene transfer between plants not posing risks is unsupported. It seems clear that harm could occur, mainly from transfer to weedy crop wild relatives. This has already happened with creeping bentgrass, with herbicide resistance, and the U.S. Interior Dept is concerned about it. Transfer of genes that may increase fitness of serious crop weedy wild relatives, e.g. of wheat (jointed goatgrass), rice (red rice), lettuce (prickly lettuce), sunflower, and so on, could be a real problem. There are other potential risks, for example to non-target organisms (e.g. see Diane Pilson, Ann. Rev Ecol Syst, 2005?).

    I could go on. But what is really surprising to me about this post is the unequivocal nature of some of the statements supporting the safety of GMO crops or food.

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  14. Dr Salzburg:
    re

    Anon: I stand by my point about lateral gene transfer. The paper by Hehemann et al. refers to transfer from one bacterial species to another - a rare but not unprecedented event. The WHO site (and others) express a concern that a gene FROM A PLANT will get into a gut bacterium. That event has never happened, and believe me, scientists have been looking (because they'd get a Nature paper out of it).

    According to this paper in Nature Biotechnology it has happened:
    Netherwood

    It would seem you are definitely going to have to back down from your point?

    Also, as one of the authors of the article Michael Pollan tweeted I would suggest Mary reads it before ridiculing it. Perhaps she is not familiar with the difficulties medical geneticists are having? Genome-wide Association studies have basically failed to find genes for common diseases and medical geneticists are staring into the abyss.
    If she read our article she would find out firstly why this is so and secondly why she hasnt heard about it.

    yours

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  15. JRLatham: first of all, please spell my name correctly if you're going to comment no my blog.

    Second, I looked at the paper in Nature Biotech., and I'm not buying it. They worked really, really hard to try to find any of the transgene in human gut bacteria, and at first they found nothing. Finally they say they were able to find it in a tiny proportion of the bacteria they cultured, and they also say "these bacteria contained only a fragment of epsps [the transgene]; the full-length gene was not detected in these microbes." A fragment is not a functional gene, as any geneticist knows.

    But I'm not convinced even of the fragment. After doing many, many PCRs that failed, finally they got a few that worked. PCR is extremely sensitive and therefore notoriously prone to contamination. I would have been much more convinced by a demonstration that they had native DNA from the host bacterium with the transgene embedded therein - but they didn't show that.

    I'm not backing down.

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    1. You failed to research or should i say mention the numerous studies reporting the impact that gmo corn has on both pig and cow stomachs...not to mention the sterility factor of how by the third or fourth generation lab rats become unable to reproduce after being administered a steady diet of gmo corn ....and since were on the topic, if gmo are so safe..according to you and your handlers why is gmo wheat still considered unsafe for human consumption...and if gmo contamination is not capable of "causing a very bad situation"why did japan ban the jmport of wheat last year...perhaps due to the gene pollution from your beloved round up resistant poisonsSo how much does monsatan and agricorpse pay you for your non

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  16. @JRLatham: I had read your *cough* analysis. I had also read most of the papers you referenced--yeah, the ones you completely misrepresented. I even contacted some of the authors to see what they said about your work. The gentlest thing said was that you were "confused".

    I have replied to your post at my blog. And others are working on their replies to you as well.

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  17. Stumbled upon this, first of, us Europeans are not against genetically modified food at all, everthing we eat has been moddified in some way over hundreds of years, Carrots for instance used to be purple (some still are) and Banannas were not nice at all, those traits were bread out of them.
    What we are against is taking genes from one species and putting it in another, which you failed to address at all, most people dont view cross breeding carrots as genetic manipulation, even though strictly speaking it is.
    And no I dont buy into the health propoganda any more than I buy into the monsanto crap, maybe you should do the same.

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  18. Wow. The comments here are mild compared to the Forbes site. Many of them are wrong, but they are at least mild.

    What a nasty bunch this pulls out of the woodwork.

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  19. I would suggest than many Europeans (I am one) are resistant to GMO for one of two reasons:

    First, they don't understand the details, don't see the urgent need for the technology and don't trust the companies pushing it. (Sometimes - but not necessarily - because they don't trust the food itself.)

    Second, they do understand it (well enough, anyway) and are opposed more to its economic and political uses and consequences. Many see this as a modern form of 'enclosure' of the commons; they fear attempts (not unjustified, IMHO) by companies to control, or at least squeeze every last drop of profit from, the food chain, to the exclusion of small farms and other producers.

    Also, I have read in several quarters (though I am not convinced either way yet) that smaller farms are generally more productive (in food, rather than profit) then larger farms. The basic argument is the small farming is labour intensive, and labour intensive farms gets more out of each plot of land by adjusting for it and making the best use of it. This would be at odds with large-scale, corporate controlled farms which seem more likely to be blank plant mono-culture, pest-resistant, GMO crops. I can't speak for the US, but in most of Europe there is still the culture and tradition of the small farm (even if, in places, this is no longer the reality).

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  20. Factory farming is frowned on in europe for good reason, monoculture and over farming are both fools errands.
    America a land populated by the refugee progeny of various potato famines and the refugees of their own dustbowl have no right to lecture the rest of the world on enviromental impact events.
    Cane toad soufle with a side of killer bee honey anyone?

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  21. I've tried to explain this, but GM food is just more precise crossbreeding. Nature has no interest in being eaten; therefore, farmers crossbreed crops in order to improve taste, yield, and harvestability - GM is simply a continuation of that. However I do oppose how GM crops are handled commercially -- barring the whole "Terminator seed" debate, the fact that GM companies take punitive measures against farmers who "dare break the rules and replant seeds" or "accidentally have part of a GM crop on their plot without paying".

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  22. Aren't people worried about GMOs because they're concerned that the gene products (i.e. proteins conferring the desired traits) might be dangerous? I mean, it would be silly to care about the actual DNA; if DNA from our food could get in to us or our GI microbiome, that would be pretty scary whether it was genetically engineered or not.

    But if you're engineering your food to contain some novel trait, that seems a lot less like traditional breeding techniques and a lot more like a food-additive technique. I mean, if you were injecting plants with some kind of antifreeze agent to make them resistant to cold weather, you would want to know if that antifreeze agent was safe to eat right? So shouldn't you want to know if such an agent is safe when you're genetically modifying a plant to produce it on it's own?

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  23. Brendan: most anti-GMO activists are not worried about the gene products, as is illustrated by some of the wild-eyed comments over at my Forbes blog. This can be a legitimate concern: for example if you have an allergenic to an introduced gene. People who have such allergies have good reason to be concerned about introduced genes in their food.

    But many of the objections are along the lines of "you shouldn't tamper with nature," or "big ag companies are in a conspiracy to poison us." Rather different from your concern.

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  24. We're all entitled to our opinions, but did you know that all corn grown in the US has been genetically modified? Some of the animals that were fed this GMO corn developed serious health problems.

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  25. Steven,

    Im a 6th generation farmer with over 4500 acres in production with cotton, soy, and corn. All three are from GM seeds. I dont have a choice, there are no more seed suppliers that carry non-GM seed at all. My neighbors all use GM seed as do their neighbors. I 'net' about $43,000 a year but still have to pay taxes, car payments, college tuition for one, second one coming soon, etc etc.. Luckily we have a health insurance through my spouse. I dont yet see the benefits to GM crops as do none of my friends. All we got from this load of BS from the seed companies (or are they pharmaceutical companies nowadays?) is resistant weeds like pigweed and wild mustard along with a crappy return on investment. Non-GM seeds and crops yields a higher rate of return in the end - I did the numbers - and now Im/we're stuck. Y'all can talk about the benefits and downsides here like the academics you are, but this technology from my perspective, and my buddies, is their screwing the farmer and ultimately you, the consumer in the long-run.
    Meanwhile, our plan is to go organic over the next few years in a conversion plan. My seed supplier went ballistic when I told him. You'd think the world was ending - and it was because he's no longer supplying me seed whether I want it or not. Talk about something adolescent and screwy going on.
    You scientists with your belief that you will save the world is partly a farce I think. It will take all of us. And if you think that introducing and widely adapting a technological advance as enormous as genetic modification in a matter of such a short span of years (1973 Boyer and Cohen) is going to be without biological, ecological, economic, and/or social consequences, your hubris has blinded you. Its not uncommon for human civilizations to believe that some miraculous advance will save their skin. Just ask the Romans, Sumerians, Mongols, Greek, Mayans, Abyssinians, Norse, Bo, and the list goes on. 8 Billion is a lot of people. 10 billion is going to be a lot more and no Round-Up this or Bt-loaded that is going to cut the mustard junior.
    Instead of replying to me, please take the time to read David Montgomery's book called, "Dirt, The Erosion of Civilization". Perspective and humbleness in the living presence of time and nature is whats important.

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  26. wow. I think this is a classic. People thinking with their guts and feeling personally offended by the opinion of an expert. I guess nowadays personal beliefs and uneducated opinions are as valid as facts.

    Let's see, it's a fact that humans have been tampering with genetics for a long while (cows, bulls, broccoli, lettuce, carrots, etc.). And we've modified its genes also, making such horrendous monsters like bananas (totally sterile and without seeds), clone crops (potatoes and grapes), and plants whose seeds are now so big that they can't be dispersed by air (like maize). So I must disagree with the fallacy of "biotechnology is inherently bad and we shouldn't do it". Face it boys, that is an emotional rejection born out of ignorance and fear, not facts.

    I'm not saying I'm a GMO lover anyway. It's just that each GMO should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. I do believe that BT's non-specific toxin may pose a threat to natural bacterial and arthropod communities in the wild. That's an ecological threat, the only one I believe GMOs actually are.

    Scientifically speaking, that is. Because as it has already argued, GMOs are more dangerous for social and economic reasons than for scientific facts. For example, in Mexico there are over 200 maize varieties (also produced by genetic manipulation) and they all have cultural ties with different ethnic groups. Monsanto's very aggresive marketing of just the single yellow maize GMO variety is threatening this natural diversity and its cultural diversity as well. That's also a fact, not an opinion.

    My OPINION then: you can't satanize GMOs because they're biotechnologically produced. It's ridiculous. You can't seriously believe that eating GMOs will make a third eye grow on your forefront. It's ridiculous. But you can't just ignore the real dangers posed by GMOs, which are much more complex than those easy-to-pick commonplaces. GMOs could (as in yet-to-be-demonstrated possibility) be an ecological, social and economic threat.

    And sorry for making this thread even longer Dr. Salzberg, I guess you've taken enough BS on the forbes blog.

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    1. Eating gmo corn might not make you grow a thid eye but check the data ...it definetly does cause gastro intestinal disorders in al live mammals on wich it has been tested. ...! Not to mention the fact that lab rats who have been fed a strict diet of roundup ready corn and water have been demonstrated to grow horrendous tumors throughout their body..both malignant and benign!

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  27. Domestication does not equal genetic engineering. We don't even understand how life works all of the way and people are splicing fish genes into corn or spider genes into goats.
    Any one particular change may or may not be very noticeable, but how about a million changes?
    Smart domestication using knowledge of the genome to select plants or animals with desirable traits, is a much more sensible approach to getting what we want from nature instead of corrupting it.

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  28. This article just proves you can have much education, but still be an idiot. Well played :/
    Keep feeding your kids GMO and let us know how their offspring turn out

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  29. Cross-breeding and GMO are completely different beasts 'Professor'-- For you to say we have GMo for centuries just proves how off base you truly are

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  31. Comparing artificial selection with genetic engineering is like saying there's no difference between a path in the woods caused by frequent use and an highway.

    While one does not introduce anything to the environment, the other completely disrupts it.
    Highways tar waterproofing hinders the water cycle causing floods; traffic on them contaminates surrounding water sources for animals with poisons and carcinogenics (not to mention the air); by cutting through the landscape, they completely separate habitats, impeding natural migrations, disturbing mating and social habits; obstructing the access of fauna to their sustenance and causing localized extinctions.

    And we are just talking about something as trivial as highways.

    As entertaining a fairy-tale it is, genetic engineering is light-years away from the proverbial corn example you provided.
    But even artificial selection gives cause for concern, considering most species, from bananas to cows, are today completely incapable of surviving without assistance. And in the last few decades alone it has gone from disturbing to horrific. The introduction of antibiotics to cattle diet, to name just one atrocity, is enough to make most people go vegan for life (if they can find some pesticide-free veggies, that is).

    Synthesizing species in a laboratory may yeld very promising and positive theoretical results, but no amount of research can forecast the mid to long-term impact of its introduction to the environment. Inter-species adptation is a slow process, not something that happens overnight. How can you forget that when writting about artificial selection?
    Your arguments are void.

    And to claim there's no cause for concern? Can you really affirm this technology has no potential for harm?
    Right now we have companies - corporate business with no other ambitions but profit - patenting and claiming ownership over life. Alien life, as far as evolution is concerned, untested by nature.
    We keep forgetting we can not operate outside of nature, if we keep introducing artificial species to the environment and allow them to proliferate, we will inevitably become responsible for our environment in a way we are not fit to be. We will be creating it and managing it, daftly i suspect. Butterfly wing after mutated butterfly wing.
    In a way, we will be terraforming earth.
    And yes, going to the moon also sounded like fiction at one time.

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  32. Some more food for thought:
    http://www.voltairenet.org/article162087.html
    (GMO Scandal_ The Long Term Effects of Genetically Modified Food in Humans)

    Also while you're clicking, might aswell go read a bit on epigenetics and the photonic properties of DNA, so you might reevaluate your position on genetics being such a failproof exact science of wich we currently have such an absolute grasp.

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  33. "Photonic properties of DNA"? - that's a non sequitur if ever there was one. And who said genetics was a "failproof exact science" on which we have an "absolute grasp"? I don't agree with (and never made) any such claims.

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  34. I provided those examples as aspects of genetics where there's still much we don't know. Regarding the photonic properties of DNA, i'm not refering of course to its exploration in optoelectronics, but to phenomenons as photorepair, wich is not fully understood.

    Forgive me if i've presumed too much. But it seems only logic to me that for you to deposit such faith in a technology, you'd be confident it's a little more trustworthy than horoscopes. You wouldn't be munching on those GMO cookies if there was a shadow of a doubt in you that they might be poisonous.
    Or maybe it's in the companies wich produce it, or in the food regulation agencies that you place your trust. For your sake, i hope not.

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  35. As an "otherwise well-educated European" living in the US, I disagree with your broad dismissal of anti-GMO movement (if not your specific criticism of some of the pseudoscience, which is fair enough). First of all, there are valid criticisms of agrobusiness based on economics & social justice arguments, as well as ecological arguments. These points have been addressed very well in the comments above. But it seems to me consumers have every right to be cautious on health grounds too. A consumer of a wildtype strawberry has millions of years of human evolution on which to base their conclusion that if anything bad happens as a result of eating it, such as an allergic reaction, this will probably be familiar and comprehensible to physicians. A consumer of transgenic food has no such guarantee; only the scientific tests. Now, you and I may believe those tests (perhaps you are a little more confident in them than I am), but does this mean that consumers should forfeit the right to know their food's genome has been modified, or how it has been modified? In the US, there's no requirement to label GMO food as such, which I think is a travesty. Pharmaceutical drugs are considered safe by scientists, too; does that mean we shouldn't label what's in them? Or perhaps we should only label drugs that cause allergies which have been officially recognized by the WHO? You can mock consumer's "terror" of GMO foods if you like, but I think it'd be arrogant to argue that consumers are irrational and should therefore not be informed.

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  36. Ian wrote: "I think it'd be arrogant to argue that consumers are irrational and should therefore not be informed."

    Well, call me arrogant, but consumers are most definitely irrational. Studies show that if you label foods as genetically modified, they will prefer other foods, even though they don't know anything about what the modifications are. In an ideal world, I'd love to include the complete details of the entire food production process on every package - but as a practical matter, we can't explain genetic modifications on a food label - it would take several paragraphs, which no one is going to read while shopping, even if they could understand it.

    And food marketers treat consumers as irrational all the time, which is why they fight over labelling (and they do fight, all the time, over the use of labels such as "organic," "low fat," "low salt," etc). It seems to me that food marketers don't mind using labels to mislead, rather than to inform, as long as it sells the product.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually, I think labeling is a fine idea. Once consumers realize that nearly all processed foods have GMO ingredients they might realize that they aren't harmful. Further, think of all those "may have materials that the state of California has determined are harmful..." stickers. When's the last time anyone paid attention to them? So, fine, slap a may contain GMO label on nearly everything. After a while, I doubt anyone will care much...

      Delete
  37. Calling consumers irrational isn't particularly arrogant. But I'm afraid that I do think it's pure scientific hubris to say their irrationality means they forfeit the right to know the facts because "it would take several paragraphs, which no one is going to read while shopping, even if they could understand it".

    That is just a flimsy argument - as can be seen by the ease with which it could be applied to almost any food additive: no-one will have the time to look up sulphites/cochineal/aspartame "while shopping", so why label them? Consumers are irrational anyway! And scientific tests have shown that additives in general are perfectly harmless! Except for a few cases which are well under control, and ignoring a few kooks who nobody takes seriously. Most of the nonsense talked about MSG/lactates/high-fructose corn syrup is dodgy pseudoscience anyway. Right?

    I do realize that food marketers have a huge vested interest in what goes on the label, and you can't print everything there, but how do you make that call? My gut feeling is that if X is a huge turn-off for consumers then X should go on the label, regardless of what the Wise Scientific Elders (that's us, we're old) may think. That's true whether X is genetic modification, or hormones in cow's milk, or factory farming, or monoculture. However, I strongly suspect that GMOs are the biggest turn-off in the grocery store right now. Find me a bigger one that's not on labels.

    I think it's misleading to describe genetic modification as just another "detail of the food production process". It's clearly more like an additive than a production technique. I also find it a bit disingenuous the way many scientists will say that it's "just like" traditional breeding - and then in the next breath, point out how much smarter and better and faster it is, and how much more we can do with it. You can't have that genetically modified cake and eat it, I'm afraid.

    I can see why the pseudoscience irks you (just as reappropriation of the word "organic" annoyed many scientists back in the day), but since the main benefit of agrobusiness is usually to the supply chain (not the consumer), I can't really see a deeper basis for objecting to this. Economics will eventually drive consumers toward "rationality", label or no label. The difference is that with the label, you at least give them a chance to make an informed decision. Even if they squander it (100-epsilon) percent of the time.

    I'm not so sure that they do squander it quite as much as you think, though. There are many reasons that might underly the behavior you're calling irrational. Economic, ecological... or because they think they don't have the time to inform themselves about the fast-changing field of genetically modified organisms, and it is therefore easier to go with what they know... aren't those possible explanations? Or couldn't it also be explained by a general mistrust of agrobusiness? Look at the Flavr Savr tomato - the first GMO food sold in the US: engineered purely to save money for grocery stores, yielding a lousy and slightly disgusting product. Irrational it may be to extrapolate from that to all GMO foods.... but I can't say I blame them.

    More interesting to me is the following question: why do you favor removing the information, instead of attempting to explain the scientific position better? Do you think information should be withheld in other areas where consumers make the "wrong" decisions - e.g. radiation from cellphone use? Or TSA scanners? Is this really the advocate of Genome Wikis talking here? ;-)

    BTW, talking of wikis, it appears from the Guardian's latest Wikileaks cable that the US government shares your exasperation...
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/03/wikileaks-us-eu-gm-crops

    ReplyDelete
  38. No, calling consumers irrational isn't particularly arrogant. But I'm afraid that I do think it's pure scientific hubris to say their irrationality means they forfeit the right to know the facts because "it would take several paragraphs, which no one is going to read while shopping, even if they could understand it".

    That is just a flimsy argument - as can be seen by the ease with which it could be applied to almost any food additive: no-one will have the time to look up sulphites/cochineal/aspartame "while shopping", so why label them? Consumers are irrational anyway! And scientific tests have shown that additives in general are perfectly harmless! Except for a few cases which are well under control, and ignoring a few kooks who nobody takes seriously. Most of the nonsense talked about MSG/lactates/high-fructose corn syrup is dodgy pseudoscience anyway. Right?

    I do realize that food marketers have a huge vested interest in what goes on the label, and you can't print everything there, but how do you make that call? My gut feeling is that if X is a huge turn-off for consumers then X should go on the label, regardless of what the Wise Scientific Elders (that's us, we're old) may think. That's true whether X is genetic modification, or hormones in cow's milk, or factory farming, or monoculture. I strongly suspect that GMOs are the biggest turn-off in the grocery store right now. Then again, that is the sort of statement that's just begging to be disproved...

    I do think it's misleading to describe genetic modification as just another "detail of the food production process". It's clearly more like an additive than a preparation technique. I also find it a bit disingenuous the way many scientists will say that it's "just like" traditional breeding - and then in the next breath, point out how much smarter and better and faster it is, and how much more we can do with it. You can't have that genetically modified cake and eat it, I'm afraid.

    I can see why the pseudoscience irks you (just as reappropriation of the word "organic" annoyed many scientists back in the day), but since the main benefit of agrobusiness is usually to the supply chain (not the consumer), I can't really see a deeper basis for objecting to this. Economics will eventually drive consumers toward "rationality", label or no label. The difference is that with the label, you at least give them a chance to make an informed decision. Even if they squander it (100-epsilon) percent of the time.

    I'm not so sure that they do squander it quite as much as you think, though. There are many reasons that might underly the behavior you're calling irrational. Economic, ecological... or because they think they don't have the time to inform themselves about the fast-changing field of genetically modified organisms, and it is therefore easier to go with what they know... aren't those possible explanations? Or couldn't it also be explained by a general mistrust of agrobusiness? Look at the Flavr Savr tomato - the first GMO food sold in the US: engineered purely to save money for grocery stores, yielding a lousy and slightly disgusting product. Irrational it may be to extrapolate from that to all GMO foods.... but I can't say I blame them.

    More interesting to me is the following question: why do you favor removing the information, instead of attempting to explain the scientific position better? Do you think information should be withheld in other areas where consumers make the "wrong" decisions - e.g. radiation from cellphone use? Or TSA scanners? Is this really the advocate of Genome Wikis talking here? ;-)

    BTW, talking of wikis, it appears from the Guardian's latest Wikileaks cable that the US government shares your exasperation...
    http://is.gd/k8FiV
    (links to The Guardian's website; Google complained that my URL was too large)

    -Ian Holmes

    ReplyDelete
  39. Consumer behaviour is rarely influenced by scientific evidence - at least not in any direct way. The issues are simply too complex for any but specialists to understand them.

    So people make their decisions based on who they trust, and consumers in Europe have a low level of trust in large agri-industry. Factory farms, produce bred and grown artificially to look good but with poor nutritional content, mad cow disease. GMO is caught up in all these issues (in the consumer's mind).

    Consumers in general fear GMO because of the yuck factor, of course. Belief in the purity of food is important (think bottled water).

    I suspect the reason that Europe is more anti-GMO is because food quality/purity is a much more important facet of culture. We like to believe that our food comes from small, family farms, like in the story books. And it probably doesn't help that the technology is mostly foreign (American).

    ReplyDelete
  40. Interesting article and conversation - especially considering the article was published nearly a month ago! I think there are a few facts that would be helpful in this discussion:

    - If ordinary foods were put through the same tests as GMO foods are (particularly in Europe), many of them would not reach our shelves. Strawberries, peanuts, etc. - they would all be disqualified!

    - Someone mentioned that GM crops are probably mostly used by huge industrial farms. Not so. Around 90% of farmers planting them are small-scale. http://www.whybiotech.com/?p=1801

    - For anyone still wondering about the safety of GM crops, scientists in the EU have been researching their safety for health/environment for 25 years now - and still they have found nothing. http://ec.europa.eu/research/biosociety/pdf/a_decade_of_eu-funded_gmo_research.pdf

    - In terms of making crops more tolerant of pesticides - frankly, I think that if pesticide spraying can be decreased, it is a win-win situation - a lot of farmers lose a lot of time/money and energy dealing with weeds, so it is also to their benefit.

    Thanks for providing a space for this discussion. Definitely more civil than others I've seen...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Regarding "pesticide spraying being decreased" it actually increases with the use of round up ready seeds...now they can spray the entire acreage of crops with roundup without fear of killing the crop itself since round up weed killer is already in the plants genes....same with pest resistance plants...no need for pesticide when the insect killer is already in the food.....yummy ...nothing like the taste of round up and insectkiller in my cornflakes with rbgh and pus and blood in the milk

      Delete
  41. Steven - on a slightly tangential (and purely scientific) issue, I am rather curious as to the basis for your confidence in the following statement:

    "The WHO site (and others) express a concern that a gene FROM A PLANT will get into a gut bacterium. That event has never happened, and believe me, scientists have been looking (because they'd get a Nature paper out of it)."

    Given that the human microbiome has barely been sequenced (and still only for a few individuals), and given that HGT from eukaryotes to bacteria can occur (albeit rarely), and HGT from bacteria to bacteria is reasonably commonplace[*]... how can you possibly assert "That event has never happened" with any sort of confidence?

    The fact that "scientists have been looking" and "they'd get a Nature paper out of it" doesn't strike me as very robust reasoning. At the least, it seems premature. There are still huge gaps in the bacterial phylogeny and we're really only starting to develop an understanding of microbiome diversity, let alone a comprehensive view of evolution of the thousand(s) of species of gut bacteria, and especially not the frequency of events which are already (a priori) believed to be rare.

    [*] I'm also a bit bemused by your characterization of bacterial conjugation etc as "rare but not unprecedented" when it's a textbook process. I'm no expert but I thought typical conjugation rates were somewhere around ~1e-4 per cell (possibly as low as 1e-6) - given that there are ~1e14 bacterial cells around the human body, your characterization might seem to be slightly misleading - am I missing something there?

    ReplyDelete
  42. "Given that ... HGT from eukaryotes to bacteria can occur (albeit rarely)" - I've not seen any evidence for this. What's your reference?
    And the fact is that we and others have looked at the human genome very closely for signs of bacterial genes that have been transferred, and the evidence is zero. E.g., see my 2001 Science paper, Salzberg et al., Science 292 (2001), 1903-1906, which proved that a previous claim - published in Nature - of HGT from bacteria to humans was erroneous.

    ReplyDelete
  43. I never claimed there had been any transfers from bacteria to humans.

    Regarding HGT from eukaryotes to bacteria, I'm not very familiar with this literature, but was under the impression it could occur. Some references:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14704857
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK2228/#A1738

    See e.g. Table 6 of the latter. NB I don't endorse those claims, haven't read the papers very closely and am actually a bit dubious given the paucity of the bacterial phylogeny. So I will modify my statement from "can occur (albeit rarely)" to "may well occur".

    I still can't see how you can assert that "This has never occurred" (re gene transfer from plants to intestinal flora).

    Looking back at your original post, I see that you at first qualified this claim with "as far as we can tell". I think that's a pretty important caveat in this case.

    ReplyDelete
  44. I find it strange that well controlled recombinant DNA technology is considered risky, whereas hybridization is not?

    Perhaps all produce that have ever been selectively bred or hybridized should also have 'genetically modified' labels. That way people will realize how ridiculous the label actually is.

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  45. Courtesy of Jonathan Eisen, here are two papers reporting apparent evidence for horizontal transfer of components of the eukaryotic actin cytoskeleton to bacteria:

    http://www.cell.com/current-biology/retrieve/pii/S0960982207016326
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v462/n7276/full/nature08656.html

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  46. (NB purely for scientific interest- not at all clear that this would be any more likely to happen in the gut, or that it would be bad if it did)

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