Jan 13 2014

The GMO Narrative and Abstinence Only Farming

Nathaniel Johnson over at Grist has written a series of articles on genetically modified organisms (GMO). As an investigative journalist he decided to do what I call a “deep dive” on this one issue to try to sort out fact from fiction, and which side (anti or pro) has the better arguments. He acknowledges that this was a journey of discovery and he was learning as he went along.

His most recent article, I think, is the most interesting: What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters. In this latest installment he discusses the meta-lessons he learned in his journey through GMO – which seem to me like core skeptical principles. His article is an eloquent discussion of these principles, worth a read in its entirety, but I will further discuss here.

The main thing that Johnson learned is that people generally do not arrive at and defend positions based upon a careful analysis of the facts. Rather they have a narrative that fits their world view, and they defend that narrative despite the facts. This, of course, is familiar territory for skeptics.

In fact, regarding GMO he reasonably argues that the stakes are rather low. The risks of GMO are generally low and mixed (some benefit here, some downside there). The benefits of GMO are likewise highly variable, but none of them are transformative. With or without GMO technology, the agricultural industry will look and behave pretty much the same, and our food supply will be pretty much the same.

This is not to say they make no difference, but in the grand scheme of things the stakes are far lower than one would guess by the emotional intensity of the debate. Why the disconnect?

He further notes the folly of discussing GMO as a monolithic entity, and dings both sides of the debate for this fallacy. Each GM organism must be examined on its own merits. I would extend this point by saying that GMO technology itself includes a range of interventions. For example, transplanting genes from a closely related variety should be considered a significantly different intervention than transplanting a gene from a different kingdom of life.

Also, different GMO crops have different purposes – resisting pests, resisting herbicide, and improving nutritional content, for example. Assessing the net environmental impact of Roundup ready crops is a very different thing from assessing the nutritional advantage of golden rice. Conflating these into one argument is absurd.

Why, then, do people generally discuss GMO as one entity? Johnson had to confront the many-headed beast of comments to his articles on a controversial topic. This experience appears to have given him some insight into the answer, and I think he does put his finger on it exactly.

Johnson realized that people generally do not form scientifically nuanced opinions based upon the best science and evidence. Rather, they have a narrative, and they see everything through the lens of that narrative. Again - this is very old news to skeptics. Johnson writes:

When Dan Charles was researching his (terrific) book, Lords of the Harvest, he bumped up against some of the same quandaries I encountered, and concluded that the importance of these narratives was tantamount.

“The dispute over genetic engineering involves facts, to be sure,” he wrote. “But its parties disagree far more passionately over the story. They quarrel over the nature of the characters, the plot, and over the editing. They also feud over the unknowable: the ending.”

The debate isn’t about actual genetically modified organisms — if it was we’d be debating the individual plants, not GMOs as a whole — it’s about the stories we’ve attached to them.

GMO critics dislike GMO because they dislike the corporate agricultural complex it represents. That is why, in my opinion, Monsanto has been so demonized. GMO = Monsanto = Corporate Greed and Malfeasance. When discussing the facts regarding GMO it is very common to be labeled as a “Monsanto apologist” or “shill.”

Johnson makes a very apt analogy to abstinence only sex education. The religious right dislikes promoting the use of condoms as a way to mitigate the risks of premarital sex (unwanted pregnancy and spread of disease) because it supports a moral position they dislike. Similarly, anti-GMO activists dislike golden rice because is supports an agricultural industrial complex they dislike, not because of the specific risks and benefit of golden rice.

In other words, it is not about the facts. It is about the narrative. This is further driven by our need for simplicity – the narrative is clean and simple, and washes over a great deal of complexity and nuance.

On the flip side, pro-GMO advocates have their own narrative – the triumph of human technology and ingenuity, or perhaps the power of the free market.

Skeptics, of course, have their own GMO narrative – fallacious vs science-based thinking. Both extremes are wrong because they base their thinking on simplistic notions (like the naturalistic fallacy or the pristine power of the free market) rather than a fact-based individual assessment of each GM product. Johnson has simultaneously noticed that people largely base their opinions on narratives rather than facts, and moved himself into the skeptical narrative.

I am not criticizing Johnson’s evaluation (it’s spot on) just extending it a bit. People are variable and complex, and in the real world I find people spread throughout the entire spectrum, incorporating every permutation of valid and invalid arguments. While there is a valid and very useful insight in the notion that opinions are largely narrative-based, don’t fall into the false dichotomy of splitting the world into competing narratives. For every exemplar there will be those who break the mold or fall in-between.

It is the skeptical narrative that I find challenges me the most. There is utility in identifying patterns of argument that represent iconic positions. The pitfall for skeptics, however, is falling into the trap of dealing with individual people as if they were the iconic position they represent – treating individuals as labels.

To some extent this is unavoidable. When discussing issues I need to break them down into the basic positions that most people take. It is simply unwieldy to account for every possible individual variation on these themes. Further, we are social creatures and we have culture. Therefore we have group narratives that are reinforced by subcultures, and this does tend to produce legions of cookie-cutter opinions.

But I think it is important to  focus on individual arguments and individual pieces of evidence, rather than treating a position as a package. Further, when discussing an individual person, address their position, not the label you have attached to them.

So while many people generally fall into the pro-GMO or anti-GMO camp, and these camps do tend to share a common and self-reinforcing narrative, also be alert to and open to the individual variations that people will bring to these narratives.  Also, don’t define one group by the narrative of their opponents. That tends to produce cardboard caricatures.

Unfortunately, I think we need to embrace the complexity, as much hard work as this is. But on a bright note, this approach also can provide clarity. The GMO issue really should emphasize the best scientific evidence and arguments. The politics will still involve value judgments, but at least we can identify them and know when we are discussing the science and when we are discussing values and opinion. Confusing the two is a source of much mischief.

Share

46 responses so far

46 Responses to “The GMO Narrative and Abstinence Only Farming”

  1. Bill Openthalton 13 Jan 2014 at 10:36 am

    And, of course, the first comment on Nathaniel Johnson’s article (as do many of the subsequent ones) confirms his observations to the point the poster is blissfully unaware of the irony. The problem is that people stuck in a narrative cannot admit they might be — they are right, the others are wrong, and probably evil.

    Alas, poor humanity…

  2. ccbowerson 13 Jan 2014 at 11:19 am

    “He further notes the folly of discussing GMO as a monolithic entity,and dings both sides of the debate for this fallacy.”

    I think this is a significant obstacle to having meaningful discussions, and most people don’t even realize that this is a problem. Despite this issue, we still have use the term GMO and speak of it as a category, because that is how it is framed. The issue is already set up for antagonistic perspectives, by creating this dichotomy with the terminology/label as if it meaningful for the issues being discussed.

    This is always a problem with nuanced and complex topics, especially those with package-deals labels with questionable meaningfulness (e.g. organic). Perhaps this will improve as the public becomes more sophisticated about the topic, but I am not optimistic about this when it comes to complex issues. I’m not sure what the solution is, but perhaps it will sort itself out in time.

  3. Bronze Dogon 13 Jan 2014 at 11:36 am

    The “triumph of science” is a pretty seductive narrative and I do like science heroes, but I think I’ve managed to avoid going too deep into it. In GMO threads, I do my best to keep making the point that we should judge them on a case-by-case basis, rather than the all or nothing framing. If someone wants me to categorically reject GMOs, I expect them to explain why they think GMOs are categorically different from other crops. I’ve never met anyone who’s radically pro-GMO enough to green light all of them, but I’d make the same demand if I did.

    While the stakes have been lower than claimed, I do recognize the possibility of unintended consequences. Since I know enough about evolution to understand the same sort of risks also occur from simple breeding, I don’t allow myself to be paralyzed by fear of the unknown. When it comes to developing new technologies, you test as best you can, take an initially limited risk when you put it out into the world, and continue monitoring for the things you might have missed in the lab tests. The third law of thermodynamics is sometimes jokingly stated as “You can’t quit the game.” It’s the same with risk management. I’d rather humanity not miss out on benefits because some people employ the perfect solution fallacy.

    I don’t really know much of anything about the political/social/economic situation with the Big Farm-a companies, but I’ve had times when I feel like my legitimate criticism of an entity is drowned out by irrational conspiracy theorists with imagined problems. It feels so disempowering. I think after reading this, I’ll get right to the point the next time I see an anti-GMO comment: “Is this really about GMOs, or is this about the corporations?”

  4. Bruceon 13 Jan 2014 at 11:42 am

    “Since I know enough about evolution to understand the same sort of risks also occur from simple breeding”

    I don’t think most people really understand this.

    I think one of the big problems with the perception of GMO, aside from those mentioned above is the “mutant” effect. TV, Comics, Books and Films have really pushed the idea that if something is genetically modified or given a shock of radiation or space wind, it will immediately become a superpower that can be used for good or evil depending on who gets their hands on it.

  5. TheFlyingPigon 13 Jan 2014 at 12:51 pm

    The “mutant effect” reminds me of an anti-GMO protest I was at in Boston ~2000. There was a crazy-looking woman shouting “Mutant food makes mutant people!!” over and over and over. It was, overall, an entertaining spectacle. So was my first encounter with the Occupy protesters… walking into the area, the first thing I saw was a chalk-written message on the concrete pleading for opening up of patents for “over unity energy devices” (ie, perpetual motion machines).

    The fact that the most vociferous/loudest advocates for a cause are often the most wrong complicates many issues.

  6. Ekkoon 13 Jan 2014 at 3:04 pm

    It is amusing to see people hold scientific facts/research in high esteem when discussing climate change but then immediately throw that out the window when discussing GMOs because of their world view/narrative. I was really impressed with Nathaniel Johnson’s series of articles on the topic over the course of last year and with this latest summing up/reflecting. Pointing out to friends, family, colleagues, etc. that just maybe it is their narrative/chosen belief system that is running the show rather than scientific facts is tricky sometimes. I’m well aware of past positions/beliefs I’ve had that now seem more a product of a lack of insight and questioning – and more default assumptions based on what I was overlaying on reality. I’ve always liked Robert Anton Wilson’s description of this as “reality tunnels”.

  7. Lumen222on 13 Jan 2014 at 4:22 pm

    I absolutely loved that series. Some of the conclusions that Johnson came to I would have quibbled with but the facts, context and nuance he brought to the table were generally top notch. But I had a bit of disappointment with the last article and here is why:

    First, my personal experience has been that very few of the people labeled as “pro-GM” are actually anything of the sort. I would never have described myself that way, though I have certainly engaged in many conversations about the issue. My problem has always been with the “anti-GM” movement specifically and the conspiratorial and anti-science thinking that they’ve chosen to intertwine with their anti-corporate views. I have seen pictures of those damn Sprague-Dawley rats more than I can count, and it was always accompanied with a completely garbled screed about the toxic, gmo, superweeds, monsanto, patent on life, corruption of the FDA. Also many links to Natural News et. al.

    I really don’t think it’s fair to “ding” both “sides” for treating GMOs as a monolith. Saying you don’t believe in GMO labeling does not mean you are treating GMOs as all one thing. A major argument against GMO labeling has been precisely that they AREN’T all the same, so a GMO label is frankly meaningless. If a GMO is harmful it should be pulled from the market. If it’s not then spending money labeling it as “GMO” just paints everything with the same brush. I think you will find of most people who are on the “Pro-GM” “Side” in the public sphere have offered precisely the kinds of nuanced arguments that Johnson does, and lobby hard for critical thinking and empiricism. Mark Lynas the Global Warming activist was painted a GM shill for doing precisely that.

    I’m unconvinced this extremist Pro-GMO “side” actually … exists. Who are these pro-GMO activists who have insisted on treating GMOs as “all the same” and an unconditional triumph? I’ve seen many people argue we should not toss away a valuable tool because of scare tactics. And I’ve seen many agree that Round Up crops are not the most encouraging use of the tech. Some feel that the regulation is too heavy and would like GM food regulated in a similar manner to conventional foods, but I have seen no one propose it should not be regulated at all. So… yeah, aside from the people employed directly by bio-tech I think this side is actually a Straw Man that is necessary for Johnson to be able to take a “middle ground”. Because with out that Straw Man he’s basically just adopting the majority of the arguments from the “pro-GM” side. (which I would argue is really just a pro-science/evidence POV).

    But finally, I think it’s very dangerous to shrug our shoulders when ANY technology is rejected for reasons other than solid evidence and study. Howdo we know that GMOs are not going to revolutionize agriculture? At the moment the tech is so expensive to develop that it’s difficult to gauge how far it might advance. When was the last time we were able to predict a great leap forward in technology? And isn’t it a really bad idea to throw the door open in the environmentalist movement and allow activists to reject entire technologies because of conspiracy theory and fear? I’m not sure how we can have a leg to stand on regarding issues such as global warming, if we turn a blind eye to naturalistic-fallacy wielding extremists hiding in the ranks. Not if we hope to convince the large swaths of people who still seem to believe that AGW is a hoax.

  8. SimonWon 13 Jan 2014 at 9:09 pm

    “I don’t think most people really understand this.”

    I don’t think it is true.

    If the differences achieved by GMO were the same as normal breeding we’d do it all by plant breeding, which is cheap to do, doesn’t require anywhere near the same level of expertise or capital investment.

    Genes in plants (or yeasts) are sets which have evolved together, and if you insert completely unrelated genes like those for the production of human insulin, the outcome is hopefully yeast that makes insulin, but it might equally be that there are coding changed and you introduce hard to understand issues into the genome. Not a big issue for yeast in an insulin factory, we can make some more, but if it forms a substantial part of the world food crop our options are more limited.

    Whilst I think really nasty outcomes are unlikely (such as a mutation that causes increasing genetic instability in each subsequent generation), I don’t think it is possible to know bad things won’t happen. That presupposes a level of understanding of the genome and its mechanisms for stability we don’t appear to have yet, otherwise we really would have cured cancer, or create clones free of developmental defect.

    There are also specific types of change which are inherently riskier. Such as inserting insect toxin genes from a widely divergent species. We’ve already seen unpredicted ecological problems from such changes, where crop pollen is toxic to non-target species. Indeed we’ve already seen the license withdrawn for one such crop. But I think more problematically we are still eliminating many conventional pesticides from the repertoire of farmer on safety ground, if they are bred into widely sown plants our ability to subsequently withdraw those pesticides is curtailed. Similarly the toxic gene may spread to species closely related to the crop species (grasses, or brassicas).

    I think we underestimate the effects we might have, in part because it is convenient, and in part because we too readily discount long term implications. If we move a gene from a crocus into a grass crop, we know in the medium term that gene will probably spread to related weed grass species, any downside remains as long as the species affected are extant. This might be several million years. Just as people are considering “what about the collapse of civilisation?”, and loss of knowledge of purpose, into the design of their nuclear waste disposal sites, we should probably be considering GMOs in a similar light. Conventional breeding is kind of exempt as in the really long term many of those combinations will happen by chance anyway.

  9. rezistnzisfutlon 14 Jan 2014 at 12:56 am

    If the differences achieved by GMO were the same as normal breeding we’d do it all by plant breeding, which is cheap to do, doesn’t require anywhere near the same level of expertise or capital investment.

    I’m not sure you understand what is involved in each. The expertise and time commitment involved in conventional hybridization far exceeds that of GM. It can take years, if not decades, to develop functional hybrids that exhibit the targeted desired traits. What makes GE plants any near as expensive to develop is primarily the deregulation process. Case in point: in Brazil, India, and China there are thriving GMO underground black markets where practitioners with little or no previous training in genetics are able to develop GE crops. While at times this has led to bad results, they have been able to successfully “reverse engineer” seeds presently on the market in order to create seeds with similar traits.

    Genes in plants (or yeasts) are sets which have evolved together, and if you insert completely unrelated genes like those for the production of human insulin, the outcome is hopefully yeast that makes insulin, but it might equally be that there are coding changed and you introduce hard to understand issues into the genome.

    This assumes that there is no testing for efficacy or safety and that we should equally expect unexpecte results. Scientists have a good idea in what they’re doing when they insert insulin producing genes, and we’ve seen excellent results so far with no unexpected results. While it’s possible that unexpected results may occur, those would be found in testing. In regards to insulin, even if there were unexpected results, the only thing we’re interested in is the insulin, so as long as it’s insulin we’re getting, unexpected results are irrelevant.

    When we are speaking to other forms of GMOs where it isn’t necessarily one product we’re harvesting from a plant, but the entire plant (Bt maize, for instance), then there needs to be proper vetting, which there is. The problem with what you’re suggesting is that there simply is no hypothesis to test. Efficacy and safety testing is done on newly developed seeds with no evidence of harm (something that can’t be said for any other kinds of hybridization or gene mutations). Even after product has been released, there is no evidence of harm. Furthermore, geneticists are able to predict with a high level of confidence the actual results of gene insertion – the same can’t be said about hybridization or mutagenic techniques.

    And because sets of genes naturally evolve together does not necessarily make them better or more desirable. That would be the naturalistic fallacy.

    …I don’t think it is possible to know bad things won’t happen.

    Science doesn’t go about attempting to prove negatives. This goes back to having a null hypothesis then going about disproving hypotheses against the null based on observable physical evidence. We will never know unknown harms, that is true in any endeavor, and we will never mitigate all risks. However, how can we ever test against something that is unknown, and how will we ever progress as a species if we’re always waiting for a risk-free guarantee? We have been consuming unknown things for millennia, and now that we have a greater understanding of what we’re consuming, we have some control over it and can predict many outcomes. The simple matter of fact is, there is absolutely no evidence or link to a GM food currently on the market that has caused harm due to it being a GMO, and the ones that have in the past have been pulled from the market, or for the most part never passed initial testing or deregulation.

    There are also specific types of change which are inherently riskier. Such as inserting insect toxin genes from a widely divergent species.

    This assumes that the toxin in question is actually toxic to humans as well. The toxins that are inserted into plants intended for pests are specific to the pests, not to humans. There has yet to be a toxin inserted into plants that is toxic to humans.

    We’ve already seen unpredicted ecological problems from such changes, where crop pollen is toxic to non-target species.

    Do you have any data to back this up? As far as I’m aware, this is false because it’s not unpredicted. Toxins that target certain pests commonly also affect non-targeted species because of their common physiology, whether it’s via a chemical pesticide or a pest gene. Futhermore, most plants have pesticides encoded into their genes already that make them toxic to certain species.

    No matter how a method of control is introduced to an ecosystem, there will always be a resulting evolutionary effect due to the new pressure being placed. This was true before GMOs, and will continue to be true even if GMOs are banned. There will always be the risk of genetic drift into wild related species, though this is far less prevalent than most activists claim – inserted genes simply don’t impart traits that are beneficial in the wild, and are often detrimental in non-agricultural settings. I challenge you to find a case study, or better yet, a scientific study, that indicates the prevalence of genetic drift due to GM technology beyond the few wild species that border a crop field. This is a “problem” that has been manufactured by activists that doesn’t exist in reality.

    But I think more problematically we are still eliminating many conventional pesticides from the repertoire of farmer on safety ground, if they are bred into widely sown plants our ability to subsequently withdraw those pesticides is curtailed.

    The first part seems to be a good thing – less use of chemical pesticides. The second part is a massive assumption that I’m not sure where you’ve gotten it from. If there turns out to be some massive environmentally detrimental effect of genetically inserted pesticide, all the farmer would need to do is not plant that crop again, or even destroy the crop if necessary. Again, this is a manufactured issue that doesn’t exist in reality and is easily mitigated if it does. Sure, one could say there is always a risk, but the benefits of reduced chemical pesticides far outweigh risks that are easily mitigated.

    Similarly the toxic gene may spread to species closely related to the crop species (grasses, or brassicas).

    Again, not as easy or prevalent as you seem to be suggesting here. I would appreciate any scientific data to back this up if you have it, because I have yet to see any. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen at all, but that it’s not prevalent like activists claim, nor is it really a problem. GE traits simply aren’t found in the wild often, in great numbers, or in a way that’s particularly harmful.

    I think we underestimate the effects we might have, in part because it is convenient, and in part because we too readily discount long term implications.

    Do you have evidence of this? What long-term implications exist for GE crops that don’t exist for conventional crops? It’s probably true that some may underestimate effects or tend to be biased due to convenience or cost, but it’s an issue that exists for all forms of agriculture, and something has not been borne out in the world thus far.

    If we move a gene from a crocus into a grass crop, we know in the medium term that gene will probably spread to related weed grass species, any downside remains as long as the species affected are extant.

    I won’t go into detail about this because it’s the same question as before: is this actually a problem? Yes, it’s possible, even likely, that in some cases genetic transfer may occur between related species, but is it truly a problem? What downside are we talking about exactly? Let’s be specific here. A) how prevalent is it actually in the real world, and B) if it does occur, what are the outcomes? Is it more fear of the unknown, or are there specifics we can look to? What examples from real-world settings can we draw upon that can serve as cautionary tales?

    There are issues and problems with modern agriculture that do need to be addressed, and GE crops have their own set of (potential) issues that deserve their own set of consideration. For instance, the introduction of RR crops in the US has (hypothetically) led to a decline in Monarch Butterflies, mostly due to how well these crops and RR are able to eliminate weeds, including milkweeds. As a result, Monarchs don’t have as much of a food source as the once did. The proposed solution is to create “islands” of milkweed that exist away from crops that the butterflies can resort to.

    Virtually none of the issues that GE crops have are unique to GE crops, but are issues that are already present in all of agriculture. That being said, newly developed hybrid, mutagenic, and GE seeds should all be vetted by regulation for efficacy and safety. Unfortunately, this is a process that is only present in GE seeds, so when a new conventional/organic hybrid is introduced, we know virtually nothing about its safety or efficacy, we just have the word of the manufacturer and our own biases.

  10. rezistnzisfutlon 14 Jan 2014 at 1:03 am

    Jeesh, sorry about the novel guys!

  11. rezistnzisfutlon 14 Jan 2014 at 7:52 am

    I don’t agree that there is some “middle position” between pro- and anti-GMO. The pro- side tends to spend most of their time negating anti- claims and arguments rather than espousing the benefits of some GMO monolith. In fact, I have yet to hear of one pro- who believes that GMOs are anything more than one tool in the box of agriculture that currently serves a positive purpose, and has a lot of potential for doing more. This comparison between pro- and anti- seem to be a false dichotomy similar to someone comparing, say, a creationist and someone who accept evolution, or a climate denialist and someone who accepts AGW. It seems that Johnson has fallen for a common journalistic mistake of trying to keep balance in an issue where none really exists.

    While I do agree that there’s some ignorance on both sides, the vast majority of that ignorance lies on the anti- side. Few pro-’s think that GMOs are some panacea or revolutionary technology (in its current iteration and status, at least). When most of the time is spent by pro-’s putting out anti- fires they create with their misinformation, there’s really little time for being a proponent anyway.

    Also, arguments about free market capitalism versus set market socialism actually has little to do with GMOs. If pro-’s discuss this issue, it’s in correcting more misinformation regarding GMOs because conventional and organic seeds also have patents and intellectual property rights filed on them. In fact, seed patents have been around for centuries, and has been in US law for nearly a century. So, if one has an issue with capitalism and how it relates to GMOs, there is a world full of patents, copyrights, and IP rights that would also have to be dealt with, which is a whole other can of worms. Most of the time, these people simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

    Unfortunately, the anti- voice has so far dominated the narrative by a big margin by waging a systematic campaign of fear, appeals to emotion, conspiracy theories, and mis/disinformation. It can be difficult to counter this with science, facts, and logic, since those don’t tend to be compelling. Furthermore, most people get their health and nutrition information from the internet, which is rife with misinformation that most people don’t know how to sort through, especially when a search on GMOs yields page after page of anti- propaganda.

    To pick a nit, anyone who thinks Golden Rice is equivalent to Monsanto and the big corporate machine is highly ignorant of GR, and likely ignorant of the entire topic of GMOs. Golden Rice was developed in collaboration between researchers and public institutions as a humanitarian tool to combat vitamin A deficiency in indigent populations. There are no property rights or patents on it, and it’s been given away for free as an open source food item. No corporation has taken ownership of it nor does anyone profit from its use.

    http://goldenrice.org/

    The reason there is so much resistance to GR is because its existence tears down many of the arguments activists have about GMOs, primarily those of corporatism and intellectual rights. Combined with its known safety and efficacy, there really is nothing to hang their hat on, so they are forced to invent problems, and in some cases, vandalize crops and threaten violence.

    So, if anyone tries to equate pro-’s and anti-’s in argumentation, facts, and rationale, I suggest they do more research on the subject.

    That being said, here are a couple of great resources that are actually science and fact based:

    http://www.biofortified.org/

    http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/

  12. FacelessManon 14 Jan 2014 at 7:56 am

    “We’ve already seen unpredicted ecological problems from such changes, where crop pollen is toxic to non-target species.

    Do you have any data to back this up? As far as I’m aware, this is false because it’s not unpredicted. Toxins that target certain pests commonly also affect non-targeted species because of their common physiology, whether it’s via a chemical pesticide or a pest gene. Futhermore, most plants have pesticides encoded into their genes already that make them toxic to certain species”

    A crop might be engineered to produce a pesticide that kills insects that attack the leafs, with the side effect that the plants pollen is also toxic and can kill other species of insect which aren’t pests and which don’t harm crops (bees for example). This could be an unpredicted consequence in the sense that nobody predicted that the pollen would also be toxic and might cause significant damage to the ecosystem. Then if this gene could spread to a closely related wild plant it would be very dificult to remove it from the environment.

    Otherwise I mostly agree with what you wrote and I am sure that this problem (if actualy plausible) can be prevented by testing the plants before releasing them. I just wanted to point out that it might not be compleately irrelevant or a non-issue.

  13. Steven Novellaon 14 Jan 2014 at 8:19 am

    rez – saying that both sides engage in narrative thinking does not mean that they are symmetrical. I think there is more passion and narrative on the anti-side than the pro-side. I agree, in my experience, those on the pro side tend to have the more moderate and rational position, acknowledging risks, agreeing with the need for regulation, agreeing that companies should not be given free reign, and that individual GM products should be assessed individually. There are the occasional free-market true believers and technophiles, however.

    In my opinion, opposition to golden rice, just because it is GM, is a great example of extreme narrative thinking on the anti-side.

  14. rezistnzisfutlon 14 Jan 2014 at 8:23 am

    FM,

    For sure, it’s POSSIBLE to encode genes that are highly toxic to humans if desired. There could be genes added that could wipe out nearby bee populations, or some other beneficial plant or insect. That’s why we have a vetting process in place already, and it works. Unfortunately, we don’t have a similar deregulation process for conventional/organic hybrids and mutagenic seeds.

    Furthermore, we also have the USDA and EPA to test and regulate safety and environmental systems after the FDA deregulates GM crops. In actuality, there is very little chance of something undesirable getting through and/or being persistent.

    The point of the quote you cited was to indicate how encoded pesticides work in existing GE crops in order to correct the apparent misconception that we have already seen unpredicted ecological problems that have produced deleterious effects, namely crop pollen toxic to non-target species. This is simply not true. I expect his statement is likely directed at bees and CCD, for which research thus far has shown that GE crops have not been a factor.

    Obviously, any insecticide we use is likely going to target multiple species that have similar digestive structures, but that would be the case with a chemical pesticide as well, except an encoded insecticide will have a smaller scope and we don’t have the resultant environmental impact of a chemical pesticide (and to be sure there is no misunderstanding, conventional and organic techniques use chemical pesticides, many of which are far more toxic to more than just the pests).

  15. rezistnzisfutlon 14 Jan 2014 at 8:37 am

    Dr. Novella,

    I hope it didn’t seem like my discourse was aimed at you, but more toward Johnson (and only with the one mild criticism about what it seemed to me to be a false balance, otherwise it is a decent article) and mostly toward anti-GMO activists.

  16. sonicon 14 Jan 2014 at 10:28 am

    Dr. N.-
    You are amazing. So relentless in the pursuit of a topic.

    You found the perfect GMO article–
    there is no there, there.

    It seems the only communications about this subject come from advocacy groups– those selling the stuff as a means of making money (seed companies), and those who are concerned about possible negative effects (environmentalists).

    In this case the sides have chosen to take the ‘we are saving the world’ approach to the communications- so there is maximum emotion and self-association with the sides… being ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ GMO can be a lifestyle choice– weird.

    Being anti-GMO is akin to being a heartless mass murderer– pro-GMO is worse than that, no doubt.

    Much ado about nothing?

  17. rezistnzisfutlon 14 Jan 2014 at 11:05 am

    Sonic,

    You conflate being pro-GMO with being pro-capitalism or somehow interested in profits. Perhaps what we’re interested in is clearing up misinformation, debunking myths, and actually using our skepticism to tease out factual accuracy and good science, and allow that to guide dialogue instead of hyperbole, paranoia, and logical fallacies.

    In other words, you seem to be calling us shills.

    If promoting good science and critical thinking skills via means of skeptical inquiry is being an advocate, then you have us there. However, I don’t think that’s what you were implying when you called us advocates.

    You also imply that those of us who support the use of GMOs aren’t also concerned about possible negative effects. I’m not sure where you’re getting this from, perhaps from activist websites? I would say that everyone here, including Dr. Novella, are most definitely concerned about possible negative effects, including those that come from other forms of agriculture (did you know that organic accounts for the most negative health effects and incidents in the past 20 years as a result of pathogens due to the use of uncured manure and compost? Seems like the anti-GMO folks have their facts backwards).

    Being anti-GMO is akin to being a heartless mass murderer– pro-GMO is worse than that, no doubt.

    Just, wow. Can you be more insulting? Who here has called any anti- akin to a mass murderer? And how is being pro- worse exactly?

    Pretty much every sentence in your post is hyperbolic and factually incorrect.

  18. BBBlueon 14 Jan 2014 at 1:48 pm

    Scientists and skeptics may appreciate the shades of gray and individual policy makers and politicians may do likewise, but the political process tends to select for the narrative. Recently, I was part of a group where researchers from a government agency discussed their GE work with policy makers. The policy makers (members of an administration and political party that tends to favor the anti-GMO narrative) were on full alert because “Genetic Engineering” seems to have the same effect on them as “Niagara Falls” had on Moe and Larry (http://bit.ly/1eBZIov). It took some effort, but the researchers were able to reassure the policy makers that their gene-targeting techniques were just part of a process that did not result in transgenic plants. The researchers had been careful to make sure their publicly-funded research did not run afoul of what has become a virtual prohibition on the development of transgenic plants, but their project almost succumbed to the anti-GMO narrative just because GE was a part of it.

    The current benefits of GMOs may not be as profound as the discovery of antibiotics or vaccines, but that is not to say they are trivial, and unintended consequences cut both ways; perhaps we have only scratched the surface of beneficial uses. It appears to me that the anti-GMO narrative and how that translates into public policy and public perception is placing greater limits on innovation in this case than are patent laws and corporations.

    While I am heartened to see the skeptic universe expanding, I am afraid that progress is being outpaced by believers and their narratives.

  19. steve12on 14 Jan 2014 at 1:55 pm

    This post is really spot on. Really clarifies and extends what I was trying to say a few weeks ago about the same topic.

    And the power of the pre-existing narrative as a poison evaluation heuristic can really be seen when we try to debate policy issues. Very few in the media/politics/bloggers/etc are willing to evaluate any proposition rationally and individually. It’s all fit into a pre-existing bifurcation error-spawned narrative.

  20. FacelessManon 14 Jan 2014 at 2:00 pm

    @rezistnzisfutl

    I wasn’t talking about toxicity to humans. My example was meant as a possible unintended consequence, if nobody thought of the possibility that the pollen might contain the pesticide as well and only the leaves and edible parts were tested for the pesticide. I admit that I am not familiar with the vetting process, perhaps they are already testing every part of the plant, if they are great.

    I was aiming at this statement: “As far as I’m aware, this is false because it’s not unpredicted.” I tried to point out a possible scenario where it would be unpredicted, with serious consequences.

    I am not saying that because this might be possible we should reject all GMOs. I just have a problem with rejecting it out of hand by saying so what, pesticides also kill harmless/beneficial insects.
    We should recognize it as a problem and minimize it. In this example by developing a strain that doesn’t have pesticides in its pollen (or only has a small enough amount that it is harmless). I believe that in general this is how most GMO development functions and that you don’t think that GMOs don’t have to be improved, but I want to clear it out anyway.

  21. Bronze Dogon 14 Jan 2014 at 2:41 pm

    @SimonW:

    If the differences achieved by GMO were the same as normal breeding we’d do it all by plant breeding, which is cheap to do, doesn’t require anywhere near the same level of expertise or capital investment.

    It’s not about the exact differences themselves, it’s about unexpected risks that come from the introduction of new genes or new combinations of genes. When we breed plants, the offspring have a fairly randomized combination of the parent plants’ genes, plus any random mutations. These natural mutations and recombinations can also produce unexpected effects because they also produce new genes and combinations. (Why wouldn’t they?) This is inherent to the process of reproduction, and these random events happen every time a plant produces seeds.

    I don’t see why it’s significant if a gene or gene combination is deliberately introduced by humans or by nature. A gene is a gene is a gene. I don’t see why method of introduction matters. If anything, I think I’d prefer GM because that means there is someone is actually putting thought into the process, monitoring it in a controlled manner, and if there is a dangerous effect, they can warn people and recall the offending plants. Knowing what they changed also provides hints on why it causes the problems, potentially leading to solutions.

    If you want to get into reification, Mother Nature is much more thoughtless about her genetic tinkering. It’s called evolution. It operates on the principle of sink or swim. She doesn’t care if one species drowns another to stay afloat, so don’t count on her playing favorites with us. She’s not interested in humane conditions for test subjects, ethical standards, social duties to the community, the rights of the individual, long-term stability of the system, controlled experimentation, or maintaining good, easily accessible records of her work. Consequently, I do not trust nature to protect me from harm. I need other humans and scientific knowledge if I want safety.

    If you want to avoid the unexpected risks from novel genes and combinations, the only alternative I see is to go the way of the Cavendish banana. That would have every plant of a cultivar be a clone with the same DNA, clipped from a sterile plant that wouldn’t be able to reproduce without human intervention. But it still carries the risk of a cultivar being one really nasty blight away from extinction. IIRC, it’s what very nearly happened to the previous dessert banana cultivar and why the Cavendish banana was able to replace it.

    One of the things I find disturbing about a lot of the anti-GMO rhetoric I’ve encountered is that it sounds like thinly-veiled racist ideology. They sometimes bend the term “species” to exclude GM strains almost like racists who nitpick over an adversary’s trivial physical features to define them as belonging to an “inferior” race or at least question the “purity” of their bloodline so they can conveniently dismiss anything they have to say. They speak of the existing heavily human modified (via breeding) crops as if they were perfectly natural, brought to us by god’s infinite wisdom, and speak of GM almost like racists speak about interracial marriage as an abomination that corrupts the purity of a race. Both cases rest on a human-invented notion of purity and contamination by origin, not the actual “right now” features of the organisms being discussed.

  22. Lumen222on 14 Jan 2014 at 6:05 pm

    “There are the occasional free-market true believers and technophiles, however.”

    It’s true. They do exist. My personal experience though is that these types aren’t actually driving much of the debate. You might see one or two in comment sections and maybe the occasional “drive by” article in a libertarian rag, but most of the Pro-GM blogs are run by science based skeptical types. At least the ones I read. But I am open to seeing contrary examples since obviously I’m working from a limited point of view. After all, I self identify as a skeptic, so it stands to reason that I would have gravitated to pro-gm blogs that were run by skeptics and scientists.

    I’m honest enough to admit that it’s a very emotional debate for me though. I get extremely irritated that the argument keeps getting framed as “Environmentalists Vs. Corporations”(or libertarians, or what have you). Because I’m an environmentalist. Me. And I’m not a libertarian. I’m a liberal progressive who generally votes blue and believes in regulated capitalism and that government can be useful. And it really REALLY irks me when my carefully considered position on GMOs get’s lumped into a category with Ayn Rand, while a bunch of scientifically illiterate neo-hippies with a gaia complex are allowed to claim the moral high-ground because of “mother earth”. I reject this narrative.

    Increasingly I find myself caring a lot less about the unscientific views of strangers on the other side of the political spectrum and a lot more about the pure unadulterated ignorance cropping up in my own back yard. And I absolutely, 100% refuse to yield the label of environmentalist to these people. So while I continue to applaud what Nate Johnson wrote and over all I think it’s a fantastic and timely piece of writing. I will continue to try to correct the misperception that the “environmentalists” are on the “anti-GM” side. Some of the most vehement opponents to those people are actually environmentalists.

    In the spirit of rezistnzisfutl I’m going to link to some examples. I suspect Dr. Novella is already of aware of many of these people, but hell it’s the comments sections. These are some of the writers that have framed the debate for me:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/collideascape/2014/01/06/brilliant-gmo-story/#.UtWqjJWGWS0

    http://kfolta.blogspot.com

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/food-matters/2013/11/08/gmo-labeling-i-522-and-why-this-debate-sucks-for-progressive-scientists-like-me/

    http://www.marklynas.org/2013/01/lecture-to-oxford-farming-conference-3-january-2013/

  23. BBBlueon 14 Jan 2014 at 6:18 pm

    Hi Bronze Dog,

    I suppose the point is that “unnaturally” introduced genes are sometimes vastly different than what one would expect from Mother Nature’s tinkering and that the reach of those genes is enhanced by agricultural practices, but I would agree with you, even if that is the case, the risks still don’t warrant the hyperbole.

    I found it interesting that in one of the figures presented by Mr. Johnson (http://bit.ly/1d1JKor), the risks associated with plant breeding by mutagenesis was greater than that for transgenics. Ionizing radiation has been used by plant breeders for some time, and recently, has been of particular interest to those attempting to introduce seedlessness to mandarin varieties, especially since the success of Cuties®. Within the past decade in California, the acreage planted to Tango mandarin has virtually exploded, by Central Valley specialty crop standards, anyway, and Tango is a product of that technique (http://bit.ly/1d1KEkL).

    Fortunately, so far, we have been able to survive that affront to nature.

  24. rezistnzisfutlon 14 Jan 2014 at 6:20 pm

    FM,

    I wasn’t trying to trivialize the issue of pesticides killing non-target species – it would be nice if we could develop pesticides that only targeted one species (my understanding of GMOs is that Bt toxin genes do a better job of this than chemical pesticides). Unfortunately, currently the technology doesn’t exist to where we can only target one specific insect or plant. So sure, it’s an issue, but I’d rather go with the option that has a lesser effect as well as none of the resultant environmental issues.

    Geneticists and horticulturalists have a good idea of what they’re doing and can typically account for major issues like pollen. They’ll also test for this during cultivation. They have a vested interest in making sure the product that goes out does not have some devastating effect, lest their product gets pulled and scrapped and they have to deal with a reputation problem (not only would this be expensive for them, but they’d lose all future revenue from the product).

    While there may be unknowns, this will be true of any cultivar, and the way it stands now we have more to fear from new conventional and organic breeds than GMOs since they aren’t tested or regulated. Furthermore, new cultivar crops especially are continually evaluated by the EPA and USDA for issues, and if they do occur, crops are pulled (again, this happens whether it’s GMO or conventional/organic).

  25. uncle_steveon 14 Jan 2014 at 6:32 pm

    Bronze Dog, you said: “One of the things I find disturbing about a lot of the anti-GMO rhetoric I’ve encountered is that it sounds like thinly-veiled racist ideology. They sometimes bend the term “species” to exclude GM strains almost like racists who nitpick over an adversary’s trivial physical features to define them as belonging to an “inferior” race or at least question the “purity” of their bloodline so they can conveniently dismiss anything they have to say. They speak of the existing heavily human modified (via breeding) crops as if they were perfectly natural, brought to us by god’s infinite wisdom, and speak of GM almost like racists speak about interracial marriage as an abomination that corrupts the purity of a race. Both cases rest on a human-invented notion of purity and contamination by origin, not the actual “right now” features of the organisms being discussed.”

    I saw something like this very recently, I wish I had saved it. Some anti-GMO activist on a blog was quoting some nonsense from the Bible that demonstrated how “unnatural” and “immoral” GMOs are. The Bible verses that were quoted implied that God never intended humans to tamper with nature this way or something like that(surprise surprise, some people who post on this blog and seem supportive of the anti-GMO author claimed to not know that the wild ancestors of modern vegetable crops were much smaller and less tastier than their modern versions). I forget what part of the Bible it was from, that isn’t relevant, but change a few words around and it would have sounded like a religious argument against miscegenation, or gay marriage. Maybe it even was used for that many decades ago.

    And this is beside the more important point that the people in the world who could most benefit from Golden Rice are largely dark-skinned people in the third world. Sadly, some affluent, mostly white people in the first world are doing all they can to block something that can help eradicate vitamin A deficiency in poor dark skinned people, purely for ideological reasons.

    This may sound like hyperbole, but neo-Nazis and eugenicists would feel right at home at an anti-GR convention and engaging in anti-GR activities; they could even keep their reasons for being anti-GR a secret from the Greenpeace radicals, but it will still have the same intended consequences.

  26. BBBlueon 14 Jan 2014 at 8:03 pm

    At the risk of drifting off topic…

    “… it would be nice if we could develop pesticides that only targeted one species”

    That has been the trend in pesticide development and use for the past thirty years, but that too, does not come without consequences. Farmers typically face a complex of pest problems, not just one pest at a time, so many broad spectrum materials have their advantages, not the least of which are cost and longer residual activity. Also, broad-spectrum materials generally reduce the risk of pesticide resistance. The downside of broad-spectrum pesticides is that they typically have greater mammalian toxicity and are usually not the most environmentally benign, although there are a few exceptions.

    Reliance on broad-spectrum organophosphates and carbamates is a thing of the past in many segments of agriculture, but farmers get little credit for that fact. For instance, the Environmental Working Group is an advocacy organization that publishes their popular Dirty Dozen List every year to inform consumers about which commodities have the “most” pesticides. Their list does not address health risks and actually penalizes the use of target-specific pesticides—residue from a single, highly toxic pesticide results in a more favorable score than do residues from multiple, less toxic pesticides.

    Back to the subject of narratives: the increased use of reduced-risk pesticides does not matter to the EWG, what matters is defeating the dominance of corporate and petrochemical–based agriculture. It does not matter to them if organic growers spray OMRI-approved pesticides all day long, some of which are more toxic than “conventional” pesticides, because organic growers are simpatico.

  27. rezistnzisfutlon 14 Jan 2014 at 9:00 pm

    BBBlue,

    All excellent points and speaks to the relative complexity of the issue that is usually missed primarily by anti’s (because they are the ones making simplistic arguments) but also likely most pro’s who are unaware of agriculture.

    As an aside, if nothing else, maybe all this attention paid to GMOs will make people more aware of agriculture in general, which is a good thing I think.

    The EWG is an egregious crank organization that opposes vaccines, fluoridation, and obviously GMOs. The “Dirty Dozen” list is a great example of motivated reasoning and red herring, and ignores several issues surrounding pesticides (HuffPo now has it’s “Clean 15″ which is equally as bad). As with most anti-GMO activists, the concept of toxicity is something they seem to have a difficult time with. They also miss what the overall impact of pesticides are, and ignore the fact that organic farms use pesticides, too, some which are far more toxic that glyphosate and other pesticides, some which are non-persistent and require more frequent applications.

    Great point about targeting single species, which was an over-simplification on my part. This goes to show that even that kind of product would have its own consequences which may not be desirable. For instance, when one pest is eliminated, there is typically another competing pest around to take its place. And there’s the matter of pest resistances that will occur no matter what we do. No matter how we interact with the environment, there will be a resultant effect that will sooner or later have to be addressed.

    Hey, if you’re interested and not already a member, we’d welcome your perspectives over at GMO Skepti-Forum:

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/GMOSF/

    It’s a page where skepticism is applied to GMOs and the tangential subjects of health, safety, and agriculture. The members are a mix of scientists, farmers, industry experts, and every people who run the gamut of perspectives but typically employ skepticism in their thinking.

  28. sonicon 15 Jan 2014 at 12:16 am

    rezistnzisfutl-
    My comment was perhaps overly general- but if you are trying to clear up misinformation, then you are aware there is a great deal coming from all directions- no?

    Perhaps if there was something more specific–
    What is your #1 falsehood promoted by the ‘anti’s? (By #1 I mean the most outrageous, or humorous… your favorite)
    What is the #1 falsehood promoted by the ‘pro’s?

    (I’m not really ‘anti’ GMO, but I don’t think I’d feel safe talking about these things around Bronze Dog or uncle_steve, ya know?)

  29. Bronze Dogon 15 Jan 2014 at 12:44 pm

    @BBBlue:

    Reliance on broad-spectrum organophosphates and carbamates is a thing of the past in many segments of agriculture, but farmers get little credit for that fact. For instance, the Environmental Working Group is an advocacy organization that publishes their popular Dirty Dozen List every year to inform consumers about which commodities have the “most” pesticides. Their list does not address health risks and actually penalizes the use of target-specific pesticides—residue from a single, highly toxic pesticide results in a more favorable score than do residues from multiple, less toxic pesticides.

    While I was catching up on the thread, all the pesticide talk got me thinking about something I remember about “organic” farming. Then I got to this relevant paragraph of yours. The definition of the “organic” is pretty variable, and sometimes it has a bias toward antiquity rather than just “natural.” If a tool or method was is good enough for my great great grandpa, it’s good enough for organic farming. As a result, I’ve heard some highly toxic, overly broad, environmentally harmful, or otherwise nasty pesticides have gotten grandfathered under the “organic” label in some places. Meanwhile, comparatively gentle, focused pesticides are decreed to be anathema to organic farming because they’re new or because they’re manufactured in a factory or laboratory instead of a bathtub.

    As one of my history professors said, “Nostalgia is the destruction of history.” A lot of people have nostalgia for the image of the humble farmer who did everything with their hands (toiling longer for less yield per man-hour) and had individualized wisdom of the land or some such (working on superstition and confirmation bias). Yet they have their own history of environmental destruction, and I’m sure food poisoning was a regular part of life in that golden era before the FDA.

    Yeah, there are problems with today’s farming methods, too. New technologies like GM give us additional tools to manage those problems. We need science to evaluate the consequences of using these new tools, strip off our rose-colored glasses when we look at our older tools, and find what tool combinations are best for our community, both global and local. We don’t need a quasi-religious ideology to play arbitrary favorites. We don’t need to fall into the trap of idolatry by trying to recreate an agrarian utopia that never existed, or protect our purebred, inbred, not-viable-in-the-wild plants’ genetic purity from the taint of GM miscegenation.

  30. rezistnzisfutlon 15 Jan 2014 at 1:19 pm

    Sonic,

    Well, those are both difficult questions to answer. It’s like asking me what I think the #1 falsehoods between creationists and those who accept evolution. On the one hand, there is so much egregious misinformation being disseminated by the anti side that it’s difficult to choose just one that particularly stands out, and there’s so few on the pro side.

    Probably the most obvious coming from the anti side is that GMOs are inherently unsafe – this denotes ignorance and factual inaccuracy on multiple levels – though I’m not sure that would necessarily construe what I would consider their #1 falsehood.

    It’s a little trickier when it comes to the pro side because then we’re getting into discussions over policy, politics, and economics which there are no clear cut answers and much of it is pure opinion. The difficulty in identifying an outright falsehood on the pro side is that the pro side, in general, sides with the science and evidence. It would then have to be any sort of inadvertent factual inaccuracy due to ignorance about agriculture. Another aspect may be how biotech companies sell their products – as with any other company, they are obviously going to present their products in the rosiest possible light, though I have yet to see outright fabrications or falsehoods being perpetrated by them.

    That’s the other thing in that nearly all of the arguments anti’s have about GMOs isn’t really about GMOs, but about corporatism, policy, and economics.

    So no, I don’t agree that there is misinformation coming from all directions, nearly all of the misinformation is coming from the anti side. That is their bread and butter since science and evidence is not on their side.

  31. BBBlueon 15 Jan 2014 at 1:55 pm

    “…and I’m sure food poisoning was a regular part of life in that golden era before the FDA.”

    I think about golden eras and the good old days before germ theory and antibiotics every time I wander among the graves in Gold Country cemeteries here in California and see all the headstones of infants and children.

    Was at an organic agriculture conference last year and at a presentation on food safety, an organic grower commented that the proper approach to food safety was for people to eat healthier and take better care of themselves so they are better able to tolerate infection. Some truth to that, but hard to sell consumers on the concept that a few pathogens in their food is okay. Reminded me of Bruce Willis’ “Just Cook the Meat!” scene in Fast Food Nation.

  32. sonicon 16 Jan 2014 at 1:37 am

    rezistnzisfutl-

    I’d agree that the ‘anti’ side tends toward misinformation For me the biggest lie from the ‘anti’ camp is about how GMOs have been shown unsafe- I think we’d agree on that. The use of Seralini’s study– a very small sample size, questionable design…– when touted as ‘proof positive’ GMO’s are dangerous is an example of this.
    Another example– while I would agree that it would be a bad idea to allow a private company to own the food supply… I find the concern a bit ahead of the reality and perhaps a bit hysterical…

    I do understand the concern that the ‘herbicide followed by GMO followed by herbicide…’ cycle is bad for the soil in the long run- I’ve heard a rumor that DOW will come with the next generation herbicide and that they intend to instruct the farmers to use the chemical only once and to control weeds with cover cropping… (that is the way to go IMO)– have you heard of this?

    Anyway–

    As to the ‘pro’ side– Something you said- it is interesting to try to distinguish which statements are marketing and which are scientific. For example, are claims that fewer pesticides will be needed a marketing claim or a scientific one?

    Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t know of any scientific statement about GMO’s that isn’t a marketing statement- and vice versa.

    Perhaps you could help me out there.

    Here is an article I liked–
    http://modernfarmer.com/2013/12/post-gmo-economy/

  33. Steven Novellaon 16 Jan 2014 at 8:24 am

    I see GMO as just one technology among many that should be intelligently used by the agriculture industry based upon the best evidence.

    All interventions seem to have an up and a downside. Not using herbicide results in more tilling of the soil, which is bad for the soil and results in the release of a great deal of CO2. But herbicides have their downside too – resistance, killing of beneficial plants, toxicity.

    There is no perfect solution. Further we are trying to squeeze incredible amounts of food from the ecosystem to support our massive population. We are pushing the system to its limits, and want still more. I am not criticizing this – just pointing out that this is a great challenge. Anything we do – just farming itself – will have a huge impact on the environment.

    So we need to be smart and careful about it, and take advantage of every option.

  34. rezistnzisfutlon 16 Jan 2014 at 1:25 pm

    Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t know of any scientific statement about GMO’s that isn’t a marketing statement- and vice versa.

    Considering the thousands of peer-reviewed studies with a large portion of those being from independent institutions and universities, it’s easy to conclude that scientific statements aren’t marketing statements. Scientific statements are generally considered true in and of themselves. One could look at the toxicity of certain pesticides, including those used in organic farming, as a “negative” scientific statement, yet the positives of their use generally outweigh the negatives. A scientific statement is a statement of knowledge not intended to sell anyone anything. If a company then chooses to use the scientific statement to back their product, that’s a separate statement.

    Also, how is a marketing statement a scientific statement? Can you clarify? It seems to me that a marketing statement can easily be far afield from a scientific statement, and we see that all the time with CAM and other pseudoscience claims that sell snake oil products.

    I suspect the capitalistic element that is so often used when regarding the pro side of things is a result of the often anti-capitalistic sentiment of the anti stances. However, this ignores what antis tend to support, namely organic, which is a far larger industry than biotech in terms of sales and revenue, and they use decidedly UN-scientific marketing.

  35. sonicon 17 Jan 2014 at 1:04 am

    rezistnzisfutl-

    Regarding the statement-
    “Considering the thousands of peer-reviewed studies with a large portion of those being from independent institutions and universities, it’s easy to conclude that scientific statements aren’t marketing statements.”

    In 2009 a scientific american article claimed–

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=do-seed-companies-control-gm-crop-research

    “Research on genetically modified seeds is still published, of course. But only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal. In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering.”

    The situation has changed and is now summed up this way–

    http://grist.org/food/genetically-modified-seed-research-whats-locked-and-what-isnt/

    “If you are at a major agricultural school that’s negotiated an agreement with the companies, it’s working fine,” he (Elson Shields quoted above) said.

    From this I say your claim of ‘independent research’ is a marketing claim (less than completely true) rather than a scientific one.

    Did I get that right?

    I realize that some of the practices called ‘organic’ by the USDA are not all that good for the environment…
    It seems there is a false dilemma here- there are other methods of growing food besides ‘GMO’ and ‘organic’- right?

    The false dilemma seems like a marketing ploy- not a scientific evaluation.

    Are these examples making any sense to you?

  36. Mlemaon 17 Jan 2014 at 3:32 am

    So many opinions, so little science.

    Johnson’s dive is not so deep, nor is his broad stroke very broad. No wonder he thinks “none of it matters”. He never got past the literature the industry puts out for “consumer information” – consulting only with scientists well-known for their media work promoting GMOs and GMO misinformation. There were a few glimmers when he addressed some of the errors he got called on – but even though he acknowledged, there were always excuses and mitigation.

    I’m not saying the guy is a dim bulb, but if he wants to do investigative journalism on a scientific, agricultural, political, economic and global issue, he needs to crack a couple of books or something. Personally, I don’t think someone with apparently little science background should be writing in such a format on this topic. But, I guess he’s starting a new type of “narrative” – too cool to care.

    Apparently it’s important to everyone, skeptics included, to have an opinion on GMOs, even though we claim that each must be evaluated individually. Maybe we start really digging a little? Take one plant, figure it out, and then make an evaluation of risk/benefit in the setting in which it will be grown? Environmentally, nutritionally, economically, etc.? Gosh, that would involve so much time and study! Ack, none of it matters.

  37. rezistnzisfutlon 17 Jan 2014 at 6:00 am

    Sonic,

    For one, science in itself isn’t marketing, it’s science. One can use science for their marketing, but science by itself stands on its own merits.

    There are very many independent studies done on GMOs, I think you read that SA blog article incorrectly:

    http://www.biofortified.org/genera/studies-for-genera/independent-funding/

    That’s just a sample list – there are many more, including independent assessments done by regulatory agencies, independent scientific organizations, and universities:

    http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/p/450-published-safety-assessments.html

    GM foods are considered one of the most analyzed substances in science, with over 2000 studies confirming them. Granted, many of these are industry funded:

    http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/08/with-2000-global-studies-confirming-safety-gm-foods-among-most-analyzed-subject-in-science/#.UtkGF7SokcW

    The concern in the SA article is that a few GE seeds that are protected under patent aren’t released by companies to do independent testing on them as open source. Test results are sent to peer-review as well as to the FDA and other regulatory agencies for assessment. This is because of IR considerations and corporate espionage that would cost companies millions of dollars in losses. Testing IS done of these seeds by outside sources, though – they just cannot release specific information about the technology.

    Companies are required to pass stringent requirements in order to deregulate seeds and receive patents. The science they use isn’t a marketing ploy as you seem to be suggesting, they’re assessments. Furthermore, all seeds, including GM, conventional, and organic, are regulated by the USDA and EPA in the US.

    The thing that is being missed here is that here is no scientific, empirical, or theoretical safety concerns specific to GMOs as is suggested. That’s not to say that GE as a technology does not have the potential for harm, but that is what the deregulation process is for.

  38. rezistnzisfutlon 17 Jan 2014 at 6:06 am

    Sonic,

    It seems to me that you’re edging on conspiracy theorizing there. The Grist quote you listed only deals with research that universities do that has agreements with seed companies. However, this is common practice across all disciplines where universities do research and development for private interests. Their research still stands on their own merit, but you have to remember that that’s not ALL the research they do.

    What seems to be getting lost here is that there IS independent research not funded by biotech companies that indicate that GE crops are no more harmful than their conventional counterparts. What’s also being missed is that there is no testing for conventional breeding techniques, some of which ARE more uncertain than GE, despite what Mlema claims.

    When a new organic hybrid or mutagenic is brought to market, we know virtually nothing about their safety and efficacy, we just have the word of the organic company. There aren’t even peer-reviewed studies to refer to. Why do I bring this up? Because it’s irrational to have such fear for GMOs, that are highly regulated AND tested, but not have any for organic or conventionally developed seeds.

    What’s also being continually ignored is the decades of use of GMOs with not one health issue linked to them. One would think that with millions of people consuming them, something would show up. Hopefully, we won’t resort to vague conspiracy theories here, either.

  39. rezistnzisfutlon 17 Jan 2014 at 6:17 am

    Mlema,

    All that study is already done. You’re again displaying a dizzying ignorance of the subject. GE is an exact science, especially compared to other forms of genetic manipulation, and it is heavily studied. Geneticists and biochemists know what they’re doing, and farmers know what they’re buying. You inadvertently hit upon an important point in that GMOs do, and are, evaluated on an individual basis, but that is not what you, and other anti’s, do when you attempt to impugn ALL GMOs as somehow unsafe.

    I would wager that skeptics value knowing what’s true as much as possible and minimizing what is false, GMOs included. It’s the anti’s that are making this an issue, the ones spreading mis/disinformation in the name of their ideology, and mangling the science. It’s not GMOs per se that most skeptics are arguing for, it’s protecting the integrity science from cranks, quacks, and pseudsoscience proponents such as yourself while correcting factual inaccuracies. So much of what you, and other antis, say is just plain wrong, so much so that we end up having to defend the likes of Monsanto and Sygenta, not to mention the actual science itself.

    I’m not sure what you’re suggesting, what, that us skeptics are misinformed? What, and you’re not, you’re informed? You’re in the know? Considering that pretty much everything you’ve suggested is in opposition to factual reality and the science, I’d say it’s quite the opposite.

    So many opinions, so little science.

    The science is decidedly pro-GMO as far as safety and efficacy. I think you’re projecting.

  40. sonicon 17 Jan 2014 at 10:41 am

    rezistnzisfutl-
    Something that is being missed-
    I’m not saying there is anything harmful about GMO’s. I’m pointing out that you are making statements that sound like science, but are really marketing–

    Given that any use of the seeds must be approved by the seed company, I think the designation of ‘independent’ is a marketing term, not the way the words is usually used.
    Or do independent scientists often shut down experiments when the results are ‘undesirable’ to the manufacturer of the product under test?
    So while I would be happy that every study published before 2009 was done with the best science, I would say the list is cherry-picked because at least some of the experiments that were getting ‘undesirable results’ were left out.

    That is what it means to ‘cherry-pick’ right?

    “GM foods are considered one of the most analyzed substances in science…”

    Compared to gravity, hydrogen, helium, the moon, force, the standard model of physics, water, light, electrons,…

    More marketing hyperbole. That one makes me laugh when I see it. I often see a link to a ‘cherry-picked’ list of studies when I see that claim.

    Do you understand what I mean?

  41. Bronze Dogon 17 Jan 2014 at 11:06 am

    I would wager that skeptics value knowing what’s true as much as possible and minimizing what is false, GMOs included. It’s the anti’s that are making this an issue, the ones spreading mis/disinformation in the name of their ideology, and mangling the science. It’s not GMOs per se that most skeptics are arguing for, it’s protecting the integrity science from cranks, quacks, and pseudsoscience proponents … while correcting factual inaccuracies.

    I’m reminded of Creationists making false allegations or asserting half-truths about Darwin or his Origin of Species. It’s irritating on at least two levels.

    1) They’re trying to deceive people, and
    2) They’re trying to depict us as idolators, typically projecting their own idolatry onto us.

    This leaves people like me in the annoying situation of having to debunk the deceit out of a desire to protect the truth and at the same time, remind people that the theory of evolution isn’t dependent on the beautification of Darwin or the canonization of Origin. Then they highlight the part of my comment that fits in their script, ignoring the rest.

    That’s pretty similar to our situation when Monsanto gets brought up in GMO threads. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re doing some bad stuff right now, being a big corporation, but their detractors seem more interested in making stuff up and passing around urban legends than talking about actual problems. So when we argue our case that GMOs aren’t inherently dangerous, out come the shill accusations, as if we’re defending Monsanto’s corporate policies, rather than one technology they just happen to use.

    The same mode of thought is annoying in politics. I won’t get into details, but I am not a fan of Obama. I do believe he was born as a US citizen. I do not believe he attempted to drop nukes on America. I do not assume every little hand gesture he makes should be interpreted as coded confessions. I do not think that Obamacare will lead to a eugenics campaign. But because of that, trolls have labeled me as an Obama worshiper.

    To me, it seems like people who think this way can’t comprehend that there is an objective truth worth defending, regardless of allegiance, because they only see arguments in terms of whose side it helps. This is often combined with an inability to see that there’s more than two sides.

  42. SimonWon 17 Jan 2014 at 8:54 pm

    I’m not sure you understand what is involved in each. The expertise and time commitment involved in conventional hybridization far exceeds that of GM. It can take years, if not decades, to develop functional hybrids that exhibit the targeted desired traits.

    Which is restating my point, that genetic modification is often doing stuff which is impossible, or extremely difficult, with convention breeding. Thus it is certainly conceivable it is introducing new risks, unless you know how genes unique to jellyfish are going to end up in fruit flies by conventional breeding.

    This assumes that there is no testing for efficacy or safety and that we should equally expect unexpecte results

    So which is it, do we have a black market, or do we have testing for efficacy and safety? You can’t really make both arguments back to back, without looking a bit silly.

    And because sets of genes naturally evolve together does not necessarily make them better or more desirable. That would be the naturalistic fallacy.

    So a good job I didn’t make that argument.

    This assumes that the toxin in question is actually toxic to humans as well.

    Seems to have escaped your attention there are more species on this planet than humans.

    What downside are we talking about exactly? Let’s be specific here. A) how prevalent is it actually in the real world, and B) if it does occur, what are the outcomes? Is it more fear of the unknown, or are there specifics we can look to? What examples from real-world settings can we draw upon that can serve as cautionary tales?

    Okay the main research I was familiar with was on gene transfer to related weed species for herbicide resistance, where it was seen to occur, it wasn’t clear the resulting plants were viable (problems you mention of conventional cross-breeding). But that there is evidence of it at all, suggests it likely will occur and produce viable hybrids given time (test was 5 years in small acreage IIRC). Such weeds growing in a field of a crop resistant to a herbicide we can assume will be strongly selected for in the short term (otherwise why put the gene in the crop, if you don’t use that herbicide).

    The result could be the alleged super-weeds, in much the same way people argued overuse of bacteria would result in super-bugs. Except here we are introducing the genes from other species to permit herbicide resistance in a species which wouldn’t develop that specific form of herbicide resistance. I’m assuming if the GMO is any good this may be a particular good form of resistance.

    I’m open to evidence that herbicide resistance is developing so fast that the unlikely risks of gene transfer of the inserted gene are irrelevant.

    Certainly there is a suggestion that cotton farmers are experiencing problems from over reliance on the type of herbicide for which resistance has been engineered into their crop. This is not an issue that would have occurred to me, and whilst not strictly an issue for GMOs, it may be a harder sell if I try and sell you Round-Up ready seed, and then try and sell you a different herbicide to avoid resistance developing in your weeds. It might be solvable by inserting genes for resistance to multiple herbicides, but one has to wonder if the solution to problems from something is more of the same whether it is sustainable solution.

    I see there is now research showing horizontal gene transfer of marker genes for antibiotic resistance into bacteria. Suggests to me this may not be the ideal choice of marker gene. But probably a low risk, since there is a lot of antibiotic resistance around in bacteria, and soil bacteria are unlikely to be pathogenic to other organisms (although some soil bacteria obviously are pathogenic, as we do sometimes get new diseases emerging when soil is disturbed on a large scale by people).

    I’m not particularly anti GMO, but I think there is a case for considering each crop on an individual basis, and that real caution should be exercised in inserting pesticide genes because it is demonstrably hard to assess the safety of conventional pesticides in humans let alone across an entire eco-systems.

    Golden Rice does seem like a high tech solution to a problem that could be solved with low tech means. We have plenty of conventionally bred food crops with more beta-carotene in weight for weight than even the new form of Golden Rice (which has finally got to the level where it might make a significant contribution to someones vitamin A intake, unlike when it was first hyped).

    Your statements on the patent position of Golden Rice seem to be at odds with those on goldenrice.org, which says I’m not allow to grow it here, if I move somewhere poorer I can’t grow much of it, and if I do grow it I can’t export it. Sounds like a recipe for staying poor. I appreciate that is nothing to do with GMOs other than possibly we made the mistake of allowing patents on GMOs, but you do seem to be simply misinformed. For those that see evil corporatism here I can imagine the Golden Rice story reinforces their position. I would simply advise the farmers to grow patent unencumbered crops, predominantly but not exclusively from local seed stocks which will select for growing well in local conditions. Vitamin A rich sweet potato varieties if they want to cure vitamin A deficiency, will give their customers lots of vitamin A, and probably won’t need as much water.

  43. Mlemaon 18 Jan 2014 at 3:49 pm

    I wonder if the media will arouse another frenzy if and when people are actually growing and eating golden rice? There was a big furor (not too long ago) when it was announced that Golden Rice was a success. An argument ensued: over whether or not those still criticizing GMO were essentially murderers, and decidedly anti-science, or whether this was a calculated play by the industry to soften criticism. It was a great chance for everyone to square off again pro- or anti-GMO. So separate from reality, imho, as I must of course specify, since I have never developed a GMO, grown, eaten, or even seen golden rice, and must rely on many sources of information which I have only my own limited ability to analyze as verifiable.

    Wonder if we’ll ever hear about golden rice again except as a notation in arguments about GMOs?

  44. Bronze Dogon 19 Jan 2014 at 3:41 pm

    Thus it is certainly conceivable it is introducing new risks, unless you know how genes unique to jellyfish are going to end up in fruit flies by conventional breeding.

    You’re misunderstanding my point about a gene being a gene. There’s no “jellyfishness” involved in such a gene insertion. It sounds to me like you’re trying to confuse the issue by engaging in the rhetoric of racial purity and applying it to animal species. I don’t see why natural genes are inherently superior to inserted genes, or why mixing is such a horrible thing. Explain yourself.

    You’re also misrepresenting my point entirely. Every new gene or combination of genes has the potential to generate new risks. Nature also produces new genes and combinations. I’m not arguing that inserted genes are inherently safer and thus don’t need testing, I’m arguing that all crops (or at least those not produced by strict cloning) need to be checked for safety because they all have the potential to develop harmful traits in unexpected ways. I’m demanding a uniform standard instead of a double-standard based on what appears to be an ideological distinction that isn’t actually meaningful in terms of the nature of risk.

    I also think you underestimate the ubiquity and power of evolution. Sometimes a mutation like a frame shifting one can make a random junk sequence into a new, working gene. There’s a culture of bacteria out there that evolved to eat nylon, a substance that only recently appeared on Earth, because of such a mutation. Mutations like this happen without warning, and they can be helpful or harmful to human interests. Every time we breed a plant, we take that risk. What’s the difference between an advantageous gene inserted by a human and the same advantageous gene produced by a mutation?

    As far as I can tell, the only difference is that we can control when we insert a gene and what gene we insert. Why should we wait around for luck and radiation to throw us a particular bone? Aside from the anti-corporate motives, I think a lot of anti-GMO people base their stance on a desire to return to the pre-FDA days when people were blissfully ignorant of what was going on with our food supply. They don’t want to actually think about the issue, so they make an ideological black-and-white distinction that doesn’t exist in nature.

    What matters is what the gene does to the plant, not how it got in there or where it originally came from. If it’s a gene that produces venom, yeah, it’s bad. But it’s bad because it produces venom, not because it’s from a jellyfish. If it produces some harmless enzyme that benefits the plant’s ability to survive in a certain climate or whatever, and the tests show it has no ill effects on people who eat it, what’s the problem?

    “Species” is a human-created construct. There are clusters of organisms that can produce fertile offspring, but those clusters’ borders are fuzzy, statistical, overlapping, and changing, not hard and fast or carved in stone. We label the clusters with words to make the complexity conveniently simple for our oversimplifying Platonic modes of thought, not because there are eidolons floating out in the ether serving as unchanging perfect examples of their species.

    I’m trying to slaughter your sacred cows of “artificial” versus “natural” and this notion that we should never defile the purity of a species. I don’t accept that framing of the issue as legitimate.

    The result could be the alleged super-weeds, in much the same way people argued overuse of bacteria would result in super-bugs. Except here we are introducing the genes from other species to permit herbicide resistance in a species which wouldn’t develop that specific form of herbicide resistance. I’m assuming if the GMO is any good this may be a particular good form of resistance.

    It sounds like your attitude would lead to defeatism if applied consistently. Anything we do to combat pests will breed some form of countermeasures. I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but that is an inevitable fact of life. I’m sure many of the pests we deal with today are the natural consequence of us developing agriculture in the first place. You might as well be arguing we go back to hunter-gatherer lifestyle because agriculture will only breed insects who’ll benefit from eating food plants growing in one spot.

    I’m not sure, but I think I’m also sensing a distorted vision of evolution as progressive, like the super-bugs are completely superior to the regular ones, rather than making a trade-off for a net benefit under certain circumstances. Change the circumstances, and those traits might become disadvantageous.

    Everything is a trade-off. Everything we do will have an impact on the world. We could just as easily have “super-pests” as a result of inaction, since doing the same thing without changing will give the pests more time to evolve new traits that optimize them against our current methods and crops. There is never going to be a perfect solution that will work all the time, and surrendering the initiative to the pests in this evolutionary arms race doesn’t sound like a good option to me. If we don’t try to stay one step ahead of the pests, they’ll always be a step ahead of us.

    The best answer I see is to maximize the number of tools we have so that we can maintain a cycle where the pests have to adapt to the most recently used method. Hopefully, we can do it so the advantages they had over previous methods will lose selective favor and die out or at least become less prevalent by the time we come back around the loop. There’s never going to be a magical time when we have everything down perfect, without need to change. Evolution gives pests adaptability, so we need an adaptable food supply that changes the way we want it too when we want it to, and at a competitive speed. We won’t get that from going back to a sterile, ideological crop purity of yesteryear or a defeatist mentality that gives up once someone anticipates a problem.

  45. TysonAdamson 26 Jan 2014 at 3:58 am

    I have little time for Nathaniel’s “it doesn’t matter” conclusion about GM. Thousands of people will die and/or go blind this year because of the blocking of golden rice by Greenpeace (and others). Saying that doesn’t matter is just insulting.

    But it is also stupid to pretend that GM is just the current crop of varieties. GM is a breeding technique that allows for more precise and novel innovations. Blocking a fantastic tool for innovation leaves us with the stuff we’ve already been doing. You know, the stuff that isn’t keeping up with climate change, population growth, has already pushed the conventional envelope. He gets part of that correct in the article, but Nathaniel still misses the point that he has just said is important to note, in that he says GM is unimportant because the current varieties aren’t that big a deal.

    Essentially, this person is coming from the point of view that this is an argument about whether we want RR or Bt crops now, which is fallacious.

  46. TysonAdamson 26 Jan 2014 at 9:47 am

    This article sums up my views on Nathanial’s article: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1530
    The final paragraph is worth quoting:
    “So when Johnson – who has spend considerable time and energy defending the role of empiricism in the GMO debate – throws up his hands and the end and says “Meh – none of this really matters” – he is letting opponents of GMOs off the hook. He is giving them permission to continue demanding that voters and politicians reject reason and evidence and ban a technology based on ill-founded fears and bad evidence – to continue thinking that they are saving the planet while, in reality, they are bringing us closer to its destruction.”

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.